“Cause my love goes BANG BANG BANG!”
Tuesday night, many John Witherspoon fans felt their hearts go bang bang bang. The world receives heartbreaking news that the legendary actor and comedian John Witherspoon had passed away. John was only 77. News took several celebrities by shock. No one wanted to believe the man they called “Pops,” or “Granddad,” had passed on.
When well celebrated actors such as John Witherspoon pass, I always ask myself, “Why does this hurt so much?”
The answer is simple. The loss of any Black icon hurts. It’s one less person we look up to in the world and one less image of Black representation on TV. Another person that looks like you, talks like you, understands you, or even made it out of the same turmoil you endured, is gone.
That’s what hurts.
I remember when I first heard John Witherspoon’s voice echoing from my TV. I was a child and it seemed like I heard his voice before I actually saw him pop up on the screen. In the beginning, I wondered, “Who is this crazy man talking like this?”
But that was the beauty of it. John left a legacy that would never be forgotten simply because his sound, his voice, and his comedic ways were left unmatched. Whenever I heard John Witherspoon’s voice, I could easily identify him. He had a distinct tone and you didn’t even need to hear the lines, “Don’t go in there for about 35, 45 minutes.” You just knew it was him.
He meant something to the Black community. Like several iconic Black figures, he was needed during a time when Hollywood was notorious for crafting films centered around stereotypes and producing films with black people as perpetrators. With beloved bodies of work like Friday, The Wayans Bros, and The Boondocks, John blessed us with comedic Black dad representation, but also taught us valuable lessons. He didn’t embody the stereotypical narrative that Hollywood likes to push, and he wasn’t a perpetrator or a victim. He was a dad who just was and just lived.
John created his own flare with every character he played, he embodied originality, and that was something that was needed in the black community. His characters shined in a light of relatability, and reflected a sense of connection. I remember watching Friday as a child and hearing the lines, “Everytime I’m in the kitchen, you in the kitchen.” Those words lingered in my house growing up and to this day. It was something I never stopped hearing my mom say, and to this day, I’m always in the kitchen when she’s in the kitchen. John’s character’s voiced the beauty of our community and he said things that several people grew up with. With all the comedy in the world, he included Black culture in his work. He kept his community close.
John’s exaggerated characters and physical comedy weren’t what made him unforgettable. He took advantage of quiet moments and blessed our screens with valuable wisdom. It wasn’t loud and silly, it slipped through quietly, soft, and raw. He was the kind of TV dad that mastered both comedy and life. “You win some, you lose some, but you still live to fight another day,” was a line he recited in Friday, when he saw his son Craig holding a gun that he bought for protection. This scene was important for the Black community, specifically because Hollywood had normalized the portrayal of Black men and violence. John’s voice rang through the character Willie, as he taught his son that you didn’t need a gun for protection nor does it make you a man.
The jokes that danced from John’s mouth were always followed by a lesson. I remember when he scolded Craig in Friday for not wanting to eat his cereal without milk. As a child I found the scene hysterically funny, but in the midst of it all, I felt it. The scene wasn’t just for kicks and giggles, his character reminded a younger generation of their privileges––having food on the table. I even remember Willie making Craig eat the dry cereal. He made a valuable lesson funny and lighthearted. And when I think about pouring cereal, it’s ingrained in my mind to always check if we have milk.
His role in Friday was so important to Black culture because it pushed back against the stereotype of laziness. He was a hardworking family man trying to do right by his son and although the movie was filled with jokes, one message rang clear: every parent wants the best for their child, no matter how old they are. Throughout Friday, Willie constantly pushes his son to do better and take responsibility not only for his actions, but his life. The major lesson Willie tried to teach his son was hard work and the true meaning behind being a man.
His embodiment of relatable characters with goofy and charismatic tactics is a timeless force in the Black community. John didn’t just touch the hearts of people who grew up with him. His legacy lives on from my mama who doesn’t want me in the kitchen while she’s in the kitchen, to the 21 year old me that still enjoys hearing Witherspoon’s voice shine through “Granddad” from The Boondocks, and to my 9 year old niece whose favorite movie is Friday.
John Witherspoon is not only mourned for his death, but the death of an era, and the loss of representation. He taught us that life will give you cereal with no milk, but you still have to eat it and that you may fail, but living to see another day is one of the most triumphant things you can do.
In a statement issued the day he died, his family said, “John used to say ‘I’m no big deal,’ but he was a huge deal to us.” He really was.