George Jefferson…

By Heather | August 18, 2012

Let’s Not Tell Each Other Any Lies…We need more George Jeffersons.  That’s right:  George Jefferson.

Unless you are of a certain age, you may not know to whom I am referring.   And that is a problem.  George Jefferson, played by the recently deceased Sherman Hemsley, was a game-changing television character from 1973 through 1985.

George Jefferson, born in Harlem in 1929, descended from Alabama sharecroppers, was an ambitious African-American entrepreneur who started and managed a successful chain of seven dry cleaning stores in New York City.  George did all of this after dropping out of high school to care for his windowed mother, “Mother Jefferson.”  Serving in the Navy as a cook during the Korean War, George returned home, married his wife, “Weesie,” had a son, and then undertook to change his destiny by becoming an entrepreneur.

As a result of his entrepreneurial efforts, beginning with a single investment of $3,200 (an insurance settlement from a car accident), George built his empire and “moved on up to the East Side.”  And, when the Jefferson family left Queens for the East Side of Manhattan to live in a high-rise apartment with a live-in maid, a cultural icon was born.

For twelve years, American families sat in their homes watching America’s racial struggles play out in the activities of George Jefferson and his neighbors, and as we watched, we grew.  But, in George, we saw something beyond a racial struggle – we saw an economic struggle.  And, it was amazing.

In George we saw the struggles of an entrepreneur play out on the small screen.  We lived through his stories of the lean times.   We watched through the marketing schemes and the losses.  We even witnessed the family struggles created by long hours at the “office” or children that don’t see the family business as their dream.   George was cunning and hard working to the same degree that he was outspoken and abrasive.  And, through his struggle, the idea of the American dream was personified.

But where is George Jefferson today in American discourse?  Where can we find someone carrying the torch for entrepreneurs in our cultural context?  Where is a modern George Jefferson?  Nowhere.

In today’s media environment, we have “real” people living “reality” television.  We prefer to be entertained by people who get rich through unintended fame.  We judge how much someone “has a right to” earn with no understanding of the costs of creating earnings and we rail at each other about who “should” pay what for others without any empathy for each other’s struggles.

We have no modern role models for the small business owner. Instead, our public discourse in this present election cycle demonstrates the fact that we no longer know anyone like George Jefferson.  We no longer have the guy we all know coming into our living rooms each week, trying to build his empire while learning the limitations of his own ambition.  We no longer respect this member of our society, because we can’t relate to his struggles.  You see, it is easy to make blanket statements about an idea, but much harder if that idea has name and a face.  The media has failed us in this regard, because our media consciousness is devoid of the character of “entrepreneur.”  And we are worse off for it.

I posit this thought – George Jefferson was the epitome of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream – a man of any color who overcame his circumstances, loved his family, worked hard, enjoyed the fruits of his labor, gave back, employed many, and believed in himself.  Frankly, I miss George Jefferson, not because I am nostalgic, but because he challenged me as a child and molded my image of what a person, regardless of color, could do.  In this way, the media could expand our national consciousness beyond our present circumstances.  I would spend my time (again) watching a person like that on television.

I won’t lie to you…to this day, when something goes really great in my business, I do the George Jefferson strut through my office.  We need more of that these days.

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