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Let’s face it, the media rules our lives. We often times fall under the sway of what we see on TV, hear on the radio or view on the internet. Seeing a kitten eating a muffin down your timeline on Facebook could make you smile just as quickly as watching a news report on CNN about Donald Trump’s latest Alt-Right Presidential Cabinet pick can make you shake in irritation. We deny the power that media has on our lives, neglecting the fact that these content creators have to power to shape a narrative the way they see fit. They control perception. The images we see do have an impact on us, whether they be positive or negative.
As a writer, the power of the media has always intrigued me. I enjoy movies and TV shows that cause me to think. I enjoy media projects that get me invested in it’s content, moving me to emotion and burning in me a desire to write. With that said, the legendary television show A Different World has taken me to a new stratosphere of creativity. I always watched the syndication reruns of A Different World when I was younger, but the content never hit me. What Dwayne, Whitley, Ron and the Hillman College student, staff and faculty went through in the season never truly resonated with me as a child. But now, as a first generation HBCU student, everything in the show clicks with me.
It’s amazing how a show that premiered on September 24, 1987 could conjure up just as much laughter and stir up just as much emotion as the latest episode of Black-ish. Here I am, a twenty-year old young man with my smartphone only inches away from me citing the relevancy of a show where, in one episode, Kim Reese was safeguarding a payphone in “The Pit” as she awaited an important phone call. Despite the brief societal differences that is seen on the show, the narrative of Hillman College is one that’s seen today at every HBCU. We often joke that current HBCU life is more reminiscent of BET’s College Hill than anything concerning A Different World but how is our experience any different from theirs?
In this generation we have relationship problems just like Dwayne and Whitley, the “relationship goals” of the nineties. We all know of one person at our school like Ron who is more immersed in the inner-workings of his fraternity, partying and getting at girls on the yard than his studies. We all know a faculty member like Sinbad or Mr. Vernon on our campus that we can turn to guidance, relying on them to keep us on track like our parents would back at home. I, personally, know many young women like Kim Reese that seem to have it all together on the outside but mask their hurt behind beauty and sharp wit.
What Bill Cosby and, later on, Debbie Allen created was a heaven on earth for black youth where their issues were heard. Where they could meet beautiful, handsome black people from all walks of life that they can build with and cultivate memorable experiences. This T.V. fantasy that they created caused an uptake in enrollment at Historically Black Colleges & Universities around the nation. You can even ask freshman walking the yard at HBCU’s now if A Different World inspired them to want to come to an HBCU and you’ll get more “yes’s” than “no’s” and “what’s that”.
Compare the cultural impact of A Different World to any other black shows of the 20th century and the competition doesn’t compare. I most specifically point out Good Times, iconic in it’s own right, as one of the shows that isn’t nearly as culturally significant. Sure, Good Times was well written and the character of “James Evans” still stands as the epitome of a strong black father. However, buffoonery got in the way of the potential that the shtvmom-floridaevansow had. Often times the show sabotaged whatever chance they had at real social commentary for a cheap joke, usally involving JJ bucking his eyes and inarticulately droning on about something generally unimportant. Let’s not forget that Michael went from the pint-sized Huey Newton to engaging in an interracial relationship with no real understanding of why. Let’s not forget the introduction of Keith as Thelma’s significant other, who was the literal football example of the Notorious BIG’s lyric “ Either you’re slangin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot”. Is there no other way out of poverty? When Keith hurt his knee, all hope was lost?
Good Times, which started as a tale about a black family in poverty scrapping trying to find their way to make it out of their predicament, ended up as a slapstick comedy about becoming comfortable in your situation as you wait on a miracle to uplift you out of your situation. Killing off James severely shot the show in the foot and reaffirmed everything that John Amos was trying his best to preach against. The fact that Good Times is even heralded as the standard for black sitcoms, even over The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show, is baffling. The argument that the Evan’s family is a better reflection of black life than the Huxtables is the most negative, self-hating mess that I’ve heard in all of my twenty years of living. The writing on Moesha often times was wittier.
Even more so, how is A Different World seemingly always buried in the conversation of iconic, transformative shows? It’s literally the perfect black show! You want education promoted you got it! Even better, it promotes education at an HBCU! You want complex characters, you got it! You want a complex satire of real issues that’s authentic, you got it! You want to laugh uncontrollably yet still feel the same sense of pride you get after you read a good book, you got it!
Debbie Allen refuse to give into the traditional conventions of what a black show was “supposed” to be. Because of her courage and dedication, she sparked a movement that still lives on today. When A Different World went off, it left a void that couldn’t be replaced. That’s why everyone is heavily anticipating BET’s new HBCU show The Quad. That’s why both HBCU and PWI students still play A Different World to this day. At the end of the day, the narrative of Dwayne at Hillman reflects me more than JJ in a Chicago project. Black society should champion the cultural contributions of A Different World more than we do.
Make sure to vote for Miss FVSU Candice Howard to be one of the ten EBONY HBCU Campus Queens at this link!
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PUBLIC NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the Urban Intellectuals, affiliates or partners.