This past Friday I was struck with a sense of loss and poignancy as I sat with a hospice patient to provide respite for her caretaker. The three hours I spent with her watching an old TV show from the 1980s and 1990s reminded me of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve fallen as a society.
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Since the patient had moments of alertness in her bed, I didn’t want to change the channel. On the TV was an old show called Family Matters, a sitcom that had been extremely popular. I’d never watched it myself, so I was curious about the show. As we watched the show together, I realized I was witnessing a vignette of the black middle class in suburban Chicago, a community that is often overlooked.
As Larry Elder pointed out in this article, blacks were well on their way to becoming members of the middle class long before the 1960s:
Black economic progress increased tremendously, says economist Thomas Sowell, well before so-called ‘level the playing field’ government policies and programs. In fact, on this 40th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty,’ Sowell says the income gap between blacks and whites closed faster ‘pre-war’ than ‘post-war.’ ‘The economic rise of blacks began decades earlier,’ Sowell stated, ‘before any of the legislation and policies that are credited with producing that rise. The continuation of the rise of blacks out of poverty did not — repeat, did not — accelerate during the 1960s.
The show Family Matters, I believe, was a holdover of those memories that represented the progress of blacks well into the 20th century. The show’s main characters were a police sergeant, Carl Winslow, his working wife Harriette, son Eddie, Carl’s mother (Mother Winslow), Harriette’s sister and her son, and the elder daughter Laura. (A younger daughter was written out of the show). In the episodes I saw that day, I was especially touched by Laura, a teenager who actually had common sense, earned high grades, and became the student body president. In one episode, she had a new boyfriend who convinced her to take him to her bedroom. She realized she’d made a mistake when he made a move on her and then called her a “baby.” She proceeded to throw him out of her bedroom window.
I was also both annoyed and amused at a character who was added to the show, a teenage neighbor boy named Steve Urkel. He was exuberant, had a huge crush on Laura (and everyone knew it), was smart and nerdy, too. As outrageous and over-the-top his behavior was, he was embraced by the family in a grudgingly sweet way. They could have rejected him, but they accepted him, just as he was.
So what moved me about this show? This was a two-parent black family. The kids were polite. The grandmother, a feisty old woman, lived with the family, as did Harriette’s sister, who was a single mother — widowed. In other words, they were a middle-class nuclear family that followed what was once called normal values. The show ran for nine seasons and became the second-longest-running non-animated US sitcom with a predominantly African-American cast.
I realize that the show was somewhat contrived and was not the greatest example of performing arts. But it depicted blacks who were middle-class, who had jobs, who showed respect for each other, and who had conservative values. It demonstrated that blacks could be part of the larger society (through friends and schoolmates), and racism was not an issue (at least in the shows I saw).
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As I packed up my knitting and turned to the patient in her bed, she made eye contact with me. I smiled and said goodbye, and for the first time during my visit, she smiled, waved her hand, and said goodbye.
Good manners, you know.Published in