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Social Studies

Fred Sanford Watches Over Us

By Vincent Williams | Posted 7/20/2005

As I walk through the streets, I am strangely comforted by the thought that Redd Foxx watches over me. Look around—everywhere you go, there’s a T-shirt emblazoned with Foxx’s face, you big dummy!, or the simple sanford arms logo. I’ve always been a big believer in the statement “The streets is talkin’,” and, this summer at least, those streets are talking about Sanford & Son, which is something I’m trying to hear.

It’s been pretty interesting just watching the T-shirt images battle it out for supremacy. This is especially true since the past couple of summers have been so boring. I mean, the Scarface shirt has been around for almost 10 years now. Yes, the kids seem to love Tony Montana’s nihilistic lifestyle, and you must admit that final scene, where Montana goes out in a blaze of glory, makes for a pretty vivid shirt. But, again, folks have been rocking that for about a decade. And then there’s the plain old white tees, which are, well, white. Again, not that fun for a viewer of the movable art exhibit that is urban wear.

But then folks started sporting the ‘70s stuff. Over the past few years, I’ve spotted a couple of Marvin Gaye What’s Going On album-cover shirts at poetry readings and a Shaft soundtrack album-cover shirt at a MF Doom concert, but, for the most part, it was the post-Love Jones, oh-so-ironic black hipster crowd that had those. Since it’s gotten warm this year, however, I’ve noticed that ‘70s icons have become much more egalitarian wear. It seems like everyone with access to a scanner and a printer has been sporting images from That’s My Mama! or Get Christy Love.

I like that, because it speaks to a level of community cohesiveness that is missing in so many other aspects of life. Because, y’know, it bothers me that there are at least two different R&B stations in pretty much every city in the country. You have the “urban” station for the younger crowd and you have the “adult contemporary” station for the, well, older folks. Few people over 30 want to hear the Ying-Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song)” and even fewer people under 30 want to hear Kem’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” And you can apply that paradigm to pretty much everything. Traditional gathering places such as barbershops and beauty salons break down along generational lines. Hell, quietly, a lot of the churches that have sprung up over the past 10 years seem to have age limits too.

The bottom line is that, for the most part, there’s no common reference point. And make no mistake, I’m including myself in that observation. The older I get, the less I understand my little brothers and sisters, the less I enjoy the same entertainment that they do and, most frighteningly, the less I really want to talk to them.

Which brings me back to Redd Foxx and Sanford & Son. Since the show went off the air in ‘77, I actually don’t have any real memories from the sitcom’s first run, but since then, I’ve watched all of the episodes numerous times in syndication. The Three Degrees episode, the episode where Ja’net Dubois and her daughter try to trap Fred and Lamont into marrying them, the controversial season when Foxx left and Whitman “Grady” Mayo moved to the starring role—I love them all. So, when I see a 15-year-old kid wearing a sanford arms T-shirt, I’m going to stop him and ask him about it.

I’ve had about a dozen conversations with kids this summer about their shirts, and had the somewhat surreal experience of discussing my favorite episodes with people who have only seen the show on DVD. I was never as big of a fan of The Jeffersons, but I saw an amazing jefferson cleaners shirt a couple of weeks ago that led to me finding out about a couple of 19-year-olds that sell the shirts at a local barbershop. What I’m really looking for, though, is a joint with some of that amazing poster art from the three movies Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier made together: Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action. As I walk through the city, peacing up young cats and admiring their T-shirts, I know it’s just a matter of time before I run across one. And I’m certainly looking forward to all the conversations I’ll have leading up it.

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