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The enduring optimism of Ja’Net DuBois’ ‘Movin’ On Up’

If ever someone made the notion of the American dream feel within black America’s reach, it was the actress Ja’Net DuBois, who died on Monday.

In addition to her popular role as the spirited neighbor Willona Woods on the hit 1970s sitcom “Good Times,” DuBois was known for her work on “The Jeffersons” — another iconic, Norman Lear-developed series from roughly the same time — for which she co-wrote and performed “Movin’ On Up,” the show’s theme song that became an anthem for many black viewers.

The series charts the adventures of George (Sherman Hemsley) and Louise (Isabel Sanford) Jefferson, a black couple in New York City, as they relocate from a working-class area of Queens to majestic Manhattan, thanks to George’s flourishing dry-cleaning business.

DuBois’ buoyant tune reflects this sense of black success.

“Well, we’re movin’ on up / To the East Side / To a deluxe apartment in the sky,” she sings, backed by the baptismal vocals of a gospel choir. “Movin’ on up / To the East Side / We finally got a piece of the pie.”

As with other beloved songs from the decade, including the soul band Odyssey’s 1977 cover of “Native New Yorker” (which, notably, is featured in an episode of “Good Times”), “Movin’ On Up” nods to the combination of big-city excitement and hardship black Americans experienced at the time: “Took a whole lotta tryin’ / Just to get up that hill,” DuBois sings.

But what makes the track stand out is its triumphant attitude — we finally got a piece of the pie.

While the ’70s saw important cultural and political achievements for black Americans — in 1972, Shirley Chisholm became the first black candidate to seek a major party’s presidential nomination — the decade was still afflicted by a virulent strain of conservatism. In particular, Richard Nixon’s administration (and later, in the ’80s, Ronald Reagan’s) did little to fuel mobility for the poor and did much to pulverize protections against discrimination.

For many black viewers, then, “Movin’ On Up” wasn’t merely a song to accompany a show’s opening credits. It was spiritual, and aspirational, at a time when black Americans were pushing for pop-cultural visibility — “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” were among the first series to have predominantly black casts — and for advancement broadly.

This reading of the song as an ode to black empowerment isn’t a stretch. As DuBois’ daughter, Kesha Gupta-Fields, recently explained her mother’s thinking in writing “Movin’ On Up”: “(DuBois) wrote that song as a promise to her mother, that when she obtained a certain level of stardom, that her dream was to essentially have her mom live in a deluxe apartment,” Gupta-Fields said. “That was written and sung as a gift to her mother, Lilian DuBois.”

Crucially, the news of DuBois’ death arrives at a moment of renewed discussion of the witches’ brew of racism and economic inequality. Consider Wednesday night’s charged Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“Democrats aren’t going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like redlining and ‘stop and frisk,'” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said.

She continued: “Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is. But understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”

Warren’s remarks were perhaps the most memorable of the debate-stage digs at former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His 11th-hour bid for the Democratic nomination has been dogged by his support, even within the past few years, for the exact sorts of practices that have long oppressed black Americans and other people of color — that have quietly aimed to keep DuBois’ dream of black prosperity at a distance. (“It targeted black and brown men from the beginning,” Warren said of the “stop and frisk” policing strategy.)

The power of “Movin’ On Up” can’t be diminished that easily, however. DuBois is gone, but in important ways, the radical optimism so associated with the late actress remains — thanks to a theme song that turned out to be much, much more.

Article Topic Follows: Politics

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