Earlier this week, Actor Sherman Hemsley died at the age of 74. While his legacy of larger-than-life characters like Deacon Frye from the long-running show Amen, is significant, he will forever be connected with the immortal George Jefferson from The Jeffersons. While many Black characters have been framed as flamboyant caricatures, George Jefferson was a unique and very “real” representation of a Black man.
He originated on Norman Lear’s All In The Family, a show centered around warm-hearted but ignorant bigot Archie Bunker. Although his son Lionel Jefferson (a Black man who aspired and succeeded to become an engineer) was the main character from the family to initially appear, once George Jefferson appeared, it was enough to inspired Lear to create a spinoff and “The Jeffersons” was born. The character was part Napoleon, part baller, part militant, part greedy capitalist, but above all else, George Jefferson was a three-dimensional portrayal of the Black male experience. Parenting wasn’t really a part of George’s aesthetic as Lionel was a grown man by the time we see them. He certainly was not scratching and surviving like James Evans. George was balling. Deluxe apartment on the East Side of Manhattan.
George Jefferson lost his dad and dropped out of high school to support his mama. Joined the navy and served as a cook. He had been a schemer all his life, making scratch as a shoe shine boy, but paying a cat to push people in the mud…so they’d need a shoe shine. He got his shot when he got an insurance payout from a car accident and Jefferson Cleaners was born.
The character was so revolutionary in that he was self-made but flawed. Proud but would stoop to any level to get that butter. Clever enough to run a successful business, but regularly outwitted by his sassy ass house keeper. Jefferson lived a life that was literally the streets of Harlem to the suites of Manhattan. When you remember a defiant Tupac spitting in cameras and George Jefferson walking from the courtroom, you realize that while George Jefferson was a bit flamboyant and occasionally played the fool, that character connected with Black America.
We can go on at length about the after effects of slavery and the weakening of the Black family. The main damage was done by the removal of Black masculinity. We have mixed it up so badly with our sexuality that as a people we got it really twisted. George Jefferson was one of the few people on television that wasn’t emasculated by his wife regularly. He wasn’t afraid of confrontation and he had that man pride which leads you to do silly things that you know better than to do, but you can’t help it. He was married, he had a kid, and he was a provider, but he had a jazz that Cliff Huxtable didn’t have.
Helmsley will be missed by many and there is an entire generation of people that knows him as Deacon Frye and with good reason. But Frye, and most of the other characters he played were derivative caricatures of George Jefferson. My generation saw George as one of the few real examples of a real dude that we saw on television and was an indelible entry in the small population of men we looked up to. For that I will always tip my hat to Mr. Hemsley. No catchy slogans. No cooning. A dance here and there and getting ahead of himself and a bit of foolish pride. Just like everybody else. Self-made. To put it in perspective, The Jeffersons stands as the longest running predominantly Black television show with 11 years. Even Cosby only made it to eight.
May Mr. Hemsley rest in peace.
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