About 20 years ago, when I was still a newspaper reporter, I traveled to Omaha, Nebraska to cover some breaking story, and found myself at a press conference, standing between two locals, both black men like myself. We struck up a conversation, and one of the brothas mentioned to me that Jimmie Walker–he of Kid Dyn-O-Mite shucking-and-jiving infamy–was a shock jock for an Omaha radio station.
“What is that about?” I blurted out, almost without thinking.
The brothas went on to explain that Walker’s spiel was that of a conservative black commentator who constantly–and artlessly– excoriated black folks for all manner of sin, almost all invented. After a few minutes, one of the brothas concluded with a roll of his eyes and this pithy summation: “Kid Dyn-O-Mite is still embarrassing black folks.”
This is when I was just beginning to find my voice as a writer and I was immediately intrigued. I returned to Chicago planning to write a long Washington Post Style piece on the minstrelsy that JJ represented. Discussing the story idea on the phone a few days later with a black woman journalist who was a classmate of mine at Florida A&M, I asked her bluntly: “Why does JJ matter? I mean, why does he haunt the black community like a traumatic event from our childhood?”
“Because,” she said without hesitation, “JJ killed the black father.”
The irreducible truth rang in the morning air like a thunderclap. I recall nearly falling out of my chair in the office that overlooked the icy blue waters of Lake Michigan. On the remote chance that no one understands the reference, the character of James Evans, the paterfamilias of the Evans family, was killed off after the actor who played the role, John Amos complained to the show’s producer, Norman Lear, that Good Times was increasingly becoming a showcase for JJ’s minstrelsy.
While Walker’s character resembled a lost episode of Amos N’ Andy, or footage cut from a Birth of a Nation because it was too over-the-top, John Amos’ portrayal of James Evans was dignified, almost elegant in a blue-collar way. And even as an adolescent who couldn’t quite come up with the language to describe what I was seeing, I knew that Kid Dyn-O-Mite was unrecognizable, unlike anything I’d ever seen in the known world which, for me at that time, was limited to the northeast side of Indianapolis.
James Evans on the other hand, reminded me of my father.
Barrel-chested, proud, and protective to a fault, James Evans was even a veteran of the Korean War just like my old man. And while James Evans’ scowling countenance of disapproval was most unlike my doting Dad, he managed to radiate across the airwaves the same regal bearing and tenderness that reminded me not only of my father, but most of the black men in my neighborhood, or the deacons at my family’s church. In retrospect, my father was the first Bluesman I ever met, a poor man’s Paul Robeson with a wicked sense of humor and a sense of dignity reminiscent of Redd Foxx and Mufasa from the Lion King. He was a baritone in the church choir, a voracious reader, an amateur cartoonist, the first male feminist I ever met, and though he never attended college, he was as astute as any political analyst I’ve ever known.