Green Book
Melissa Ramirez Ordonez (NBCUniversal)

Don Shirley And 'The Green Book' Are The Historical Anchors Of Mahershala Ali's New Segregation-Era Film

Green Book tells the story of Don Shirley, an African American pianist, traveling to the American South during segregation.

​​In theaters this week (Nov. 16), Green Book has already garnered critical acclaim and interest from the public by winning the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) beating the box office hit, A Star is Born. This film is the first drama for director Peter Farrelly, best known for his comedies Dumb And Dumber and There’s Something About Mary.

Green Book, a dramatic shift from Farrelly’s previous work, tells the story of Donald Walbridge Shirley, professionally known as Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black classical pianist touring the American South with his Italian-American driver and bouncer, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). While the film is rife with comedic moments as they form an unlikely friendship, the underlying storyline is based on real-life experiences with segregation in the South during the ‘60s.

For many, though, this film serves as an introduction to not only what The Green Book was, but the real-life challenges faced by African Americans who relied on it as a guide when navigating their way through American interstates. For Shirley, this book played an integral role during his tour throughout the American South in 1962. To fill in some of the nuances of the story that may be missed in two hours and 10 minutes of screen time, it is important to understand the impact of both Don Shirley as a musician and the actual The Green Book before seeing the film.

The film begins with Don Shirley’s search for a driver and bouncer to accompany him on a tour. Shirley was a highly acclaimed pianist and composer who developed his own signature musical style that was a melange of classical, jazz and popular music. It was his musical prowess that brought him recognition from audiences filled with the social elite, celebrities and even presidents on occasion, who gathered to hear him play the classical arrangements in a not-so-classical way. He was known for adding his own flair to the music and was a true virtuoso in every sense of the word.

Throughout his career, Shirley composed three symphonies, two piano concertis, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on Finnegans Wake and a set of "Variations" on the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld, and a number of other covers of popular classical music.

Born to Jamaican parents, Don Shirley was a musical prodigy first taught to play the piano at two and a half by his mother and began performing by the age of three. By 10, Shirley had mastered most of the standard concert repertoire studying under organist Conrad Bernier and Dr. Thaddeus Jones at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and made his debut at the Boston Pops, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor at the age of 18.

Sometime in his 20s, Shirley was advised by impresario Sol Hurok that American audiences were not yet ready to see a “colored” pianist on the concert stage and that it was a better choice for him to pursue a career in popular music or jazz. Instead of letting this deter him, Shirley began playing in nightclubs and invented his own musical genre as the leader of the Don Shirley Trio (along with a bassist and a cellist), which played popular European and American music with a classical structure. In a 1982 New York Times interview, Shirley spoke about the evolution of his musical style over the years, stating that “The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that's all I have ever tried to do."

Shirley’s first original composition was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. He then began touring the world and was invited to play for the Haitian government at the Exposition International du Bi-Centenaire De Port-au-Prince, with the Detroit Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the NBC Symphony, and the National Symphony Orchestra Washington, to name only a few. At this time, he is said to have averaged some 95 concerts a year while composing symphonies and pieces for the piano, quartets and piano concerts along the way. He held a Doctorate of Music, Doctorate of Psychology (University of Chicago, Phi Beta Kappa) and Doctorate in Liturgical Arts, and was fluent in eight languages.

Shirley reached the peak of his popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, recording 16 albums including one on which “Water Boy,” his single with the Don Shirley Trio, reached No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for 14 weeks. He developed a friendship with fellow pianist Duke Ellington and was known for performing his music, on-stage alongside Ellington and in whose honor he wrote “Divertimento for Duke by Don” in 1974. But it was his appearance on the Arthur Godfrey Show that transformed him into a national sensation and sparked interest in touring all corners of the United States.

In 1962, he enlisted not only a driver but the use of The Negro Motorist Green Book to help navigate his way through an area of the country that still had segregation laws. Developed by a postal worker named Victor Hugo Green, The Negro Motorist Green Book was first published in 1936 in Harlem as an aid to help his community navigate their way through New York. It was inspired by similar guides created in Jewish communities to distribute list establishments that were safe to visit. The guide was updated annually for 30 years and expanded to include information on all 50 states and eventually information on airline and cruise ship journeys to places like Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.

By the mid-20th century, the car was synonymous with the joy of travel, as the great American road trip was on the rise. But for African-Americans living in the Jim Crow era, navigating the open road wasn’t without its roadblocks. Segregation was still legal in the South, which meant that most motels, restaurants, service stations and even public restrooms were not areas where all travelers could go. "Sundown towns" and “sundown laws” we’re also still quite common in the Caucasian municipalities in the South, where people of color were banned from a certain jurisdiction and had to leave by nightfall.

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.” —excerpt from forward in the 1948 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book

During these years, The Green Book became an indispensable resource for traveling African-Americans to share their knowledge and create safe driving routes in unfamiliar areas the United States. By the early 1940s, The Green Book included thousands of establishments—either black-owned or verified by other travelers to be non-discriminatory—from across the country.

In its prime, The Green Book sold upwards of 15,000 copies a year and through a sponsorship deal with Standard Oil, The Green Book was available for purchase at Esso gas stations across the country. Not only was The Green Book a resourceful guide for black travelers, but it also became a catalyst for black entrepreneurship promoting black-owned restaurants and motels and helped members of the community transcend socio-economic barriers into the middle class.

In preparing for the film, Mahershala Ali was surprised to realize that The Green Book was a positive thing for African-Americans. During the 1950s and ‘60s, a number of African-Americans migrated from the South to Chicago and California but often families would take road trips for weddings, funerals and family reunions.

​But the reality was that at this time, it didn’t matter if you were Duke Ellington, Don Shirley or the family down the road; the laws of segregation applied to all African-Americans.

During a Q&A session after its TIFF premiere (Sept. 11), Ali told an anecdote from the filming of Green Book. He met a man who recalled that the popular motel used in a scene was the very same establishment frequented by musical legends Little Richard, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Ray Charles and more. The highly-recommended motel was just inches away from the freeway and nothing to note in today’s standard for travel. It was the only place African-Americans could stay.

​In 1964, the Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks and other public places. Shortly after, The Green Book ceased production and retired to a memory of this time often found tucked away in your grandparent’s attic or basement or at the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which has digitized its collection.

Today, we still see contemporary African-American communities rallying together to share community resources. Travel Noire, an online resource for black travelers to share their stories and practical advice, is a modern iteration of the communal resource that was The Green Book.

“There are things that are unique to our experiences as black travelers, and those stories deserve to be told,” Travel Noire’s managing editor Nadia Harris says via email. “Not only does it provide a roadmap to travel success; this community lets you know that you're not the only person who experienced those long stares in China or that the overwhelming sense of love and pride you felt in Tanzania was indeed real. You are not alone. We've traveled to these same places and we've felt those same things.”

Whether we are in 1962 or 2018, finding a community to share their insights in exploring new places has always been (and will always be) what holds the black American community together through travel.

READ MORE: Mahershala Ali Officially Joins The Cast Of ‘True Detective’ Season 3

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Take Five: DJ Khaled Talks ‘Father of Asahd’ And #Summergram Partnership

DJ Khaled started the summer off right with the release of his 11th studio album, Father of Asahd. It’s the second consecutive album where his two-year-old son serves as executive producer after 2017’s Grateful. Although Khaled’s rollout remained quite a mystery, the mega-producer is now in the midst of a heavy promotional schedule, jam-packed with guest-heavy Saturday Night Live performances and summer collaborations with the likes of Lil Wayne, Meek Mill, SZA, and more. Possibly his most appropriate partnership is with Pepsi and Instagram’s #SummerGram.

#Summergram has introduced customizable, reality filters and digital stickers to enhance the digital experience for consumers. Quirky summer-themed catchphrases like "Tropic Like It's Hot," "Turnt Not Burnt," "Catching Rays," and "Call Me On My Shell Phone" will appear with graphic icons and QR codes on Pepsi bottles that will help get fans in the mood for summer fun– pool parties, cookouts, and beach days. In celebration of the new launch, DJ Khaled joined social media maven, Chrissy Teigen, for a week of #Summergram events throughout major cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami.

“We are so excited to work with Instagram and bring some of their newest technology directly to our most loyal consumers. We know our fans love sharing their favorite moments on social media, and the summertime lends itself to so many post-worthy moments and occasions,” Todd Kaplan, VP of Marketing, Pepsi said. “The breadth of our Pepsi #Summergram statements and custom AR filters will ensure that there is something for everyone – no matter what you’re doing this summer – to help people unapologetically enjoy their best summer moments.”

No one knows how to make a summer anthem or amass a faithful social media following quite like Khaled. DJ Khaled briefly spoke to VIBE about his latest partnership and walked us through his vision for Father of Asahd.

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VIBE: What are your thoughts about your new partnership with Pepsi's Summergram? DJ Khaled: This seems like the perfect fit. I am excited to work with Pepsi – they are always spreading positive vibes and the Pepsi #Summergram collection is a lot of fun to play around with. You know I’m always posting to Instagram and these new AR filters help bring my content to the next level. Look out for more Pepsi #Summergram filters from me all summer long.

It seems like you’ve been intentional with this album rollout even more so than your past projects. What can you tell me about your strategy for this rollout? I decided we can’t do anything dinosaur anymore. For this album, everything had to be big. From the music to the rollout, everything had to be big! And watching it all come together is just beautiful. And I love to see the excitement from my fans! At the end of the day, it’s all for my fans.

What was the toughest song to create? To work with so many different artists and so many moving parts, I imagine it can be challenging. Every challenge is a blessing. The toughest ones to make are usually the biggest ones. I’m blessed to work with great artists and be able to create beautiful music together.

Can you speak to your intentions on beginning the album with “Holy Mountain” and ending it with “Holy Ground”? Me and Buju have a special relationship and have been friends for years. The whole album is very spiritual so it seemed right to start and end the project with those records. The message of the album is to not only receive our blessings but to protect them, as well. Everything for my son, Mama Asahd (Nicole Tuck) and fan love.

How did you go about securing the ‪Buju Banton features? He’s been relatively absent for years, so what were those early conversations like to get him on the album? Buju is family to me - and when he came back, I went to Jamaica to welcome my brother back home. He met my son and we were just vibing. Then Buju asked me to “play a chune” and I played him the “Holy Mountain” beat and Buju finished it in one take. We caught that take on film which is now in the “Holy Mountain” video. Then Buju said play me another one. I had this idea for “Holy Ground”—I played it for him and he loved it. The rest is history.

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Courtesy of Think BIG

How CJ Wallace Turned His Connection To Notorious B.I.G. Into A Cannabis Brand

Christopher Jordan “CJ” Wallace was exposed to the music industry at an early age. As the son of Notorious B.I.G. and Faith Evans, the 22-year-old recalls growing up with countless musicians stopping by his family’s home studio. “We had a studio in our house when we lived in Atlanta. This is around the time [of] Bad Boy South,” he tells VIBE during a visit to our Times Square office. “Any given Tuesday, Usher might come over. It would be crazy.”

While his childhood home served as a revolving door to legends, his family members purposefully delivered a reality check in the form of life-altering questions about his future. CJ’s mom, stepfather, Todd Russaw, and paternal grandmother, Voletta Wallace, constantly reinforced this idea of purpose and responsibility. Though he was only five months old when his father was fatally shot in 1997 in Los Angeles, he was expected to uphold Big’s legacy.

“[They] would talk to me very truthfully, like, ‘hey, it’s not fair, but this is how it is,'” he explains. “'You have a responsibility that a lot of people don’t have and that a lot of kids your age don’t have. You could f**k it up, or you could do something right.’”

This jolt of truth unfolded into a mission to discover what he was meant to do. His options were relatively limitless. The obvious path would be to get into music or maybe fashion. While CJ still had many of his dad’s artifacts – including freestyle videos and at-home footage – he wanted to learn what connected him not only to Notorious B.I.G., the persona, but to also Christopher George Latore Wallace, the man. “For me, it was figuring out how I can develop a brand that can honor the legacy of my father, be something I’m proud of and can pass down to my kids and grandkids. And yeah, something my grandma will definitely support at the end of the day.”

And that’s when it hit him. CJ remembered the relaxed and joyful vibe that overcame his family’s old Atlanta studio. “It’s all about the energy and that’s kind of where for me – sitting next to the speaker, smelling the cannabis, smelling the incense – that was what started it for me,” he says.

Wallace went on to found Think BIG, alongside Willie Mack and Russaw. Think BIG, he explains, is a brand and social movement encouraging society to embrace the cannabis industry and realize its potential to heal and stimulate creativity. In its first plan of action, the brand launched its first product: The Frank White Blend, named after one of B.I.G’s many aliases.

Right now, there is a common focus on the recreational use of cannabis; consumers are flooded with images of kids, middle-aged adults, and celebrities sparking up to escape their realities or “have fun.” Prior to the arrival of Psalm West, Kim Kardashian threw a CBD and meditation-themed baby shower for her fourth child in April 2019. In addition to lifting you off the ground, however, Wallace, Mack and Think BIG want to introduce society to the healing and creative benefits of cannabis. Mack learned about cannabis’ healing powers in a major way during his youth.

“As a kid, watching [how] the AIDS crisis ravaged the world and seeing the LGBT community fighting for cannabis to help them with nausea during AZT [antiretroviral medication used to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS] was my first indication of [thinking] cannabis was a drug, but people are actually using it to try to stay alive,” Mack said, noting that he had several family members who were dealing with HIV/AIDS.

Similarly, Wallace uncovered the alternative nature of the plant when his family experimented with it as a form of medication for his younger brother, who was diagnosed with autism. After testing various strains, Wallace confirms they found the right balance, but since cannabis isn’t an approved medication, his brother is unable to use it publicly. “This is helping my youngest brother every day,” he insists. “It’s unfair because we can’t give it to him and let him take it to school and have the school nurse actually prescribe it to him so he’s constantly getting that regular medication. You can’t take it to school, but the kids in his school are being given opioids, which has crazy after effects.”

Creatively speaking, Wallace and Mack consider cannabis to be the “ultimate ghostwriter.” It’s no secret B.I.G. was an advocate. From numerous consultations with his family members, he learned his dad often smoked while recording. (Mack also notes famous smokers like Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Marley.) Just about every corner of the music industry has dabbled in recreational smoking, but no genre has been hit as hard as hip-hop. While fans love to watch Snoop Dogg smoke on Instagram Live or share a spliff with Kid Cudi during a concert set, the hip-hop community as a whole is met with backlash and often times targeted by police due to cannabis.

“I feel like anything associated with black men is just immediately going to be deemed bad or evil,” Wallace says, referencing the negative connotation rappers receive. It’s Wallace’s mission, however, to adjust that perspective. “I feel like it’s really up to us to change that narrative. That’s why I try so hard to stop saying words like ‘weed.’ Cannabis, it’s actually a plant," he continues. Both Wallace and Mack noted the terms "weed" and "marijuana" hold negative connotations and are commonly used in connection with minorities. "We were lied to for so long. If we were given proper knowledge from the start, I feel like the entire hip-hop community and the entire way we talked about it would’ve changed.”

Beyond educating consumers with their message and products, Think BIG also seeks to improve the criminal justice system as well as launch charitable projects. According to “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” on average, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. Such racial disparities reportedly exist in all regions, states, and counties around the United States and largely contribute to today's mass incarceration crisis.

In recent years, the U.S. government has made significant strides to correct this injustice. California, Nevada, and Maine are among the first states to legalize cannabis; states such as New York have already begun the process of exonerating offenders convicted of nonviolent charges and marijuana possession. Despite the steps forward, Wallace and Mack say there is a long road ahead.

Not only is it difficult to eradicate a vicious cycle that has left many black and brown people behind bars, but it is also hard to forge spaces for them to succeed in a rapidly changing industry. “Being able to understand how to navigate the industry that’s constantly changing and to do it without a bank account or full funnel of money, makes it that much harder,” Mack says. “Then on top of that, you got people sitting in jail who should be out of jail for nonviolent possession of cannabis. So, we’re faced with having to work four times as hard to make half as much because of the color of our skin. It’s a constant fight and we look at it as how can we set an example, share our knowledge, [and] show more information?”

It takes a group effort, Mac says. While Think BIG is setting a place at the table for black businesses in the cannabis industry as well as shifting the conversation around the plant, Mack suggests other ways to get involved that ultimately uplift the black community. “It’s much easier to enter into the market based on something you already know,” Mack insists, pointing out the opportunities for design firms, packaging, and communication firms to join the movement.

Wallace and Mack know the journey ahead is going to be a roller-coaster ride fit with many twists and turns, but they’re ready. “You got to dream big, as your dad said, and think big,” Mack says. “Everyone else in this industry is thinking about global billion-dollar companies, why shouldn’t we?” As for Wallace, he understands how difficult the process is and will be, “but, it wasn’t more emotional than the first 21 years of my life.”

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TV show creator Norman Lear at home, February 27, 1984 in Los Angeles, California.
Bob Riha Jr/Getty Images

How Norman Lear’s Historic Black Sitcoms Changed American Television

On Tuesday night, May 22nd, ABC is celebrating TV creator and producer Norman Lear with  Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, a live remake of his two most iconic shows. Lear and his partner Bud Yorkin were the primary drivers in moving television sitcoms from the idealistic representations of husbands and wives sleeping in separate twin beds in the 1960s to a realistic depiction of America in the 1970s.

One of the successful runs in sitcom history began with a show about a bigoted, curmudgeonly white man named Archie Bunker. With All in the Family, Lear built a TV world that reflected the real world - especially the ugly and uncomfortable parts – for the first time. With a laugh track, Lear’s shows were the first to address abortion, menopause, politics and anti-war sentiments. The first to prominently feature an interracial married couple, the first to feature a transsexual character, and the first to make topics of race and class – “liberal” issues – the driving storylines on TV. Most importantly, Lear was the first creator/producer to center the black family and black stories on television, giving white viewers some of their first insights into the challenges – but more importantly the normalcy – of black families.

In advance of tonight’s special, we look at the two very different black family portraits Lear created for the world, why they were important, and where they fell short.

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Good Times (1974 - 1979)

Good Times evolved from Lear’s realization that black people needed to be visible beyond the service and sidekick roles they usually occupied on television. The producer developed a backstory for Florida Evans, the maid for Bea Arthur’s Maude, so viewers would realize she had an existence outside of her service to white folks. “You’re seeing a different side of (Florida),” Esther Rolle said to Ebony about her character’s development. “What I do in my madam’s house is a façade; what I do at home is me.”

When John Amos was introduced as Florida’s husband (then named Henry), he and Rolle were so compelling together that CBS asked Lear to give them a spin-off.

Mike Evans, the first Lionel Jefferson (aka Light Skin Lionel, aka the Lionel that can actually act, aka the fine Lionel) had expressed an interest in writing to Lear (giving cast members shots to grow outside of their roles is a recurring theme with the producer), so Lear gave Evans and writer Eric Monte (Cooley High) a crack at the series.

Monte and Evans placed the Evans family in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects and along with Lear established three rules for the show: the Evans would never go on welfare; they would face the “reality of their world,” which in 1970s Chicago included gang violence, crime, financial challenges, and a pimp named Sweet Daddy; and despite anything the family faced, the Evans children would get an education.

The parameters the creators put in place were key as everyone knew they were breaking new ground: the Evans were the first black two-parent family on television.

The overprotective stay-at-home matriarch, three-job-working, strict disciplinarian patriarch, creative if flighty eldest trying to figure out his path, studious and straight-arrow daughter, and super-bright, politically aware and socially conscious youngest son weren’t unlike the make-up of any other American family, which was intentional.

But their problems were unique to any other family on TV, like trying to keep their son out of a gang in Southside Chicago.

“They were representing their entire race, who had never, ever been represented before,” Lear explained in his autobiography. “And I realized shortly into rehearsal, just from questions and conversations and body language and everything else, just how much weight was on them.”

The show, which Ebony called “…the best effort to date at showing a real slice of ghetto black life,” was a hit – and not just with black viewers. The audience was 60% white, and the pressure for positive representation was real. Lear’s unflinching commitment to real storylines produced episodes, not just about the challenges of living somewhere between working class and the working poor, like a neighbor eating dog food; but also ableism, age discrimination in the workforce, and child abuse (hi, young Janet Jackson). And conversations that are still hot topics forty years later, including racial bias in standardized testing and preventative health for black men (turns out, James was always mad because he had hypertension).

The challenges of balancing realism and comedy without playing into tropes and stereotypes kept the sitcom from reaching its full potential. That weight the adult cast felt caused tension with the creative team by the end of the first season. Rolle started pushing back on some story ideas and dialogue, including an episode where 16-year old Thelma is pressured to sleep with her older boyfriend. Rolle wouldn’t even review the script, telling Lear, “The last thing we want to deal with on this show is teenage sex… It is morally wrong, let’s not even discuss it.” Lear ultimately won that battle. Over time, the biggest conflict came from increased centering on J.J.’s “dy-no-mite”-punctuated antics and borderline buffoonery.

Amos and Rolle weren’t having it. “They chose to go for the obvious and the comedic...It started to dissipate into something I wasn’t terribly proud of.” Amos later said. He felt like the show was doing the other characters a disservice, saying, “’You guys don’t really matter. We’re more interested in seeing J.J. with a chicken hat on.’

”Rolle was more direct in her critique, “(J.J.)’s 18 and he doesn’t work, He can’t read and write. He doesn’t think,” she complained in an interview. “…they have made him more stupid and enlarged the role.”

Jimmy Walker – who wasn’t close with anyone in the cast – responded in the same interview, “I play the way I see it for the humor of it. I don’t think anybody 20 years from now is going to remember what I said.” (I guess syndication wasn’t a consideration in the ‘70s. But also, Walker’s a clown, so…)

Amos and Rolle made a pact at the beginning of the series: they would fight to preserve the integrity of the characters and the family. When they felt they weren’t representing responsibly anymore, they spoke up. Amos threatened to leave the show at one point, forcing producers to delay taping. Eventually, he was labeled a “disruptive element” on the set, and they decided to kill James off. The choice to remove the key figure that made the show so important led to its eventual demise, but Amos later told Lear he was right to fire him for the way he behaved.  Ironically, James’ death – just as he’s finally pulling his family out of the hood - produced one of the two most powerful scenes of the series, and maybe the only time we saw Rolle’s power as a stage actress.

(The second is Penny’s mama coming towards her with an iron, which I can’t even watch anymore.)

Watching now, viewers have identified Florida as a hater; she seemed to thwart every possible opportunity for the family to get even the tiniest glow up. But Florida was a manifestation of Rolle fighting with the show runners against anything she thought was gonna make us look crazy. Was some of it based in respectability? Absolutely. But considering Good Times was the only show of its kind, at least until What’s Happening!! debuted in 1976, I understand. Except for Black Jesus, that was fly. Florida was buggin’. Ebony, the most important black media outlet at the time, understood why she and Amos were fighting against foolery, too. The last black-centered sitcom before Diahann Carol’s Julia, Sanford and Son and Good Times had been Amos ‘n’ Andy, and nobody was trying to go back to that. “What seems to be called for now is a greater relevance among characters and a closer rein on a tendency to slide towards old-timey black minstrelsy. What is being revealed is a healthy awareness on the part of black performers that they are responsible for cleansing the stained image of blacks so long perpetrated on stage and screen.”

Shortly after John Amos left the show, Esther Rolle left as well, and ratings fell. Writers tried revamping J.J. as a mature head of the family, they introduced new characters and even brought Rolle back for a period, but the show was canceled in 1979.

Good Times feels now like Blaxploitation (and it was a bit) and poverty porn. But then, it was still a new version of our story told publicly. It was still a top-rated show about a black family. It was still a display of active and conscientious black parenting, including a black daddy with a job in a house, even in the ghetto.

The Jeffersons (1975 - 1985)

The Jeffersons was the longest running black family sitcom on television – longer than The Cosby Show. The show started just as the black middle class was building in the wake of the post-civil rights movement and was the first show to depict a black family that wasn’t working class. The show introduced one of the most iconic black TV characters in history. George Jefferson was the representation black folks had been waiting for; he was the hope and the dream. A black man from post-great migration Harlem who reached out with both hands to grab every part of the American Dream that he could as soon as it was available to him and would give white people his a** to kiss if they weren’t with it. It’s easy to dismiss George as mostly mouth and swagger, but that mouth and swagger were on our collective behalf.

Lear created the Jefferson family as an agitator for Archie Bunker. Lionel was a character from the beginning of the show, a smart young black man Archie considered one of the “good” ones. Then, the family moved in next door to the Bunkers  – the first black family in the all-white Queens neighborhood.

George wasn’t introduced for a couple of seasons. Sherman Hemsley was in a Broadway production, but Lear was so intent on him in the role that he found workarounds. George was the black version of Archie: stubborn, bullheaded, archaic in some of his thinking, and prejudiced towards people who he deemed other. George was sharper than Archie, though, and a fighter, which created great tension between the two characters as their families fell into a neighborly relationship. Usually at odds, one of the best scenes between the two happens in a set-up episode for the spin-off. The Jeffersons are meeting the Willises for the first time, and George and Archie are equally horrified to discover Tom and Helen Willis are an interracial couple. As they watch Tom dance with Louise at the end of the scene (I think I might have preferred this Tom…I don’t think he would have taken George’s sh*t), they toast to their shared disapproval.

George: Bunker, what is this world coming to?

Archie: Beats me, Jefferson. All I got to say is (raises glass), here’s to yesterday.

Feedback from the scratchin’ and survivin’ work of Good Times impacted how Lear developed The Jeffersons. Three Black Panther party members showed up a Lear’s production company one day to express their displeasure with Good Times. Lear recounted the story for an interview, saying, “They were pissed off that the only (black) family that existed, the (patriarch) had to hold down three jobs.” The Panthers asked why there couldn’t be an affluent black family on television, and Lear listened. Maybe George and Weezy would have stayed next door to the Bunkers, or moved to the black middle-class Queens enclave Jamaica Estates, or back uptown to Harlem for the spinoff, but that random visit sent them to a deluxe apartment in the sky in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The Cosbys, the Banks, and other upper middle class to upper-class TV families that came later were comfortable being comfortable. But the Jeffersons were adjusting to having finally attained the dream, being part of the early post-segregation black upper class, and the mixture of pride, guilt, and responsibility that came along with it – and so were the white people and other black people in their orbit. What happens when you’ve made it? When you jump from being a black housekeeper to hiring a black housekeeper? When your old friends from around the way come around? When you can buy your family whatever they want just because? How do you stay real in the midst of that?

The Jeffersons addressed not just race and class, but also race vs class. George wasn’t educated, but he worked hard, and expected his success to afford him respect and access - his theory was that green was more influential than black, and he was furious every time that proved to be untrue. There were plenty of puns based on George making social faux pas to impress elite white people, but there was also the very clear message – even if you’re a black millionaire: you still a ni**a.

I recently went back and watched the entire series on TV One, and the first few seasons are the blackest thing I have ever seen on television. As George and Louise are adjusting to their money and their lifestyle, the Harlem stayed jumping out. George still spoke in “jive” (the AAVE of the ‘70s), and would call somebody “ni**a” in a minute. Louise had a lot of fire early on, too. Her character became more one dimensional (and low key annoying) as the series progressed.

George was written to be abrasive and dislikable on the surface with redeeming qualities beneath, but Hemsley brought the character to life, with the walk he gave him without thinking, with Louise’s nickname, “Weezy,” with his attitude and mannerisms. Sherman was quiet, reserved in real life, and found playing George difficult. The blatant intolerance and insults, the rudeness and door slamming. It’s amazing from today’s more politically correct viewpoint that not only did this fly on primetime TV, but it was also one of the top sitcoms on air. The think pieces, Twitter hot takes and “What if this was a white character acting like this?” would be on a hundred if the show aired today. But George’s ridiculousness was the point.

At its best, the series educated viewers through George’s development, dispelling myths and stereotypes, and not just expanding the awareness of white viewers, but black ones, as well. At its funniest, the wit and wordplay were some of the best on TV. I would bet money that Martin pulled from George and Florence (a role we really don’t give Marla Gibbs enough love for) when writing Martin and Pam.

By the early ‘80s, the black professional class had grown and with the Reagan boom, plenty of families had moved on up. Now that the Jeffersons weren’t a unique story, the show was still cute but had lost its heart. CBS abruptly canceled it without a series finale.

George Jefferson endures, though. We know his walk, we know his dance, we know his door slam, we know him. We literally all know an old black man like George: ain’t gonna take no sh*t, kind of an a**, you worry he might say something extremely foul in public, but also has all the confidence and swagger.

Morehouse honored Norman Lear in 2016, and Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the university’s president, proclaimed that Lear “showed America 40 years ago that Black Lives Matter. He opened the eyes of millions of Americans when it came to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, all by making us laugh about it heartily so that we can think about it differently. Norman Lear is and will always be, in TV and race relations, a pioneer.”

I know we stopped giving cookout invites, but somebody please send Norman Lear a plate.

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