comedians of that like, Bert Williams, Lincoln Perry (“Step n’ Fetchit), Hemsley and Jaleel White, are simply reduced in the Black imagination as simply acting like “coons.” A Black actor would have never been able to get away with the “bugged eyes” that were Knotts' specialty, dating back to his days as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show.
Ultimately what made the character of George Jefferson so timeless, was that he was damn funny. George Jefferson is not the sum total of Hemsley’s legacy, but there are few that can claim a character as recognizable.
Mark Anthony Neal is a Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on twitter @NewBlackMan.