What 'The Jeffersons' Taught Me About Being an American

An Iranian immigrant on the lessons he learned from George and Weezie

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CBS

News of Sherman Hemsley's death two weeks ago at the age of 74 hit hard around these parts. My mother called to share the news, and to offer the traditional Iranian blessing for the dead. George Jefferson fot kard, khoda biamorz. There was no need to explain the sentiment behind the call, which I understood immediately. Nearly 40 years after immigrating from Iran, she and my father remembered more than just a television show or a source of nostalgia. The Jeffersons had been an important part of our beginning here in the United States, of how we became Americans.

The Jeffersons debuted in January 1975 and was already a hit by the time we arrived in March of that same year. My folks had left Iran, not for a deluxe apartment in the sky but a modest condominium in the middle of the country. One (very bulky) TV, four channels, and no remote was the setup in our new home, as it was in most households in those days, and it was not long before George and Weezie became part of our viewing routine.

The lack of choice made it easy for us to pick up the thread, to feel included instantly. Nearly one-third of all Americans were tuning in each week to watch The Jeffersons that year. Television is regularly blamed for the decline of civic and associational life in this country, but during the '70s and '80s, before basic cable and satellite scattered viewers into a million little demographics, weekly broadcasts of a show like The Jeffersons provided a shared, collective, and national experience.

Already, intuitively, we understood that the story being told at 185 East 85th Street was our own. Movin' on up meant moving away, an agony recapitulated each week during the show's opening credits, by the image of Louise wiping away her tears, the close-up of George gripping his wife's hand. George and Louise had left the old neighborhood for the new, crossing over from Queens into Manhattan on the 59th Street Bridge for a better life on the other side. Making it in America, making it in terms of the American dream, was compromised for George and Louise by their loss, and it was here that The Jeffersons showed us where the American and immigrant experiences converged. Because of who they were, and where they came from, the Jeffersons could never feel like they fully belonged in tony Upper East Side, or what my father liked to refer to as Grey Poupon society. The past pulled on them, and although neither ever forgot where they came from, the longer George and Louise stayed away from the old neighborhood the less they knew of their old selves.

Of course The Jeffersons, like its parent show All in the Family, was hardly the usual depiction of the American experience on network television. It waded into treacherous and uncertain waters, pulling its viewers into currents of class and race avoided by most network shows. The confluence of these forces left in its wake vocabulary and expressions unlikely to be taught to us in any ESL or citizenship classes, and impossible to imagine being used on a broadcast network today: Honkey, zebra, nigg—, goin' to the john, she's a fox.

Still, for all that The Jeffersons taught us about what American was and could be, there was also something very Persian and accessible about the show, not least of which was the acid back-and-forth between George and Florence (George: "Florence, your cooking tastes like dogfood." Florence: "That's because I'm cooking for a chihuahua."), an American version of the Iranian custom of matalak goftan, or trash-talking.

We also recognized the familiar in George's willingness to put on airs if it meant seizing an advantage against a rival or gaining one from a potential patron, backing down only when it became clear that his honor or family's well-being was at risk. It was easy to mistake George's hustle as symptoms of a gratuitous and crass materialism, but in reality his endless striving, the relentless quest to impress the Wittendales of the world or to get into a posh tennis club, even though he had no clue or interest in the sport, was always about survival. Money, in George's mind, represented the best defense against discrimination. "Let me tell you something about people," George tells his old adversary Archie Bunker at a cocktail party. "That bartender's willing to work for me because if you got enough green in your pocket, then black becomes his favorite color."

Presented by

Shervin Malekzadeh is a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College.

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