My Black Family

1. The Lord loves a workin’ man.
2. Don’t trust whitey.
3. If you get it, see a doctor and get rid of it.

I’ll say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud. My friend Peter once said that we white children of the 70’s were raised in a black family. Our cousins were Raj and Re-Run; we had uncles and aunts such as John Amos and Shirley Hemphill; we had a well-off cousin named George Jefferson who left the neighborhood; and the dirty old grand-uncle of Redd Foxx, all put to the music of Quincy Jones. In the 80’s this became the Cosbys and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but they felt more sanitized, and while I could watch the shows, I didn’t feel like part of the family.
Some of the kids I grew up with.

“What’s Happening!!” was a spin-off of the 70’s high-school flick Cooley High, which is pretty good and worth seeing for a slice of 70’s nostalgia. Some call it the “Black American Graffiti” which is sort of condescending and inaccurate, since the California film never sets foot in a high school. I like to think of it as a precursor to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Anyway, here’s a poster for the movie, and you can see I would fit right in because we wear the same hats.
Everyone remembers Re-Run from the show, but the gals were where it was at. Shirl was so cruel and so funny. Shirley Hemphill was a comedian, and I saw her in the late 90’s shortly before her death. She performed at the Mall of America, not the most exclusive of venues, but she was very funny and I’m glad I got to see her. She had told us emotionally of Mabel “Mama” King’s tragic fight with diabetes, and they both passed away the same year. Re-Run held on a decade longer, but all the funny fat folks from the show have passed on. So I’ll stop grumbling about the NutriSystem oatmeal that Firecracker made for me this morning, even though it is causing gaseous emissions that could be mistaken for the warning eruptions of a volcano.

R.I.P, Shirl.

Dee was also pretty funny and caustic, and my little sister’s name also started with D, so we often thought of ourselves as Raj and Dee, despite me resembling Re-Run in my earlier years. And us both being whiter than a Land O’Lakes White American cheese sandwich with mayo on Wonder Bread.

Sanford & Son was another favorite. It’s often looked back upon with embarrassment by us white folk because he ran a junkyard and that’s somehow demeaning, but Redd Foxx built his career on poking fun at character types, and we all knew someone like him, black or white. Like Archie Bunker.

Note the hat.

If you’ve never heard Redd Foxx’s comedy act, he was famously filthy and hilarious. He would hardly be considered dirty today compared to Jim Norton and the like, and many of his double entendres could pass on primetime TV today, so he was certainly ahead of his time. His clever plays on words and euphemisms are refreshing and witty now. I just watched two George Carlin shows, his latest HBO special (It’s Bad for Ya) and one from 1978, Carlin Again!, (which seems to be completely uploaded to youtube) and it’s amazing how different comedy is today. Carlin evolved but still injects his famous wordplay into his act; it’s almost a lost art. I like a lot of modern comedy, but most of it is shock now; the 7 words you still can’t say on television have become an integral part of everyone’s act.

Good Times came a few years later, and despite having J.J. and his “Dyn-o-mite!” shenanigans was a good family show. John Amos is still one of my favorite actors, and I recall during one interview that he said he auditioned for Indiana Jones back in the day. Now that would have been something. This was the first black sitcom and was a spinoff once removed of “All in the Family,” through “Maude.” They lived in Cabrini Green, and James Sr. (John Amos) was a strong father figure at the time. The producers liked Jimmie Walker’s embarrassing act and promoted that aspect of the show, which lead John Amos to leave. So they killed him off.
Even though John Amos didn’t play many badasses in his career, the man himself certainly is one, for standing up for his principles. Esther Rolle soon followed, since she also didn’t like the J.J. crap and wanted the show to portray a strong family. As a kid, this drama was all unknown to me, but Good Times wasn’t the same without John Amos. I only saw reruns but we sure noticed how the show went downhill after he left. The whole story is of curse chronicled on the show’s wikipedia page. John Amos is yet another criminally underutilized black actor, and his unforgettable role in Coming to America proves that he should get more screen time.
The Jeffersons were yet another spinoff of “All in the Family,” another character-based comedy about a skinflint and his long-suffering wife. Weezy and George were a lot of fun but I couldn’t relate. They lived in a de-luxe apartment in the sky-y-y, while we were growing up at my grandmother’s place in a “mixed use” zone, as they call them now, which means we were surrounded by a truck depot, an Alcoa chemical plant, and other delightful things. No wonder I liked Sanford & Son, we used to play near a junkyard of sorts where a landlord and asphalt company owner dumped his old appliances and parked his trucks. Not far from there was the town mulch pile, what seemed like mountains of composting leaves that we’d jump in up to our armpits. And down the railroad tracks (of which we were definitely on the wrong side) was the oil baron’s place where the train dumped coal. We’d jump from the train trestle into the coal and ruin our pants, and pick coal chunks out of our socks.

I like to mix champagne and Ripple… I call it Champipple.

I could go for a Champipple about now. Our neighborhood was “mixed” in other ways as well. I distinctly remember helping at least two Vietnamese kids named “John” learn English, and having to take my sneakers off before entering their apartments. Their moms probably regretted all those bags of shrimp flavored chips I ate. I remember nearly inciting a racial incident by inviting the black kids in my 3rd grade class to my birthday party, and breaking up a fight between Billy Erdeshon and a kid named Fred.

My childhood as portrayed by Steve Martin.

Many of my mother’s coworkers were black at ITT, too. The company used to hold picnics every year and I worked at them from an early age, crushing boxes. Not really work, it kept me from eating too many free hamburgers and poundcake, and I remember Eddie the Cook introducing me to good barbecue ribs at an early age. And meeting my mother’s boss Harold, and telling him he looked like George Jefferson. Oops. I was 9 and didn’t know any better. And he knew he resembled him, he even jokingly called a woman at work “Weezy” to riff off it. Actually it was Reezy, since she was Teresa. That’s my racist confession for the day.

Interesting that two of the shows have Archie Bunker to thank for their existence. It goes once more to show the value of a good bad example.