Whatchu Talkin’ ‘bout, Phillip?: Diff’rent Strokes Examines the Legacy of Slavery

The mandate of this blog is to discuss some of the odd historical figures and events my peers and I have encountered while doing research for our various scholarly projects. This entry is no different, albeit with a slight twist: whereas my last blog post keyed in on a real life, violence-prone Baptist preacher whom I encountered while flipping through child-rearing manuals, this entry will examine a fictional character from an old sitcom I’ve been watching in order to figure out how teen room culture played out in the world of arts and entertainment.

The show I’m referring to—in case you were too lazy to even read the damn title—is Diff’rent Strokes, a ratings juggernaut that aired on ABC from 1978 to 1985 and NBC from 1985 to 1986. While much of the show’s humor was derived from the antics of young Arnold Jackson (played by Gary Coleman), his older brother Willis (played by Todd Bridges), and his older step-sister Kimberly (played by Dana Plato), the show’s moral center was always held by Phillip Drummond, the wealthy New Yorker who took in Arnold and Willis after their mother—Drummond’s housekeeper—died of an unspecified illness. Though his character was, in many respects, dull as dishwater, Phillip Drummond did something in a 1981 episode (entitled “The Ancestors”) that legitimately shocked me.

But first some background information…

“The Ancestors” begins with an appearance from a lawyer for the city of New York who informs Mr. Drummond that a plot of land in Harlem that was once assumed to be owned by the city was in actuality owned by one Heinrich Van Drummond, a distant uncle of Phillip’s who amassed a small fortune in the early nineteenth century. Phillip and his children are, of course, elated to find out that they may own a piece of property that could be worth as much as $2 million. Willis even suggests that his dad build a community center on the property in order to help out Harlem’s black community, an idea that Phillip, adopting a characteristically avuncular tone of voice, readily agrees to. There’s one hitch though: Phillip has to come up with evidence to prove that he’s actually related to Heinrich Van Drummond.

After a quick commercial break—let’s just imagine for a moment that ABC aired teasers for its other hit comedies Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Three’s Company—we see Phillip and his sister Sophia (played by Broadway veteran Dody Goodman) carrying some boxes filled with important family documents and other heirlooms. A portrait of Heinrich, which looks almost identical to Phillip save for some serious mutton chop sideburns, is produced, as is a journal in which Heinrich waxes poetic to his wife Martha. A marriage certificate is eventually pulled from the box, offering Phillip and his sister the evidence they need to prove that they are the descendents of Heinrich Van Drummond and, thus, the rightful owners of the property in Harlem.

Before they can celebrate, however, Aunt Sophia stumbles across a document that complicates matters somewhat. Sophia, the so-called “family historian,” reads a tattered ship’s manifest (a list of cargo on seafaring vessels) and hastily concludes that old Heinrich Van Drummond owned a cruise line that catered exclusively to African-Americans. The joke, of course, is that Sophia, who’s clearly a bit slow on the uptake, has unwittingly revealed that their ancestor was a slave-trader. Several important questions are asked: How will this affect the plans to build the community center? Will the residents of Harlem even want a community center built on land that was paid for with the blood of countless slaves? Will the community center one day need to be saved by a band of misfits who use their break dancing skills to vanquish a greedy developer?

In an extremely uncharacteristic move, Mr. Drummond, with the full support of his sister, decides that this information cannot be made public. He invites the city lawyer (an African-American fellow, by the way) over to the apartment and asks him for advice. For some strange reason, the lawyer agrees with Phillip and Sophia, telling them that their ancestor’s occupation cannot be revealed if they have any hope to get this community center built.

This is where shit gets real.

Not content to simply retreat into his web of lies, Phillip takes the tattered old ship’s manifest that revealed his uncle’s slave-trading ways and tears it to shreds in front of the lawyer. Now, I should point out that I am not easily shocked—I can watch the most violent movies and play the goriest video games without flinching, and I positively revel in anything that features copious amounts of profanity. But seeing Phillip Drummond tear up a priceless 170+ year old historical document produced a sensation in me not unlike being kicked in the chest. Though I don’t have the stats to back it up—I’m no damnable quantitative historian!—I suspect that March 25, 1981 (the night this episode originally aired) saw literally thousands of historians, archivists, antiquarians, and museum curators from across America suffer massive coronaries while basking in the warm glow of their television sets.

By the end of the episode, Phillip redeems himself somewhat by having one of those changes of heart that seemed to pop up in every family-oriented sitcom during the 1980s. Mr. Drummond eventually reveals his ancestor’s troubled past to the residents of Harlem during a groundbreaking ceremony, winning back the love and respect of his children in the process (Willis was particularly bothered by his father’s decision to sweep his family history under the rug). Thankfully, the citizens of Harlem don’t seem bothered by the news, offering support for the community center, despite its ties to the slave trade. In short, everyone has a reason to be happy.

Everyone, of course, but people like myself who work in the historical profession. Phillip Drummond once seemed like a harmless square—a cardigan-wearing father figure who spouted corny jokes and always did right. But now he seemed tainted. The futurist in me would like to think that Mr. Drummond represents a strain in American culture that refuses to be held back by the weight of the country’s history. The conspiracy theorist in me, however, arrived at a much different conclusion: Phillip Drummond hates historians.

5 thoughts on “Whatchu Talkin’ ‘bout, Phillip?: Diff’rent Strokes Examines the Legacy of Slavery

  1. I only vaguely recalled this episode… I was 2 in 1981… and I must have watched a rerun circa 1985. I was writing my own little reflection on race in history and happened upon this after entering “Mr. Drummond’s ancestors slave owners” in google. I’m duly impressed with your power of total recall, and of course by your infuriation… this episode caused deep conflicts in me as well! Oh yeah, and I’m a historian too.

    • My power of total recall is not as good as you’d think. I actually watched this episode on Crackle shortly before I wrote this article. I didn’t remember a thing about it (in fact, I’m not even sure if I saw it when I was a kid), but I was legitimately shocked when he tore up the document confirming that his ancestors owned slaves.

  2. Pingback: Musil’s Soliman, Natural History « spargel&fraise

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