Tuesday, December 24, 2013

J.T.: An Urban Christmas Carol

by G. Jack Urso
 

Yearling edition
paperback
J.T., which first premiered on CBS on December 13, 1969, is the story of a young African-American child, J.T., living in an urban slum. Just before Christmas, J.T. finds a stray cat and immediately identifies with the unwanted animal, picked on by humans and lacking shelter. Unable to take the cat home, J.T. goes to great lengths to keep his new friend alive, learning lessons in love and responsibility while doing so. When tragedy strikes, J.T. learns an important lesson about Christmas and taking responsibility for your actions.

The film shows the grinding poverty of the late 1960s. Many of the same problems that still plague urban youth today are portrayed: single-parent families, sons without fathers, bullying, and crime, to name but a few. The cat is stand-in for the Christ child, and really for all us born into this world and dependent upon the kindness of others for our survival. J.T. captures a moment in time and serves as a historical snapshot of mid-century inner-city poverty in the United States. Recognized for its excellence in writing, J.T. won a Peabody Award in 1970. It is presented below from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel:

J.T. aired for a few years and then disappeared from the airwaves. Despite the serious material, I identified with J.T. The second year the show aired I made my father sit down and watch it on the small back and white television in the bedroom I shared with my brother. I even had a picture book of the show, which I wore out reading all year round. As time went on, though I did not forget the story, I did forget the title and thought it might be a piece of my childhood forever lost. Persistent search engine inquiries eventually helped me track down the show, and the sheer delight upon finding a lost part of one’s youth is a Christmas gift in and of itself.

Baby boomers will notice some familiar names and faces from classic 1970s TV shows and film. J.T. himself is played by Kevin Hooks, a prominent cast member on The White Shadow; Ja'net DuBois, the outspoken next-door neighbor on Good Times, is J.T’s mother; and Gordon Parks Jr., who later directed Super Fly (1972), was the on-set photographer and his photos, which can be seen in the book, help create a realistic portrayal of inner-city life. Additionally, Holland Taylor, from Two and a Half Men, turns up as J.T.'s teacher.  On a side note, comic actress Lily Tomlin, impressed by J.T.’s author Jane Wagner’s writing, invited Wagner to work with her on a project. The two fell in love and have been together for over forty years.

J.T. has also inspired in me a life-long love of animals and a calling for rescuing stray cats. As I write this, a black and white domestic short hair cat, not unlike the one in J.T., rescued from the outside just this past week, sits in my home snug and warm on this cold Northeastern Christmas Eve. As it has been said before, the lessons we learn as children are the ones we remember for the rest of our lives and the lessons J.T. taught are still worth learning.

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