“Why aren’t there any shows for us today?” was the question I asked my family while watching TV the other night. By “us” I’m referring to black kids and young adults in high school and college; specifically historically black colleges and universities. Before your face frowns and your inner debate team captain suits up to combat the idea that there aren’t black people on black shows and movies aiming to depict and represent black students and their experiences, I know there are. I’m getting there.
Believe me when I say (or write) that I am the ultimate television advocate. I’ve always been a TV girl and I grew up in an environment that is huge on cinema as well. Film and shows are undeniably enjoyable and though not healthy to watch 24/7 (or so they say), I’ve learned more from them than I could have ever imagined. I am not in any way, shape, or form, discrediting the amazing pieces that do exist. For example, we have Grown-ish, which I am currently obsessed with and tempted to binge from the beginning, but many have proclaimed that it does not portray the black college experience. Even though it’s the spinoff of Black-ish (which I always get a laugh and lesson from but also isn’t just for black people), I don’t think that the HBCU experience was the target of the show. The cast is mostly black but the key word is mostly, not all. And the students do not go to an HBCU; this is clear and the show is set in the real world where HBCUs indeed exist. I believe that the show is trying to showcase the events that happen when you’re not quite grown but facing real world obstacles. All in all, I think Grown-ish and Black-ish successfully completed the task they sought after which was to entertain, display culture and diversity, challenge thoughts and conversation, and inspire.
Even with that, I found that I’m still not fulfilled. There is only one show that has managed to captivate me in the most addictive way. It is motivational, witty, hilarious, and eye-opening; that show is A Different World. I’m well aware that The Cosby Show spin-off first aired before I was even born but the fact that the show still has such an impact more than 30 years later, only proves that the show was and remains an incomparable representation of black culture at an HBCU and in life.
Let me not neglect to mention other projects that have been culturally-relevant and effective. Drumline was a hit with its spirited and relatable storyline. Everyone in the band wanted to go to “Atlanta A&T” and if you weren’t in the band, you started thinking about giving it a chance. Of course the HBCU was fictional but some students aspired to be a part of such a movement which was heavily influenced by one of the most recognizable bands in Atlanta and my alma mater, THE Southwest DeKalb High School. (I had to throw that in there, it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t. Don’t get me started.) Stomp the Yard exposed us to the art that is stepping and sparks the lesson of learning to be a part of a team. Spike Lee’s School Daze: a classic that shadows themes like activism, greek life, the homecoming experience, and colorism. There are also shows that examine high school and college culture as opposed to black culture like Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Riverdale which is more dramatic in the sense of relatability but reflective of events that happen in high school nonetheless. On My Block does however present a more organic navigation through high school while growing up in the streets or the “block” essentially. Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill serve as binge worthy interpretations of “the majority’s” school experiences. Nickelodeon’s Victorious even gave us a very inspiring take on the unique culture of attending a performing arts school. Glee was a program full of heart but didn’t shy away from digging deep into realistic academic, extracurricular, and personal instances like sexuality, obtaining mono (mononucleosis), bullying and so much more. Degrassi was one of the most influential shows for young people of the 2000’s. We can even date back to the lovable Saved by the Bell which actually had about the same run time as A Different World. I mean we could go on and on. I had to make sure you knew that your girl was well-rounded; I watch everything. Back to my point though.
Even with every last one of these projects that I adore, A Different World truly has served as one of my all time favorites. Because I don’t feel like there is one, I guess my question is where is “A Different World” for our generation? I personally enjoyed BET’s The Quad but that didn’t last. HBO’s wildly eventful Euphoria seems to have promise but perhaps it’s too soon to tell. A Different World fearlessly tackled real-life things that I feel a lot of creators steer from these days. It had endless “woke” episodes penetrating the surface of subjects like sexual violence (no matter where it takes place), safe sex, stereotypes about black women, misogyny, relationship violence with your “college bae”, pregnancy and parenting in school, racism, and a plethora more.
“I am an educated black man, I am your worst nightmare.” S05 E14
“Well I am very depressed. I think I lost a job that I really, really want and all I can do is eat macaroni.”
“I would like a man who is educated and ambitious.” S03 E7
“I am not asking my Kimmie to curb her brilliance to accommodate your friend’s insecurities.”
“Relax. Relate. Release.” S05 E12
“It’s so nice to know women have a place in business. Too bad it’s horizontal.” S05 E15
“Girl, please. They can beat us, kill us, do whatever they wanna do – and get off – just like they always have.” S06 E1
“Ida Mae was always saying “I don’t believe my husband loves me unless he hits me once a week.” Well one day, her husband LOVED her to death. And we buried her last year.” S05 E22
“When you silence the artist, society suffers, culture dies, and man is reduced to the state of brutishness from which we emerged.” S04 E22
“I am a voice in this world and I deserve to be heard.” S04 E23
“Youth is the power to make choices.” S04 E23
“No school will love you and teach you to love yourself and know yourself like Hillman.” S03 E12
I know there are two quotes up there without episode information but unfortunately, I am not yet at the dedicated level of journalism to stay awake and binge six seasons to figure it out, nope; but I did feel they were still important enough to be included so hey. I love the last quote because I firmly believe that it uses Hillman to symbolize HBCUs. These are only a few of the powerful pieces of dialogue delivered in A Different World. They teach us valuable lessons using scenarios that we can all relate to such as “One’s rejection is God’s protection” (second quote.) Some of these quotes are comical. Some are deep. Some are both. But they’re all real. They’ve served as a big chunk of the building blocks that have made the show influential in more ways than one. The spin-off called people out and had the critical conversations that no one wanted to have.
When Whitley volunteers at a youth center to teach ballet in season 3 and the little girls tell her that there’s no way she’s a ballerina because she’s black, that hits really hard because black ballerinas weren’t super popular or broadcasted. Then you power up again at the fact that Alvin Ailey, a black choreographer and dancer, began his own dance company in 1958 that would ultimately employ black ballerinas; including Whitley in real life (Jasmine Guy.)We want our little girls to be able to see black dancers and believe that it’s not abnormal instead of denying beautiful, black talent. In the same episode, Dwayne challenges Whitley’s sketchy wording about kids that come from “those kinds of neighborhoods” and doesn’t cease to remind her that he was one of those kids in that atmosphere and he beat the odds. When Dwayne’s childhood friend comes to visit Hillman and practically judges Dwayne’s school selection while boasting about his school instead, it only ignites and makes people think about the ancient debate of HBCUs versus PWIs. When Jaleesa convinces Whitley that it’s okay to stay in school a fifth year, it inspires students juggling with that same decision. That’s a real thing that students shouldn’t be ashamed of. When Josie (Tisha Campbell) guest stars in one of the most powerful episodes, not only is the reality of HIV/AIDS in the 90’s revealed but the ignorance of it is too. I feel like that same ignorance is present today so instead of tip-toeing around these things, why not use our platform to educate and moralize? A lot of students face these same situations today. Where’s the show that shows us the right things to do instead of the wrong things just for entertainment? Who is going to make fun of current events from the young, black perspective without downplaying the issues? Where is the program that will accurately and tastefully depict college life at an HBCU no matter how high the peaks or how low the pits? Talk about the transition from high school to college. Paint a picture of the college parties that don’t end badly but instead, at Waffle House (if you know, you know). Talk about the imperfect friendships without all the cupcakes and rainbows. Talk about the young love full of promise but burdened with problems. Showcase the successful internships that we work hard for and the journey of learning we endure when we don’t secure the bag. Talk about the reality that young black people have incurable STDs and provide a vision that teaches them to not give up and keep living their life. Talk about how to change the narrative. Have a scene in the production showcasing such a powerful swag surf that I feel it through the screen. It’s not even all about the color just in case I’m losing you, it’s about the culture. Talk about how we can smell Fried Chicken Day before we even enter the cafe. Talk about the prettiest and the ugliest parts and don’t worry too much about trying to make it real because when the right people are involved and it’s really real, you don’t have to try.
Maybe I’m asking for a lot. Maybe this is just like the popular idea that there will never be another era of music like that of the 90’s; maybe the world isn’t so different now. (Ha. See what I did there?) Or maybe they should just air A Different World on TV every Tuesday night like it’s new and School Daze (all Spike Lee joints honestly) every weekend. Maybe that’ll teach us. I don’t know but what I do know is that if you haven’t seen these classics, you should check them out; especially as HBCU attendees. You’ll appreciate them. I understand that not everything impacts everyone the same but that’s all the more reason the lack of this show leaves such a significant empty space. Although, I can’t force you to watch anything like my mom did me (Thank you, Mommy), I can write and share that this is what has impacted me in such a way that I want more. Who knows? Maybe I’ll write the show one day, but this time with more of an ode to royal courts. Have you noticed that most of the pieces mentioned don’t touch on campus royalty at all? Yep, it’s historical. Looks like I have a lot of ambitions on changing the game. A different world awaits.
On this day in 1993, A Different World premiered its final episode to air. Let’s celebrate the anniversary of the end of one of the greatest culturally groundbreaking programs.