Bern Nadette Stanis first wowed the world as “Thelma” on ‘Good Times.’ As part of the Evans family, she helped pave the way for the sensitive portrayal of African American families in popular entertainment, in addition to specifically becoming a positive role model for many young black women from similar backgrounds.
‘Good Times’ definitely made television history as one of the most-watched shows of all time, and remains much-loved today as a milestone in black cultural history. Bern Nadette celebrated the legacy of ‘Good Times’ and other great black shows this year with TV One during its ‘Way Back When’ series in honor of Black History Month.
Ms. Stanis took some time out of her busy schedule to share her thoughts on Black History Month with the Black Voices audience, bringing some insights into ‘Good Times’ and our political past that you may not know.
The first question I think the entire Black Voices audience would like to know is what have you been up to since ‘Good Times’ went off the air in 1979? How do you remain connected to your fans?
Wow, that’s an interesting question. Right now I am doing a book tour for my new book, ‘Situations 101: Relationships – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.’ I do a lot of keynote speaking. I talk about self-esteem for women and men. I am also a motivational speaker. For teens, I speak about abstinence, and sticking with goals they have for the future.
These days it’s so much easier than it used to be to stay connected. Before it was just the fan letters. But now I speak to people through my MySpace, my Facebook, email — I get loads of that everyday. I have people who are looking out for me.
Do you keep in touch with any of your former ‘Good Times’ cast mates?
Yes, I absolutely do. I give them a call ever so often, and they call me back. You know, Jimmie and I are close. “Michael” – Ralph and I are close, John Amos. I speak with Ja’net occasionally and Johnny Brown. We all stay connected. And of course you know Ester passed on in 1998, and she I were extremely close. In fact, she considered me like her daughter. And of course, Janet Jackson stays connected, she connects with us every once in a while. So I have very wonderful communication with my cast mates.
It was awesome to be a part of that. And being a young actress, the ingénue and the rookie on the show — because everyone on there was already a professional, and I was the only one who wasn’t – I learned so much. And also, Norman [Lear] was incredible. He was an incredible producer. I admired him a lot for taking the chances that he took at that time. He dealt with a black family in a very real way. He let it become very real, the way Eric Monte and Michael Evans wrote it.
We didn’t even know at that time what the impact of ‘Good Times’ would be 30 years later. To tour the way I tour, I have met so many young fans. I have fans that are like 8, 9, and 10. It’s really amazing. So I just thank God for that: That I was a part of it, and that show made history the way it did.
Looking back over the decades, would you say that the black family has been strengthened or weakened since ‘Good Times’ was on the air?
The black family has definitely been weakened. I don’t understand it really. It could be because of the way drugs infiltrated our communities the way it did over the years. The way it separated the parents from their children. Because it’s very much not the same as it used to be. We’re trying to build it back. I see that we are trying right now, but it’s a ways off.
I think that’s why ‘Good Times’ is still a top-watched show. It’s still very, very popular because it brings in the family values. It talks about the issues people are facing, because we are still having the very same issues today.
But yes, our family units need to be strengthened.
Aside from ‘Good Times,’ what is your favorite black sit com of all time? If you had to choose between ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,’ ‘Sanford and Son,’ ‘The Cosby Show,’ or some of the newer shows like ‘Family Matters’?
I really love ‘Sanford and Son.’ I do. Because he was so honest, and so cute. He was always trying to con his son, and it was just really funny to me.
Do you think a show like ‘Good Times’ helped paved the way for the acceptance of President Barack Obama?
I do believe that. On our show the character Michael Evans was so pro-black. He was bringing in so much information to us. He talked about the first black judge on the Supreme Court, and was basically bringing information [about black achievements] to people, right into their homes.
I remember him talking about the first black president. His character said, “You know, some day maybe we’ll have a black president.” On another occasion, he said “Yeah, mama – when Harlem turns white!” So he was really [forward-thinking].
We also showed that black families are just like white families in so many ways. We had the same emotions. The blood that we had was just like the blood everyone else has. We were like a little window into what black America is. So I think it did open up a lot of doors.
What do you think of the first black president and first lady? Did you vote for them? Do you approve of their policies and how the president is handling things?
I definitely voted for him (and his wife!). I am so proud of them. I wrote a beautiful poem about them. I do hope they get it one day – I did send it to him! And it was about that. About the struggle, and how they made it. And how America made it. I feel at this time that he is the best president for us. He’s as human, brilliant and intelligent.
I do hope and pray that all of America embraces him, and allows him to do the things that he must do. Give him the fair shot to do it.
Your character “Thelma” helped redefine the image of the young black girl from the ghetto in a positive light. Can you describe how your character helped change peoples’ minds?
You know, I never realized it then. It was not until I got older, and people would tell me what Thelma did for them. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I was raised in Brownsville, in the projects. That character was so much a part of how I was raised and what my values were. I was raised to be determined, to be optimistic. To know that if you have a dream in your mind, if you want to do something, you can do that. It doesn’t matter what your life is like around you, as long as it’s not in you. What’s in you is what it takes for you to become what you want to become. That’s what I tried to convey. I really brought a lot of that to my character to show certain things about us as a people.
And Thelma was a good girl. Basically, that’s how I was raised. I had to be married before I could have sex. I was an old-fashioned good girl like that.
I have had so many people say to me “I really wanted to be like Thelma.” “I liked the clothes Thelma wore.” “I like the way she spoke about things.” “She stood up for things.” “She had her mind set.” I think it showed another aspect of the black female in the ghetto.
Ester Rolle opened the door for that. She went to the producers and said “My sons have a lot of lines. I want you to give my daughter a voice also.”
It’s true that people don’t see that strength and that beauty often enough in our young black women. Compared to a character like Thelma, what do you think of black reality stars today like the women who appear on shows like ‘For the Love of Ray J’? Are there some young ladies out there carrying the torch of ‘Thelma’?
We do have a few who are showing a lot of dignity, and I am very proud to see that. But then there are some that are not.
A lot of the reality shows are a little bit embarrassing for our culture. They want them to be a little over-the-top to make them entertaining, they want them to be risqué and a little off-the-hook to me. That I say is not a good thing, or a healthy thing. I would like to see them bring back a really structured, polished television show. Most of the black people you see today are on reality shows, and not a structured show. It’s not a very good thing for us.
And they should ask me, because I have great ideas.
What do you think of Black History Month? Do you think it’s still relevant now that Obama has been elected president?
I think Black History Month should be extended for about three or four months. We need a lot more of this. We need to bring back the cultural awareness, learning about inventors. This needs to be a recurring thing. It needs to be incorporated into our society just as well as other types of history are.
I am shocked that for a long time in my life, I did not know there was a black president called John Hanson. I found that out, because someone who is a historian brought that to my attention, and I looked it up. I felt silly, because I had never heard of this before. And when I tell other people, they look at me like I am crazy. But if you go online, and Google first presidents, you will find him. He was a president under the articles of the Confederation. But it’s amazing, because he was a black man. So when they say Washington was the first president, well Washington was one of his best friends. Washington became the president of the United States under the Constitution, but they never bring John Hanson up ever.
These are the kinds of things that need to be out there, for our black children and all children. That there are geniuses, brilliant men, of all colors in our history.
You’ve written two books, ‘Situations 101: Relationships — The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,’ and ‘For Men Only,’ a book of poetry. Please tell us about these books and what inspired you to write them.
‘Situations 101’ is a book about relationships. I wrote about 101 different relationship scenarios, because I have always loved psychology. I love the way the mind works. As a young woman, given the fact that I had to be married before I had sex, my first marriage did not work out – I was like a little child in a marriage. I could not get it together. It changed me in that I was very interested in relationships after that in terms of how they worked, what made a man love a woman and a woman love a man, why did people stay together, why do they break up, why are some people cruel to other people. And it bothered me until I kept reading and learning, and talking to people. And over the years I because a “good best friend,” where people would talk to me for advice, and it worked.
I met a lot of people all over the country who were running into the same situations in relationships, not just one person. So many people had the same issues. It was bothering me. I wondered “What do you do? Relationships are breaking down everywhere.” I thought “Maybe if I can just put down some of the things I’ve heard, and I’ve learned, and some of the things people don’t talk about in relationships everyday it will help.” This books brings that out.
‘For Men Only,’ I wrote because I realized that I have male fans just like I have female fans. It just struck my heart. They love me, and I love them, and I wanted to do something just for them. There’s a little love letter in the book, and I wrote poetry just to them. There are some pictures, and just some cute little things. Men love that book!
And actually, men love my ‘Situations’ book, and women love my poetry book. It’s interesting, but both books belong to everyone.
Please share some of your favorite words of wisdom with the BlackVoices.com audience.
Sometimes we may look at our circumstances, and it may not look the way we want it to. But we can always change things. If you have another day, you have another possibility to do the things you really want to do.