What 'The Jeffersons' Taught Me About Being an American

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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."

The reputation for flash and superficiality that clings to parts of the Iranian-American community, I think, originates from a similar social anxiety and defensiveness. Halfway through The Jeffersons' run, and on the other side of the world, Iran experienced its revolution, followed several months later by the embassy hostage crisis. Iranians living in the United States found their public reputation unfairly ruined, transformed, overnight it seemed, from members of an exotic and ancient civilization into a collection of religious fanatics. Most responded to this trauma by choosing the virtue of discretion over confrontation, steering clear of politics in favor of the pursuit of economic success. If some overcompensated in the latter category, it was, in part, to prove their fidelity to America.

I hardly noticed any of this when I first watched The Jeffersons—frenzied renditions of the George strut around the house and kindergarten classroom being the extent of my intellectual ambition in 1979. I was just an infant when we immigrated, and like most kids who grew up during the late '70s and early '70s, a program like The Jeffersons became the stuff of childhood nostalgia, the characters that inhabited its world, major and minor, my archetypes.

At some point, improbably, I came to associate George and Louise with my own parents. Something about the exuberance and physicality of George reminded me of my father, the way he tossed his entire body from one side of the frame to the other when he laughed, the narrowing of the eyes when he became upset, the politically incorrect trash-talking, the bombast that hid the kind heart, even the disco-era mustache. The same transference occurred with my mom and long-suffering Louise, her grace and dignity as the moral anchor of the household, the way she tilted her head back whenever George made some outrageous comment, her knack for understanding that even if George did the wrong thing, it was always for the right reason. Something of that feeling lingers to this day, as if my mom and dad, impressionable and impossibly young when they first came to this country, had internalized George and Weezie, made them part of their permanent selves.

Mortality appeared as a recurring theme during The Jeffersons' 11-year run, in episodes dealing with George's death, his near-death, and the afterlife. Hands-down my favorite of these was "The House that George Built." George, despairing that the world would forget his accomplishments, constructs the George Jefferson Museum, an ode to himself in three exhibits: The Early Years. The Lean Years. The Filthy Rich Years. (Also available for purchase at the museum: The Jefferdog, Hot Dog of Kings!)

Like so many of George's capers, the museum ended in catastrophe, closing on its very first night for lack of visitors. George had reached for greatness and as always Louise was there to talk him down from the absurd heights. "I just want to be remembered," George tells his wife. "I mean, don't wanna to end my life without anyone knowing what I was all about."

Louise assures her husband that it's perfectly fine that millions will not remember George Jefferson, "not even thousands." "You see, George," she reminds him, "what's important it's that the people who know you remember you. You don't have to hang things on the wall to show how great you are. All you have to do is just be yourself."

The episode marked one of the few times that Weezie got it wrong. Millions do remember George Jefferson. The outpouring of affection over these past two weeks for Sherman Hemsley, who by all accounts was nothing like the character he so memorably brought to life, stand as tributes greater than any museum exhibit could offer. Sherman Hemsley, whose singular ability to bring out the humanity in what was otherwise a thoroughly disagreeable character, produced a legacy and body of work that reached into corners far beyond a live studio audience, and helped at least one family in Peoria make its way when the country and life were still new.

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Shervin Malekzadeh is a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College.

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