This week’s episode focuses on Michael, who has been suspended from school after referring to President George Washington as a “white racist” because he was a slave owner. The suspension will be lifted if Michael apologizes to his teacher, but he refuses, insisting that he’s quitting school to get a job. (“I’m not going to school just to learn what they teach,” he says.) Although the family tries to hide Michael’s misdeeds from James, he quickly learns of the suspension when he comes home from work and threatens to give Michael “a whipping [he’s] going to remember for the rest of [his] life” if he doesn’t return to school. Before dispensing the promised punishment, James has a one-on-one talk with Michael, where he explains to his son the importance of school and the reason for the spanking he’s going to deliver. Repeatedly laying across his father’s lap in preparation, Michael tells James that one of his heroes, Crispus Attucks, “wasn’t afraid when his turn came.” This comment results in a black history lesson, with Michael sharing information about several black notables with whom James wasn’t familiar. When Florida enters the room, planning to bring a stop to Michael’s punishment, she’s surprised to see her husband and son hugging and laughing. Florida helps Michael to understand the value of school, flaws and all: “School ain’t perfect,” she tells him. “But that’s no call to drop it. It’s got a lot of good in it. You take that good. And use it.” James apologizes to Michael for his intention to spank him, and Michael decides that if his father can apologize to him, then he can return to school and apologize to his teacher.
Florida’s thoughtfulness and wisdom as a mother is once again on display in this episode. When she sizes up the situation involving Michael’s suspension, she doesn’t scold or punish him but, instead, talks to him like an equal, calmly addressing each of his arguments. (My own rather militant daughter didn’t buy into Florida’s contention that all presidents are for all the people, not just some of the people, but then again, neither did Michael.) In sharp contrast, James’s immediate reaction was to literally whip Michael into submission. To his credit, James certainly wasn’t eager to spank Michael, although it was obvious he thought that was the right thing to do; he insisted on talking to him first, though, showing Michael the callouses on his hands and telling him that he never wanted Michael’s hands to look like that. “That’s why I don’t take no excuses when you mess up in school,” James says. “I’d rather you be a little bit hurt now than hurt for the rest of your life. Do you understand?” It’s a touching, heartfelt sentiment that James shares with his son, letting Michael know that he wants better for him than what his own life has been. James also shows depth of feeling when he apologizes to Michael for his initial reaction, demonstrating to his son yet another quality of a real man.
Pop Culture References:
Billy Dee Williams
When Willona enters the episode, she gives Thelma a copy of Essence magazine which, she informs Thelma, contains an article on Billy Dee Williams and how happy he is with his wife. (“What a hip life that must be,” Thelma says, “married to Billy Dee!”) Williams (who has a twin sister, and whose birth name is William December Williams) was a popular performer who rose to fame in the early 1970s with roles in films like Brian’s Song (1971) and Lady Sings the Blues (1972). He would go on to play Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars series and star in such hits as Mahogany (1975) and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976), in addition to numerous other feature film and television appearances. The Essence magazine article was referring to Williams’s 1972 marriage (his third) to Teruko Nakagami. The couple remain married to this day. (Williams and Nakagami filed for divorce in 1993, but they later reconciled.)
Essence magazine began publication in May 1970 as a lifestyle magazine targeting black women. After starting out with 50,000 copies a month, the magazine grew to a circulation of 1.6 million. (During the magazine’s first three years, its editorial director was Gordon Parks, photographer and director of such films as The Learning Tree  and Shaft .) In the 2000s, the magazine was sold to Time, Inc, but it was acquired in 2017 by Essence Ventures LLC, an independent black-owned company.
Stepin Fetchit and Rochester
Florida shares that when she was younger, she dreamed of marrying Errol Flynn, a movie star popular in swashbuckling films from the 1930s and 1940s. When Thelma points out that Flynn was white, Florida explains that her options were either Errol Flynn and Clark Gable (another white star, famous for playing Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind) or Stepin Fetchit and Rochester. “Somehow, the sword seemed more dashing than the broom,” Florida says. Stepin Fetchit was the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry; he began his career in vaudeville but is best known for his feature film roles where he invariably played lazy half-wits – or maybe “half-wits” is giving these characters too much credit.
Rochester, born Edmund Lincoln Anderson, was known for his distinctive gravelly voice and also had his roots in vaudeville – he frequently played servants on the big screen, but his characters weren’t as subservient and cringe-worthy as some other black performers of the day. In the late 1930s, he joined Jack Benny’s radio show as Benny’s personal valet, Rochester Van Jones, a character he continued to portray when Benny moved to television. The character was so popular that Anderson became known thereafter as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. (Even though Florida leaned more toward Flynn and Gable, it’s worth noting that Perry was the first black actor to become a millionaire, and Anderson was paid $100,000 a year on Benny’s show, making him the highest paid black actor of that time.)
Willona refers to Michael as “an 11-year-old Nat Turner.” Turner was an American slave from Virginia who, in August 1931, led the only effective, sustained slave revolt in U.S. history. Turner killed the family of his owners and, along with a group of approximately 40 other slaves, eventually killed 55 whites. Turner was eventually captured and hanged.
Willona is leaving the Evans apartment as James arrives home from work; he expresses his appreciation at her departure, adding that he is in “no mood to listen to the Rona Barrett of the projects this morning.” Rona Barrett was a well-known gossip columnist whose career started in 1957 when she went to work for New York’s Bell-McClure Syndicate, which distributed columns, feature articles, fiction, and comic strips to newspapers throughout the country. In 1966, she began broadcasting Hollywood gossip on ABC television station in Los Angeles, appearing on ABC’s five owned and operated stations nationwide, and she joined Good Morning America in 1975. She retired in 1991. (Interestingly, her reports occasionally got her in hot water with her subjects; Frank Sinatra put her on his enemies list after she criticized his relationships with his children, and she reported offended Ryan O’Neal to the point where he sent her a box containing a live tarantula.)
When Florida and James and James are arguing about Michael’s suspension, the conversation takes a detour, resulting in Florida reciting a litany of her day to James, which included grocery shopping. She tells him, “While they got the whole world watching the price of gas, they are sneaking food prices up again.” In 1971, during Richard Nixon’s first presidential term, he imposed a wage and price freeze to combat the high cost of food. When he won re-election in 1972, he put an end to the freeze, and prices began skyrocketing again. To put this in perspective, today, the average American spends less than 10 percent of their income on food; in the 1970s, the average was closer to 15 percent.
This episode contains the first close-up of a painting by Ernie Barnes, who was responsible for creating most of J.J.’s artwork in the show. (The Black Jesus from Episode Three, though, was not painted by Barnes.) Barnes was born in Durham, North Carolina, and was interested in art from an early age; he was continually drawing in sketchbooks and by the time he entered first grade, he was familiar with the works of such famed artists as Toulouse-Lautrec, Rubens, and Michelangelo. Barnes majored in art at North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University), played football throughout his college years, and became a professional football player upon his graduation. He never stopped drawing, however; during off-seasons with the San Diego Chargers, he illustrated articles for the San Diego magazine, and while playing with the Denver Broncos, he was frequently fined for drawing during team meetings. When he retired from professional football in the mid-1960s, he was hired by the owner of the New York Jets to be the team’s official artist. It was just the beginning of what would become an illustrious and much-admired (and much-imitated) art career. One more note about Barnes’s paintings – his subjects always have their eyes closed.
Yet another reference to Florida’s weight appears in this episode. When Willona says that she is too young to remember anything before the Korean War, Florida threatens to reveal Willona’s age to the children, and Willona rejoins by indicating that she will reveal Florida’s weight. “My lips are sealed,” Florida says. (Ugh.) Speaking of the age issue, this exchange brings up the first baffling reference to the ages of the three older characters in the series. By listening to this conversation, one would deduce that Willona is younger than Florida because, if Florida’s children know their mother’s age (which Florida says they do), and Willona and Florida are the same age, then the children would also know Willona’s age. Hmm. Later episodes muddle this theory. More on that in future posts . . .
We get our first look at Thelma’s room in this episode (the boys don’t have their own room; they sleep on the pull-out sofa in the living room). Thelma’s walls are decorated with numerous posters of black celebrities of the day, including Sylvester Stewart, better known as Sly Stone (from Sly and the Family Stone), Stevie Wonder, Bill Cosby, Jimi Hendrix (I think), and several others. (There’s also a poster of a white singer with brownish-red hair and a beard singing at a microphone. If anyone knows who he is, please share with the group!)
This episode contains another reference to Michael’s ambition to become a lawyer and, eventually, sit on the Supreme Court. If you know, you know . . .
During his discussion with Michael about black history, James refers to black people as “spooks,” incredulously asking Michael, “A spook sailed with Columbus?” and later querying Florida, “Baby, did you know a spook sailed with Columbus?” I know that there was a book and subsequent feature film called The Spook Who Sat By The Door, but I have never in my whole entire life heard a black person refer to our race or an individual as “spooks” in this manner. Have you? Is it just me?
Although I don’t necessarily think of this episode as one of my favorites, it contains numerous lines that are well-written and brilliantly delivered. My favorite scene takes place in Thelma’s room, where the older children first try to convince Michael to back down from his stance and then, failing this, give him tips on how to weather the upcoming whipping from their father. The scene is chock full of humor, but it has moments of sweetness as well, especially when Thelma tells Michael that before commencing with the whooping, their father will solemnly tell him, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” She then looks at Michael, narrows her eyes with steely determination and says, “Make him believe it.” And she punctuates her advice with a kiss on Michael’s cheek – a loving gesture that I always felt was not expected by Ralph Carter; he looks so pleased and surprised. It makes me smile every time I see it.
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The next episode: Sex and the Evans Family. (It’s my favorite episode, y’all!)