Over the years, the character of George Jefferson has taken a lot of heat. Some people saw him as a buffoon and a stereotype. Others found his success didn't match his apparent lack of business intelligence. As a kid, I found George to be an inspiration, and I can honestly say the genesis of my desire to run my own business (which I currently do) began with watching The Jeffersons. Until I saw George, most of the Black men on my TV were characters like Thug #2 on Baretta. George opened my eyes to something I had never seen before, a successful and rich Black businessman. I was in awe, and I knew that if George, who reminded me of my uncle, could have seven cleaning stores (one near you), I had a chance to succeed just as he did. I didn't have to grow up to be Thug #2. I could be A-number-one.
Norman Lear created George as a Black counterpart to Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker on All In the Family. George, like Archie, was a loud mouthed bigot whose wife, Weezy, played the role of common sense. I wasn't allowed to watch All in the Family, because it was "parental discretion advised," so I didn't get to see George, Weezy and Lionel in Queens until I was much older. When I met Sherman Hemsley's most famous character, he was living in an East Side high rise as a result of the success of Jefferson Cleaners, the business he built from the ground up. He had a maid and a huge apartment, bigger than some of the places I saw White people living in on other sitcoms. I was fascinated.
I knew there had to be something good about being The Jeffersons because, unlike Good Times, their theme song sounded happy, like something out of church. Good Times' theme song, written by Oscar winners Dave Grusin and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, was a hard-as-fuck-to-sing wallow in misery with lyrics nobody understood. It sounded like the writers were savoring just how broke these Negroes were; it's a Good Time simply because you ain't dead. The lyrics should have gone "y'all are some broke muthafuckas! Makin' a way when you can." And why were temporary layoffs and easy credit ripoffs a good time?
By contrast, The Jeffersons' theme song, written and sung by Willona from Good Times, Ja'net Du'Bois, was a call and response number signifying we had overcome. We're movin' on up to the east side. We finally got a piece of the pie. Now we're up in the big league, getting our turn at bat. And we were going to hit it out of the park. This was a Black sitcom where something new had been added, something designed to shock and piss people off. Norman Lear was a provocateur and he knew how much more effective it would be to move up George and Weezy instead of Archie and Edith.
Good Times was closer to my reality; The Jeffersons was closer to my dreams. The folks on Good Times acted like people I knew, and despite all his money, George Jefferson acted like people I knew too. I think this is where the confusion about his character lay. What made George such an inspiration to me was that he was a self-made man, someone who pulled himself up, but who also acted exactly like he did when he was broke. This was staying true to the character's roots, his upbringing, and his experiences prior to his promotions. Success may have spoiled Rock Hunter, but it didn't change George. He was still always running his hustle, afraid that everything he had could be taken away at any minute. Just because you have money doesn't mean it changes the type of person you are. Especially if you're not used to having it. Weezy was always trying to refine herself. George was always going to be George.
The entire sitcom walked that line of the more things change, the more they stayed the same. It was progressive to see an interracial couple like Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker's Tom and Helen Willis, but George had the old-fashioned reaction to them. Weezy accepted it, George did not. George had resentment about a lot of the White establishment, but at the same time, he wanted to go to one of Mr. Wittendale's parties, if only so he could network (and perhaps run a hustle) to get business. The show always played both sides of the fence when it came to George, and Sherman Hemsley, aided by Isabel Sanford and Marla Gibbs, handled the complexity in more subtle ways than he is given credit. He never forgot where he came from, and the show didn't want you to forget either. His success seemed so achievable to a kid like me because the character's actions seemed so familiar.
Perhaps the best episode of the series, the one that houses its soul, is from season 7. The episode was called "And the Doorknobs Shined Like Diamonds," and it had very little to do with George. Louise hears that the building she grew up in has been condemned and is scheduled to be demolished. She pays her old apartment a visit and the scriptwriter (show creator) Michael G. Moye has her find a cute little kitten to which she tells her reminiscences. These take the guise of flashbacks where a younger actress plays Louise. We discover Louise had a sister, and also meet her mother, a tough woman who wasn't below beating Louise's ass when she got caught sneaking back into the house late at night. The floorboards always creaked, causing her to get caught. Louise discovers this feature is still present.
Louise tells the kitty that when she was young, she and her sister would imagine the cheap plastic doorknobs on their bedroom door were diamonds, and someday she was going to take them and use them to buy the things she wanted. After a few more flashbacks, including one on her wedding day, George shows up to collect her from the apartment. He tells her that the building may be disappearing, but her memories never will. They both leave together, and as they do, the camera closes in on the cheap plastic bedroom doorknobs Louise mentioned earlier. Then we see the door open, and Louise's hand reaches in to remove the doorknobs to take with her. [Ed. Note: I misremembered this particular event--she takes the doorknobs but the close-up is on the empty doorknob hole afterwards.]
It was such a symbolic gesture, not just of the show's overall theme but of our experiences in general. Everything from your hood shapes you; no matter where you go, you're taking it with you--good and bad. When you move on up, whatever you had on the ground floor gets in the elevator with you. It was the defining moment in the show, and I like to think that it was partially why Isabel Sanford won the Best Comedy Actress Emmy that year, the first Black woman to do so. The Jeffersons was far from perfect, but I'll always be indebted to it for giving me the idea that my skin color didn't have to hinder my desire to succeed.
Your homework assignment:
Think about someone who inspired you. Call that person, if you can, and thank them. Warning: They might ask for compensation.