The world lost a gifted actress, singer, and songwriter this week with the passing of Ja’Net DuBois. Media reports in her age at the time of her death vary. DuBois appears to have died of natural causes, in her sleep. If you’ve gotta go — and we all do — that’s a good way to do it.
DuBois was the co-writer and vocalist behind “Movin’ On Up,” the theme song to one of Norman Lear’s classic sitcoms, The Jeffersons. She also was a star of the stage, having performed with the likes of Louis Gossett Jr. and Sammy Davis Jr. But the actress was best known for her portrayal of Willona Woods, the sassy neighbor, on another Lear production, CBS’ Good Times.
With DuBois’ passing, I realize she was much more than that to me. Two different parenting decisions of mine are directly tied to her work.
DuBois’ Willona was a high spirited, free-wheeling woman, in contrast to her friend Florida Evans, played by Esther Rolle. While Florida was the (initially) married mom raising three kids in the housing projects of Chicago, Willona was dating lots of men and always looking fine as she breezed in and out of the Evans’ apartment. No one entered a room like Willona!
After Rolle left Good Times and her character was (temporarily) written out of the show, the producers thought it needed another mother figure, and Willona was the obvious choice.
The character wound up adopting Penny Gordon, a child who had been physically abused by her biological mother. Penny was memorably played by Janet Jackson, in her television debut.
To this day, I can’t press my own shirts because of a scene with Jackson, her character’s biological mother (played by Chip Fields, mother of Kim), and a clothes iron. Only television’s Kunta Kinte / Toby transformation was more powerful TV.
Penny’s adoption storyline on Good Times was groundbreaking, and DuBois’ and Jackson’s moving portrayals of a mother and daughter who had found each other planted a seed in my little elementary school head and heart that bore fruit decades later when I named one of my kids Janet (my wife vetoed “Penny” and “Willona”) and with the adoption of my second daughter, Kristina.
Most of my friends and acquaintances, and some of my biological family, questioned that latter decision at the time. “Why do you want to take care of another man’s seed?” is the dumbest of the dumb questions I was asked, by a supervisor of mine, another African American man. It may well be the dumbest question anyone has ever asked me.
Once, a few years later, my mother told me “I’m proud of you for what you’ve done for that baby.” I instantly replied “I haven’t done anything. She did everything for me.”
My grandmother used to pull me aside and demand that I confess to her that Kristina had been conceived out of wedlock, and I had made up the whole adoption story to save face with the family. Two weeks before my grandmother died, she refused to accept the fact that Tina had been adopted, as she insisted (along with the rest of the family) that she looks and acts too much like me to have come from anyone but me. (I still smile when I think about her saying it.)
Today, both of my girls are adults, and most people don’t believe it when they learn that one of them came to the family via adoption. Based on temperament alone, I think, many guess that Janet was adopted! When people ask me, I usually say something pithy like “I don’t remember” (a line I got from adoptive mom Marie Osmond) or “It doesn’t matter” — because in truth, it doesn’t.
I would take a bullet for either of my little ones, and have always tried to be much more of a “dad” than just a father. Most nights, I can close my eyes and believe that I came close to getting it right. While the African American community has a long history of raising children who aren’t our biological kids, and I had two good biological parents who raised me, I first learned that being a parent has nothing to do with biology from DuBois’ portrayal of Willona on Good Times.
So thank you, Willona Woods.
And hat’s off to one of television’s greatest actresses. RIP Ja’Net DuBois…and thanks for my kids.