A great number of people don't get how SIGNIFICANT he is to a large segment of the black community. At a time on TV, where all we were still seeing were mostly blacks PLAYING MAIDS, pimps, junkies, snitches, dealers, thugs, killers and thieves... Mr. Hemsley, and his, ground-breakingly, multi-ethnic cast, 'moved on up'... and took us with him, in a manner that presented us in an entirely different light.
They also RUPTURED stereotypes into oblivion on TV for decades to come--- blazing a trail!
Although, upwardly mobile blacks existed in real life, we seldom got to see ourselves (blacks) portrayed in a less stereotypical manner on television. Hemsley is a black icon who helped make a change. Hat tip, and a courtly bow, to the great and daring, Norman Lear as well!
One the most endearing aspects of the sitcom was the palpable dynamic among its players. There were many moments where the company addressed all sorts of issues, ranging from "... racism, suicide, gun control and adult illiteracy. Also, the words "nigger" and "honky" were used occasionally, especially during the earlier seasons." (Wikipedia)
One of my favorite things about the show, having watched it from the age of nine, until the age of 15, was my ability to embrace and identify with all the many players and their circumstances. I knew interracial couples that were friends of the family, growing up. Among just some of the, real-life, parallels: We had a doorman at various stages of my growing up. Had a maid (or other domestic help). Had parents and grandparents (who stepped in to assume the role of my "parents"), who were highly successful during the same period. Had family members who had already "moved up", and i thoroughly enjoyed seeing echoes of my own life played out on screen. It was real. But most of America didn't know, or accept, that there were blacks cut from this "cloth" in actuality. Though, many is the time when, many people, of color--- or not, didn't think that my life was real, because "blacks don't live that way."
Throughout the run of this show, I was estranged from my own mother, which leads me to my love of "Mama Weezy"!
After I got backstage, I, politely, waited my turn in a very long line of well-wishers and fans.
On a cold, winter night, I finally got to speak with her for several minutes. She was exhausted, but extremely patient and generous with her time. I ended it much sooner than I wanted to, but her physical state was obvious. I didn't want to be rude. I was twenty-two years old then.
My own mother had disowned me (for reasons that will appear in my inevitable memoir (!!!), eight months prior to this performance--- on my twenty-first birthday. During my earlier period of estrangement, growing up, I "adopted" Ms. Sanford (her Jeffersons character) as, kind of, my surrogate mother. I no longer had one willing to accept me as her own.
So, I told her so! "Ms. Sanford. My mom isn't a part of my life. She's not dead or anything. She just doesn't want me. I have always thought of you as the mother I wished I'd had! You know, your "Louise Jefferson" character."
She stopped smiling at me as we spoke and looked at me as though I'd had 11 heads and was bleeding gazpacho from my ears. Then she looked at me, tenderly, and said some kind words, gave me a hug and went to her dressing room to autograph the photo pictured above. I have treasured it for the last twenty-four years! The drained actor took just a little more time to extend me a great kindness and bit of empathy.
You see? Of course they were fictional! It was a TV show (Duh!!!!!). But in my life and my world, they were so very real in so many ways. In my youthful, familial turmoil, these actors' roles held a great comfort and meaning to me. Each of them, in different ways. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Hemsley, but know people who had. They all spoke of his gentleness of spirit, his kindness and his good nature. That's all heresay. True. But I choose to believe it!
He, through his work, was a gigantic part of my growing up. He showed me that black men could reach the heights. That we could be just as significant as anybody else. I learned through this goofy little show, filled with heart, elegance and humor, that my reality wasn't just a dream.
Bright Blessings, Mr. H! Thank you for helping me, even without having a clue how dynamic to me, in my life, you were.
You, in the "All in the Family" years, showed me that black men were allowed to have boundaries and the right to stand up for ourselves. i didn't always agree with your methods, but the meaning was never lost on me. You are a part of my forever memory, for which I am most grateful!
Godspeed, Mr. Hemsley. I have loved your work through some of the most important, painful and helpless moments of my entire existence! You were only doing your job. But I gained so very much from your work, and that of the ensemble.
I miss you already.