Black Pop Culture History: The Jeffersons
My parents didn’t let us watch All in the Family, so I doubt I saw the spin-off about an African-American couple “moving on up to the Eastside” when it first aired in '75. I do remember watching it a few years later, but didn’t think anything of its mostly black cast. By that time, other shows like Good Times and Sanford and Sons had also hit the airwaves, so I was reasonably accustomed to seeing “sitcoms of color,” shall we say. (Yeah, just try to get the Sanford and Sons theme music out of your head now, LOL!!!)
You may ask, “Why highlight a 70’s television series in honor of Black History Month?” Well, The Jeffersons is the longest-running series with a predominantly African-American cast in the history of American television. It received eight Golden Globe and eleven Emmy nominations, including six consecutive Lead Actress Emmy nominations (1979-1985) for Mrs. Jefferson actress Isabel Sanford. She won in 1981 and became only the second black female to do so. Gail Fisher was the first in 1970, winning an Emmy for her role on the hit series Mannix (annotated, Wikipedia).
By the the time Mrs. Jefferson won her Emmy Award, my family had moved to the Northeast side near Arlington High School. The popular CBS sitcom more closely reflected the neighbors I grew up amongst, including many middle to upper-middle class black families. Maybe that too lessened the shows impact on me as an adolescent. Still, you didn’t see many of those families represented on prime time television. And you certainly never saw mixed marriages. By the way, none of my neighbors had housekeepers, at least not to my knowledge, so maybe we were just a solid middle-class neighborhood. Either way, it was a much different neighborhood and more culturally diverse than Broad Ripple. My paper route took me close to the feared Jamestown Apartments at 46th and Arlington. I no longer attended parochial school, but a more integrated public school, IPS No. 106 (aka Robert Lee Frost School). In hindsight, I am glad my parents made that move when I was just nine years old.
The Jeffersons is significant not just for it’s record run on television, nor for it’s sizeable audience (finishing just behind Dallas and 60 Minutes in the Neilsen ratings for 1981-82 season), but for paving the way for other popular shows, like The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It’s cultural impact did not go unnoticed by Bret Fetzer, who wrote on the Super 70’s website, “The black and white mix of the cast allowed for a sharply satirical take on race relations, which managed to have a genuine sense of hope while never glossing over the complexity of racial tension…” The show broke a number of television taboos, depicting an interracial marriage in the Jefferson’s neighbors, Tom and Helen Willis, and an African-American transgendered character, as the Racialicious blog points out. These were no small matters in the late 70’s. In fact, the former led to a research paper shared in 1976 at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Speech Communication Association in San Antonio, Texas.
Sure, the characters occassionally represented negative ethnic stereotypes, but they weren’t down-and-out, living on the lower East side. George Jefferson was a self-made man, whose dry cleaning business had flourished. These were not your typical urban themes of the other popular “sitcoms of color,” like those mentioned above. The Jeffersons had their own live-in maid, who provided much of the comedy, in my opinion. I used to love watching her disrespect her employer and put him in his place. The show is still as funny today as it was back then.
So hats off to Isabel Sanford, Sherman Hemsley, the cast and crew of The Jeffersons for making history and an indelible mark on the American television landscape!