Much has been written about the impact that classic Black American television sitcoms, like ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘The Cosby Show,’ had on society. Black audiences, in particular, have at length noted how certain television shows which centered the black family in prosperity changed the way they viewed themselves and their potential.
The testimony of these awe-struck viewers, which are etched into history via documentaries, panels and network television specials, serve as a reminder that representation in the media matters, and that before such titles hit the airwaves the African-American race was regulated on-screen to the lowest social-economic status available.
Less attention has been paid, however, to where the men who were the early faces of black wealth in sitcoms came from. The birthplaces of stars are often hugely inconsequential when examining their body of work. But on this matter, given a strong pattern exists, it’s worth the mention and brief exploration.
The South, North and West sections of Philadelphia were home to Mr. Sherman Hemsley of ‘The Jeffersons’; Mr. Bill Cosby of ‘The Cosby Show’; and Mr. Will Smith of ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ which premiered almost thirty years ago and, at the time, showed the black family in its most opulent portrayal.
In both Mr. Smith’s and Mr. Cosby’s television show, a homage to, or direct mention of, Philadelphia was executed, whereas the opposite was true for Mr. Hemsley’s show, which began in 1975 and, upon ending in 1985, became one of the longest running sitcoms in American history (in 1986, Mr. Hemsley starred in ‘Amen,’ a sitcom about a black church in West Philadelphia).
Though ‘The Jeffersons’ preceded ‘The Cosby Show’ by almost a decade – New York City serves as the setting for both shows – it’s the latter title that garners the most credit for being groundbreaking and the catalyst for viewing the black family in a different context.
I asked several Philadelphians why they think ‘The Cosby Show’ seems to eclipse ‘The Jeffersons’ – both shows showed successful black families living in great neighborhoods – and a similar response was uttered by all: Mr. Cosby portrayed a compassionate father and rather humble and nice man who raised a funny, well-mannered family whereas Mr. Hemsley’s character was a confrontational, prejudice and bombastic figure – and the father of an adult son and lover to a stay-at-home wife – which played into some already established stereotypes of black men, while the Dr. Huxtable persona, on the other hand, broke the mold.
Mr. Hemsley, who died in 2012, and I graduated from the same South Philadelphia middle school at 16th and Wharton Street. Mr. Smith and I both attended Overbrook High School, though I didn’t graduate from there and he did. And Mr. Cosby and I have both have great memories of time spent at the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia.
For as important as it is to have seen these men on television as the early faces of black wealth in sitcoms, it’s equally of value to have known that they’ve walked the streets I walk; that they learned in the buildings where I was schooled, and that they created art in spaces where I’ve convened; that, too, in my mind is a form of representation, and added layer to already rich black history.
Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™
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Photo courtesy of the author.