I continue to be amazed at how in a great while, scenes from among the more popular, Black-family-themed sitcoms from the 70s, which I once assumed had been developed solely as a healthy form of entertainment for otherwise bored Black families on Saturday evenings, surprisingly provided real food for thought.
My favorite was the long-running show about the Evans family who, led by their father — an integral but often absent element in most Black families based on the assumptions of the larger society — lived in the projects of Chicago with hopes of making it out and realizing ‘the American Dream’— “Good Times.”
With oldest son, JJ, known for his one-word exclamation of affirmative joy, “Dy-no-mite,” a propensity for tom-foolery and practical jokes and his over-the-top, teenaged hormones which tended to guide his steps toward innocently-imagined romantic interludes with girls nicknamed “Boom-Boom” or “Hot Lips, we witnessed the rarely-seen Black family in all of its dimensions. We sat in on “real life” in urban America and — exhaled. We took off our week-worn shields — safe from the insanity and enjoyed the antics of James, Florida, Thelma, Michael, neighbor Willona Woods, and of course J.J. (James, Jr.) who frequently made us laugh — first at them and then in the uncanny similarities we saw in ourselves.
Yet once in a great while, there were episodes defined by the unfathomable pathways of possibilities they revealed to us despite the overwhelming frequency of doors labeled “No Entrance (Blacks)” while shackled to ponderous chains, invisible except to a diminutive circle, earmarked poverty, racism and sexism in a country shaped by centuries of Black oppression and suppression — and with white privilege and white supremacy. In most cases, your zip code indicated your future.
JJ’s dream becomes “reality” after he awakes from a sleepless night in white skin. Now, he assumes, the promotion for which he yearns at work will be his, especially with his greatest hurdle, race, being removed from the equation. The episode could have been lifted from the pages of the 1970 film “Watermelon Man” which starred Godfrey Cambridge in a dream come true story. Once white, everyone’s stunned by JJ’s sudden racial insensitivity. Yes, how soon they forget!
But the kicker comes when the promotion goes to another “minority” — a woman. As for JJ, he discovers that race isn’t always the final arbiter in the realization of our hopes and dreams. Still, there’s no denial that, as Cornel West says in his seminal text, “Race Matters.” Yes, 400 years since the kidnapping of our ancestors from Africa to the American shores, race, absurdly, unbelievably, still matters.