I have no idea how accurate my memory is, but, about 25 years ago, while flipping through television stations late one night, I happened across one of Shirley Hemphill’s comedy routines. Shirley Hemphill, for those of you who don’t recognize the name, is probably best known for her portrayal of Shirley Wilson, the short-tempered but lovable waitress who frequently traded barbs with Raj, Dwayne and Rerun on the late-70’s television show What’s Happening. I can’t remember a word of what was said during her routine, or how many beers I may have had in my system at the time, but I remember laughing my then-bony ass off. And, as a result, about once a year, I find myself, in the wee hours of the night, sorting through videos of her online, as the rest of my family sleeps. Too date, I’ve not been able to find the magical, pant-shittingly-hilarious set that I’d seen all those years ago, but, through watching her work, and reading about her, I’ve come to appreciate the career that she’d made for herself, in spite of the fact that she was an overweight African American woman during a period when popular culture wasn’t exactly looking for any of those things. (Word is that her career got started when she borrowed a tape recorder from a neighbor in Asheville, North Carolina, recorded herself telling jokes, and sent a cassette to Flip Wilson, who encouraged her by sending back a dozen roses, a new tape recorder, so that she’d no longer have to borrow one, and an open invitation to visit him in Hollywood.) Granted, the projects that she was involved in weren’t terribly redeeming in any societal sense. (Ebony described What’s Happening as “the Archie comic book gang in blackface.”) What’s Happening, I guess, did have an episode about illegal bootlegging (see below), but they certainly didn’t deal with issues like heroin addiction, gang violence and child abuse like the more socially-aware Good Times. Still, though, I’ve always appreciated Hemphill’s spunk, and I was sad to hear that she’d passed in 1999. And, tonight, as I sat watching videos of her, I made myself a promise… If I ever open that bar that I dream of, my first task will be to create a drink in her honor – a bold, bawdy, decidedly adult version of the “Shirley Temple.”
So here’s my question of the day, if a “Shirley Temple” is two parts ginger ale, and a splash of grenadine, garnished with a maraschino cherry, what’s a “Shirley Hemphill”? I’m going to spend my evening watching back episodes of What’s Happening, and her guest spots on shows like the Love Boat, in search of inspiration, but, if you have thoughts, let me know. (I’m hoping that maybe she tells Isaac what her favorite liquor is, while attempting to give him a physical on the way to Puerto Vallarta.)
How can it be that no one has done this yet?
And, with that, here’s the Doobie Brothers episode of What’s Happening.
One last thing, I don’t know why it shocks me, but apparently Haywood Nelson, who played Dwayne on What’s Happening, is a Scientologist. I noticed that he quoted L. Ron Hubbard on a special “What’s Happening Reunion” episode of the Jenny Jones Show, and started to do some digging. It would seem that he’s been in the church for some time. One more thing… Speaking of black Scientologists, did you happen to catch the article in The New Republic on the convergence of the Nation of Islam and Scientology? Here’s a clip.
…The first large-scale introduction of Scientology to Nation members took place in August 2010, when hundreds of believers from around the country traveled to Rosemont, Illinois, near the Nation’s headquarters, for a seminar in Dianetics, a foundational belief system of Scientology. There, they were guided through auditing sessions—a kind of hybrid between hypnosis and confession—in which a Scientologist purges painful experiences from his subconscious in the presence of an “auditor.” At the end of the seminar, Farrakhan told the group he wanted everyone in attendance to become a certified auditor.
Jesse Muhammad, a 34-year-old writer and community organizer who joined the Nation of Islam as a teenager at the urging of an older brother, had driven overnight from Houston for the event. He took this goal seriously. “Those who follow Farrakhan, we trust his guidance, so we jump to it,” he told me. After three weeks of intensive training with Scientologists in Houston, he became certified. The Nation refused to comment for this story, but according to its newspaper, Final Call, as of this spring, more than 1,000 members have become certified auditors and another 4,000 were studying “some aspect of Scientology.”
Ishmael Bey, a former assistant Nation minister, told me that years ago he’d heard from a top official that headquarters was flirting with “a white church in L.A.” Initially, Farrakhan never mentioned Scientology in public. Instead, he cryptically alluded to the “study” of “a technology” that would help his people. His caution made sense: after all, the Nation was explicitly conceived as a black separatist organization and a repudiation of Christianity, which Nation leader and prophet Elijah Muhammad derided as “the slave master’s religion.” Farrakhan himself has called white people “a race of devils” and the Nation teaches that the apocalypse will involve a UFO, or “mother plane,” that will eradicate all Caucasians.
However, there are some striking theological overlaps that might help explain how Farrakhan came to adopt a religion invented by a white man. There is, of course, the attachment to science fiction: Scientologists believe in an alien dictator, Xenu; the Nation holds that the white race was created by a mad scientist named Yakub. More significantly, though, at the core of both religions is a never-ending pursuit of a better self. In the case of Scientology, that best self is “clear” of residual traumas buried in the subconscious. In the Nation, that self is free of the hang-ups of white culture that black people have internalized to their detriment. Scientology, Farrakhan seems to believe, provides a new path toward black empowerment. “I’ve found something in the teaching of Dianetics, of Mr. L. Ron Hubbard, that I saw could bring up from the depth of our subconscious mind things that we would prefer to lie dormant,” he said to his Chicago congregation in early summer. “How could I see something that valuable and know the hurt and sickness of my people and not offer it to them?”…
[note: I was in Detroit at Sugar House earlier this evening, and it occurred to me to ask them how they’d adultify the Shirley Temple, but I got scared, thinking that maybe they’d rip off my idea. The good ideas, you see, don’t come to me as rapidly as they once did, and I need to be protective of them.]