I am the kind of person who likes to reflect back on his past and feel good about what I have left behind. That is not to say that I don’t also enjoy the present, because today I feel that I am involved in some very satisfying projects. But my past reflects my present and has an impact on my future. For these reasons, I can share with my readers the joy I felt last week at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, when I strolled up the rows of vendors and saw BernNadette Stanis, better known as Thelma from the sit-com Good Times, sitting behind a table in the prime location, autographing copies of her newest book The Last Night: A Caregivers Journey Through Transition and Beyond. A long line of admirers stood waiting for an opportunity to get her to sign their copy of the book, possibly take a picture with her and get a poster of the Good Times show. I soon discovered that she was a featured author of the Festival.
Evidently from the size of the line of admirers seeking the opportunity to take a picture with BernNadette, many others also love to dabble in nostalgia. But we are very choosy about what we allow to settle into our memory bank. And I believe most would agree Thelma and Good Times with J.J., Michael and the other outstanding actors and actresses (especially the late great Esther Rolle) made the show a must-see on Monday nights in the middle 1970’s. Good Times was especially important because it represented the first television show that profiled a complete Black family. Not only were the parents married and the father present, but also actively involved in the everyday life of their children. However, I believe Thelma as the first Black female teenager featured in a television series left a lasting impression on the hearts and minds of the American public. Black families loved the image she portrayed as a young, beautiful and brilliant Black teenager. It was almost like Nina Simone recorded “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” specifically for her.
BernNadette’s portrayal of Thelma and what she projected on television enamored the public to her. She possessed the attributes of a beauty queen, and also a brainy queen. Her “smarts” shined as much as her looks. And that represented a first for a young Black actress in Hollywood. When I had the pleasure of meeting BernNadette years ago, she mentioned that her role had originally been created as nothing more than to feed J.J. for his punch lines. But Ms. Rolle recognized BernNadette’s talents, and insisted that her part in the show be expanded and once Norman Lear did so, she shined often soaring over everyone else.
Her enduring popularity continued to shine brightly in Eatonville, Florida last Saturday, as lines of men, women and children anxiously awaited their turn to talk with one of our many queens of the race. In her recent book she writes, “Being an author and speaker, I travel and tour all over the United States and people constantly tell me how much they loved Good Times and what that show meant to them growing up. They tell me that their children watch it, even today. They express to me with gratitude the values and lessons it has shown them. But most of all, they call it safe TV.”(Stanis, BernNadette, The Last Night; A Caregivers Journey Through Transition and Beyond, Worthingham Publishing, Beverly Hills, 2015, p. 55)
I am just one of many Black artists who have been rather critical of the roles that our beautiful young actresses are forced to play in today’s media. That is because we still consider Thelma, as the prototype of the image a Black actress should portray in a sit-com or drama that our young girls may view on a weekly basis. Undoubtedly, the transition from a Thelma to the more sordid and questionably immoral roles our Black actresses portray in today’s television series, represents the transition our culture has taken since the late 1960’s and 70’s, when there existed a certain reverence for our race. Now, that seems to have disappeared with the “Crack Epidemic of the 1980’s and 90’s. It has transformed us in an unnatural way, so that we no longer proclaim, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Instead we now bemoan the gang killings, the deplorable drop out levels of our young from school, and the unacceptable reality of our babies having babies all over this country.
BernNadette Stanis is an artist with many different talents. She spent her early years as an actress, but few know she is also a painter and a writer. Her recent book about her commitment as caregiver during her mother’s final years, is a very heartfelt touching account of a mother/daughter relationship. It is a testament to the fact that BernNadette’s role as Thelma in Good Times reflected her values in real life. The title is adapted from the very last night she spent with her mother, before she passed away from that dreaded Alzheimer’s disease. It is BernNadette’s third book and she is now working on her first novel, a genre that is suitable because of the roles she has played, and continues to play on television. She has a very strong inclination to write fiction and told me that she is determined to complete her first love story by the end of the year. It is rather fitting that she write about love because her entire persona exudes love and hope for her people. I am proud to proclaim that she is my friend.