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.
One of my fondest memories is of him returning home from the factory graveyard shift, bone-tired, just as I was running out the door to go to school. “Come here boy,” he would say with a grin, pointing to my ashy hands and face. “You can’t go to school looking like that. What are you trying to do? Get them people at school to call child protective services on me?” And he would sit me on the dining room table, and apply lotion to my skin, so dry and brittle that it seemed possible to strike a match off it. When he was finished he would smile and declare: “Now you can go.”
Although I do it often in this space, I am always reluctant to speak of my father, mostly because I recognize that for all his attributes as a man, he was in no way extraordinary. The father of one close friend earned a doctoral degree in education at the age of 27 and couldn’t land a teaching job for 10 years, and yet was a towering figure both in his family and in Washington DC’s black community. The father of another close friend was an artist and a staunch anti-imperialist who was active in the civil rights struggle. And the father of two of my oldest friends was the unofficial mayor of Indianapolis, holding court and dropping some serious knowledge from his office at the White Castle on 38th Street and Keystone.
But I have never been so proud to be the son of one Cecil Nathaniel Jeter than I was on the cold, and snowy January day of his wake five years ago. It is part of the family lore that my father was unemployed on the day I was born in 1965, and found work two months later at the Chrysler foundry on Indianapolis’ west side. As my father told the story, he saw the black men all sweating on the assembly line, while a cadre of white men stood idly on the perimeter of the factory floor, smoking cigarettes and lazing through the workday. Later, he would find out that the white men were millwrights, and thus, he became the plant’s first black, skilled tradesmen.
At his wake, however, one black man after another approached me and my sister and my brothers and told us how my father was widely respected for always encouraging black co-workers to enroll in the training courses that would enable them to join the ranks of the skilled tradesmen, a far easier job than the assembly line but yet better-paying. Said one coworker of my Dad’s self-deprecating manner: “He would encourage us and tell us if he could do it, anybody could do it.”
My father was no saint and I don’t want to make out like he was. But he embodied the best of all our fathers, these defiant and strong men, who articulated this unshakeable faith in us to be who we’re supposed to be. and in doing so, they ennobled us, and our children and our children’s children and our communities, by shooing away our worst fears, and our deepest hurt, the way one might shoo away an annoying bug.
And this is why JJ had to kill James Evans; John Amos’ portrayal touched a nerve with its irrefutable truth, that puts paid to the slander of white supremacy. In the end, I never did write the profile, because Walker refused to grant me an interview, which was certainly a wise move on his part. I would have savaged him with my pen, in much the same way he savaged the very notion of the black man in America, who birthed a glorious nation, both resplendent and reviled.