Notes on an Icon: Sherman Hemsley

The initial seven months of 2012 have taken its toll on the African American community as many of our legends, icons and other notable personalities have passed away. We’re hours removed from losing Sherman Hemsley, who for many Americans is simply known for a character he breathed life into nearly 40 years ago, George Jefferson. Mr. Hemsley passed away in his El Paso, TX home at age 74 and once the news broke, there was an outpouring of love as social networking sites and television networks also began to pay homage to the actor.

The indelible mark Sherman Hemsley, and more specifically, George Jefferson, left on our culture is immeasurable; from the first appearance on All in the Family when he clashed with Archie Bunker through the 11 seasons The Jeffersons ran, George became the first character of his type on television and there haven’t been any like him since. The Jeffersons broke ground during a time when many doors were opening and Black culture was being planted in the living rooms of families all across the country, giving a multi-dimensional view of who we were, shedding the images of pimps, pushers, slow-witted sidekicks, prostitutes and addicts.

Shows like Julia, Soul Train, Sanford & Son and Good Times showed us at work, at home, and outside of work, and displayed our various talents.  But it was The Jeffersons that put an affluent Black couple on television, provided them with a live-in maid and showed that we may have truly been “movin’ on up”. Spearheading that subtle movement was George, one of the most complex characters in television history; George had come from nothing, served his country in the Navy, built his business and fortune from the ground up. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as all of the success he attained made him arrogant; though he wasn’t ashamed of his roots, his fortune made him part of the new Black bourgeoisie. He was a chauvinist, yet had an undying love for his wife Louise; he was racist, yet maintained a love-hate relationship with interracial neighbors George and Helen Willis and schemed to get the ear of Mr. Wittendale, his building’s owner and millionaire. Yes, George was a capitalist. He was also angry, the first Black character on TV to be so.

We’d come a long way from Harlem, Chicago, Watts and other so-called “ghettos” as the Jeffersons had moved into their de-luxe apartment and George Jefferson into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans, Black and White. Those early seasons of The Jeffersons were littered with social commentary, notes on a changing America–one that found a Black man with seven cleaning stores, though his Harlem store suffered damage on the night of Dr. King’s assassination. The later episodes were more sitcom fodder as The Regan Era commenced and the tenor of Black folks on TV did as well.

Sherman Hemsley is synonymous with George Jefferson, though he appeared on Broadway in Purlie before and as Deacon Ernie Frye on Amen afterwards. No other actor could have given George the vitality the way he did; the anger his face displayed in his bouts with Florence and Tom that changed to being confounded when dealing with the original Mr. Bentley and lit up at the end of nearly every episode when he kissed Weezy. And who can forget when George would bust out that funky chicken that came to be known as the George Jefferson? The way he moved was comical, yet reminiscent of cats thinking they had some moves on the dance floor.

Though his career never reached the heights of The Jeffersons, Mr. Hemsley worked steadily through the years and even had a short-lived music career, punctuated with an appearance on Soul Train. The South Philly native will forever be known as George Jefferson and would often appear as so, even alongside Isabelle Sandford, the actress who played Louise Jefferson, in Old Navy commercials before her death in 2004.

I remember an episode when George says, “A man has got to leave his mark, something to prove that he’s been here.” You definitely left your mark Mr. Hemsley. George Jefferson was an American authentic, television treasure; Sherman Hemsley was Black American royalty.

Thank you…

–Al-Lateef Farmer

Between rhetoric and reality is where you’ll find Al-Lateef Farmer: Black man, husband, social documentarian, and slinger of Soul by the pound. His brand of social commentary rooted in independent thought can be found at http://worldaccording2teef.com, and on Twitter @wrldacrdng2teef.

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