Thelma from Good Times: “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”

2015ZORAI 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.

Good-Times-1

ebca3bf384c2364b0a34147f201ea1b2BernNadette’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.

Thelma

Meet the Best Young Writers in the Country!

Young Writers Workshop Participants | Zora Festival 2015
Young Writers Workshop Participants | Zora Festival 2015

This past weekend I had the honor and privilege to conduct a creative writing workshop, at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival for the Arts and Humanities in Eatonville, Florida. What made this an exceptional workshop is that the participants were twelve young men and women in grades eight through high school, from Dallas, San Antonio, Chicago, Atlanta and Silver Spring, Maryland. They sat through two intense sessions on Friday and Saturday, thoroughly engaged in the information disseminated to them by Petra Lewis, Tony Lindsay, D. L. Grant and me.

We touched on the elements of the craft of writing effective fiction to include theme, plot, character development, dialogue, setting and scenes. On the final day of the session, we had them to do an opening for a short story they planned to write over the next six months for future publication as an anthology. They tossed and turned in the chairs, got up, stretched, frowned and struggled, but ultimately they read their openings to us. We all were floored and thrilled with the creative words that they had penned to paper and as they read them aloud, we smiled. We knew, right in that room, late Saturday afternoon, that we had some of the most talented, creative young writers in the country. But we also knew, there are many more young talented writers that did not have the opportunity to participate as these youngsters did. The question we pondered was why isn’t this talent being captured in the public schools?  If not for the interest we took in reaching out to find the talent, to work with the talent and to help perfect the talent, many of these young folks would never be recognized for their talent.

We often hear leaders talking about how to improve the quality of our neighborhoods and communities. Let me make a suggestion. Join us in our continuing effort to work with our young, as they develop their skills as writers. And while developing those skills, they also improve on their reading levels. During our session with the youth, one of the students asked the question was it necessary to read in order to be a good writer? I suggested that mediocre writers never read, but great writers not only write, but also read. The point is, you read to become a better writer and to also understand your history and heritage. It helps you to know who you are and allows you to express it through your writing.

I will continue to work closely with my twelve young writers, as they perfect their short stories for publication in the fall. I will also, with the assistance of the adults who served as chaperones for the three days the students were in Eatonville, begin to plan our workshop for next year at the Festival. In 2015, we had only twelve students but next year we plan to double that number and the following year add even more students. Eventually, we can conduct these workshops in different parts of the country, and the number of talented writers will constantly grow. This may not be the perfect solution as an answer to improving the quality of life in many of our communities, but it is what we, as writers, have to offer. Hopefully, others in various professions will do the same. Finally, we do not commit to this for pay but for passion. Do something because it is the right commitment to make and it will always be a more perfect product than when you do it for money.  When we finished our session on Saturday afternoon, all twelve of our writers jumped up and shouted, “We are the best,” and as you look closely at them in the picture that accompanied this post, you are viewing a future Pulitzer Prize Winning Author because they really are the best.