We need more George Jeffersons. That’s right, I said, “George Jefferson.” I know that I just lost the millennials, because The Jeffersons is not on “the Netflix,” as we say in the South, but my point remains the same. In the modern era of reality TV and never-ending dance contests, we have no new George Jeffersons, and that isn’t good.
George Jefferson, played by beloved actor, Sherman Hemsley, was a game-changing television character from 1973 through 1985. Born in Harlem in 1929, George, a descendent of 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 widowed mother, “Mother Jefferson.” Serving in the Navy as a cook during the Korean War, George returned home, married his wife, “Weezy,” had a son, and then undertook to change his destiny by becoming an entrepreneur. This used to be called, “The American Dream.”
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.” In this move, Georgia outgrew his loveable, but arguably racist neighbor, Archie Bunker, and built a better future for his family. So, when the Jeffersons 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 12 years, American families sat in their homes watching America’s racial struggles play out in the activities of George and his neighbors, and as we watched, we grew. In fact, in George, we saw something beyond a racial struggle – we saw an economic struggle. The struggle of people trying to change their personal and financial destinies. And, it was amazing.
Through George, we lived through memories of the lean times. We watched through marketing schemes and losses. We 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 hardworking to the same degree that he was outspoken and abrasive. And, through him, those watching began rooting for the little guy – a person of limited education and a minority. Routing for a black man in a world that wasn’t fully ready (and still isn’t) for integrated economic success.
But where is George Jefferson today in the American lexicon? 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, we have “real” people living “reality” television. We prefer to be entertained by people who get rich through accidental fame. We judge how much someone “has a right to” earn with no understanding of the costs of creating earnings, and we argue with each other about who “should” pay what for others without any empathy for each other’s struggles.
Now, we have no role models for small business owners. 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. And, what is sad is that large portions of our economy depend on entrepreneurs like George. However, we no longer have a name and a face for so many of us, facing the same entrepreneurial challenges. The world of entertainment has failed us in this regard, because our consciousness is devoid of the character “entrepreneur.” And we are worse off for it.
I posit this thought, I would remind you that 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, especially because he was totally authentic. You could understand him, hate him, and root for him all at the same time. That is pretty special and something worth repeating.
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. I you don’t know, do yourself a favor and YouTube it. Who knows, one day, I may even build my own museum, like Georgia did. We need more of that type of audacity these days.