Being a teen in today’s society is akin to a warp speed carnival ride. Every breaking news event and salacious gossip ”got’cha” moment is within a few taps of their fingertips on a keyboard or swipe on a smart phone. I was a teenager through the mid- 80s through the early 90s. All of our news was captured on television during the world news broadcast at 6:30 pm or daily newspapers. I recall being home from school when news of the Oklahoma City Bombing, and Challenger Explosion tragedies broke into local broadcasting. I sat there not exactly believing what I was watching or hearing. Then there was watching the video of Rodney King beating, followed a year later by the acquittal of the police officers responsible for beating another human being like an animal, that I consumed as an inquisitive young adult and cried because I could not embrace the idea that anyone would believe it was not illegal to beat someone in that way. I sat immobile in front of my television for hours watching the city erupt in anger and pain. On the way to school the next morning, a couple of friends and I devised a plan to hold a silent protest, where student would walk out of their classrooms during 3rd period. (Our activism was stalled because the administration found out about the impending protest and called a school wide discussion panel to stop what I’m sure they assumed would be trouble. Hey, we tried.)
The idea of standing up for something you believe in, of course came from my parents. Although, television also placed a role in my mini Angela Davis mind. I was an avid viewer of “A Different World”, a series about the life of black students at Hillman College, a fictional historically black college and university (HBCU) based in Virginia. The triumphs, failures, and tribulations of Denise Huxtable, (the first season only) Whitney Gilbert, Dwayne Wayne, Kimberly (Kim) Reese, Ronald (Ron) Johnson, Winifred (Freddie) Brooks, Jaleesa Vincent and the adults Mr. Gaines, Col. Taylor and Walter Oakes were my glimpse into college life that I simply could not get enough of. Debuting on September 24, 1987, “A Different World” was a must see for my friends and myself during out junior and senior high school years due to the varying social topics and the strong sense of sisterhood that remained throughout its entire run. The sisters may not have seen eye-to-eye, yet they always had each other’s back, front and sides. Just as my circle of friends did.
During those years, there was a very limited amount of network television shows that had characters that looked like me. “A Different World” showed the black community in the glorious shades of our skin, immense backgrounds and rich personalities. This series brought attention to so many social issues that still plague us to this day. Who can forget the date rape episode, where Freddie is almost raped by Hillman baseball star Garth? At the time date rape was a topic not widely discussed in any forum, including the black community. Freddie is saved by Dwayne, who figured out the mindset of, “women needing help to say “yes” flawed after talking to Walter. The powerful moment that stays with me is at the end, when Dwayne gives her the telephone number where the baseball team will be staying in case she needs someone to talk to and she simply ends with,“…thank you for being my friend”.
Another powerful episode was Josie, played by Tisha Campbell completes an assignment in class where the students had to write their own obituaries and verbally present them in class. Josie reveals in her presentation that she contracted HIV from her boyfriend. During this time, HIV and AIDS was just becoming an issue that our community needed to tackle. “A Different World” did an excellent job of depicting the attitudes that ran ramped throughout communities once someone found out another had been diagnosed with the incurable disease. Many students in the episode did not want to be around Josie for fear they would catch the disease by osmosis. It was especially difficult for Whitley, due to her finally deciding to have a sexual relationship with Dwayne. It was revealed recently that the licensing fee was almost pulled due to this episode and the advertisers wanted to read the script (a practice that had not happened in years and they were not allowed to even show a condom in the episode). This episode actually went on to win numerous awards for the series. My favorite line in the entire episode came from Mr. Gaines, when students did not want Josie serving them, “you can take your germs and your intelligence deficiency syndrome out of here.”
Apartheid was not mentioned continuously in the black community. “A Different World” attacked this issue head on when the students discover that Orange Glo Soda Company, who was a major contributed to the college through supplies, academic programs and scholarships, including one Kim had just received, had not divested itself from South Africa. This episode had a great scene, where a group of student activist called an emergency meeting to discuss what action that wanted Hillman to take. There were actually students from Africa who had two varying perspectives about how to confront the issue. One described how in his country coming to America to attend college was a dream for many children back in his homeland, thus stating a compelling argument that Hillman should demand Orange Glo contribute more money to the school. The other student believed that the college should not accept anything from the company. The students come up with a compromise and then celebrate with the African dance and drums. Who-la-la, Who-la-la, Hem, Hem.
No-one who was a fan of the show can forget the “Mammy Dearest” episode, where Whitley is in charge of creating a program celebrating female contributors to the greatness of African-American lives. One of her ideas was celebrating the character Mammy. The other students could not understand why Whitley would want to display a character they considered disrespectful to black women. Kim was the most affected because it is revealed later in the episode after a heart-felt talk with Mr. Gaines, she had been humiliated when her elementary school principal referred to her dress up clothing during a school assembly as “Mammy”. It turned out that Whitley’s family owned slaves and she did not believe that she should be a part of something honoring black people. What followed was a magnificent performance, where Kim is mammy transformed into the beautiful Black queen she was always meant to be. Kim recited a poem that I had never heard of in my young years, Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Trippin”. The words were lush and powerful instilling in the teenage me that I too, was powerful. “Thank you, my sister”.
Most people adored the episode where Dwayne and Whitley get married at the wedding meant for her and Byron. It had been obvious in several previous episodes they were still in love with each other. The slow progression of their relationship kept us on our toes for a couple of seasons. The writers gave a pretty accurate view of the ebb and flow of young adult relationships. The long-awaited union of Dwayne and Whitley was applauded with a standing ovation. As some relationships tend to go, they eventually broke up. Although, they got back together in an amazing way. Dwayne actually stands up during the aisle, walking towards Whitley and Byron declaring how much he loves Whitley. She is noticeably confused about which way to go. If you watch this episode, you can actually hear the audience yelling with excitement and joy at Dwayne and Whitley possibly being together. “Baby please!” is the line most people will recite to you, including me when discussing the wedding. Kadeem Hardison revealed on an episode of Unsung Hollywood detailing the show, that he ad- libbed those two words after getting so caught up in the emotions of the audience. How beautiful is that?
Other notable moments in the history of this remarkable television series include the first time Whitley met Julian. We were able to see Jasmine Guy’s background as a talented dancer on display as she moved brilliantly across the stage, while Julian watched mesmerized. Kim giving Shazza the business, after he tried to publicly shame her for dating Freddie’s white cousin Matthew…”You pseudo intellectual with a pseudo African name, spouting pseudo philosophy about a whole lot of nothing. In fact, the only thing that’s real about you is your green eyes, my brotha.” Ron and Dwayne getting into a fight in the parking lot during the homecoming game after three white students from a rival college attempted to vandalize Ron’s car with a racial slur after they lost a bet on the game. Gina being beat by her rapper boyfriend. Remember the scene when Gina explained to Lena that the bruise on her face was from a fight she had in another dorm? Lena’s reaction “where, she at?” was exactly the reaction, my friends and I would have displayed as well. (sisterhood!) The protectiveness by the entire cast for Gina was automatic and swift once they found out the truth about I’m Down Dion. “…and like a sucka you walk around and like a sucka, you’re going down.” Dwayne’s friend Zelmer is being deployed to fight in the first Gulf War and he is not handling it well. The scene between Col. Taylor and Zelmer bring tears to my eyes every single time I watch it because my older brother was also deployed to fight in that war. That scene was so real for me and my family. “…that story was not for you son, it was for me”! And I cannot forget Patty Labelle and Dianne Carol playing Dwayne and Whitley’s mothers during the entire run of the series. The acting abilities of these two legendary stars made you forget that they were just acting and not the character’s real parents.
“A Different World” was a cultural movement, period. During its six-year run the percentage of enrollment tripled and graduation rates at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) rose. It was the in the top five in television series, beating “ Cheers”, “ Family Ties”, and “ 60 minutes” and averaging 20-30 million viewers per week. Interesting enough, currently there are some storied legendary HBCUs that are suffering from declining enrollment and financial shortages, AIDs a leading cause of death of black women 20 years of age and older, date rape is dang near an epidemic on college campuses, the issue of darker and light skin women still is in heavy rotation and some areas of Africa are going through a great deal of turmoil. “A Different World” highlighted the diverse backgrounds of the students, the community building feeling among the staff and students and the overall feeling of family.
I now watch “A Different World” with my teenage daughter just about every day. We discuss the topics of the different episodes as I fill her in on what was going on during that time. In the times that consuming television is considered a negative. In contrast, “A Different World” benefited my life as well as others in the black community.
Ironically for me, the very episode detailing the LA riots after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King is what caused the series to be canceled. The executives did not want to address nor air an episode addressing the riots. They also considered Sister Souljah to be an antagonist (She had a very powerful dialogue with Whitley in an electronics store”.) Some producers revealed on the recent Unsung Hollywood series that Debbie Allen was not pleased about NBC Executives trying to bury the episode and suggested that she would inform black leaders in our community of NBC’s stance. After the airing of this episode, there was tension between the show and the corporate office that lead to the highly successful show being moved around in different time slots and suspiciously being positioned against another television show featuring a black cast. “A Different World” ended his reign on May 8, 1993, a month from my high school graduation. Thus closing a chapter in television that I do not believe has ever been reinvented. My activism is still going full throttle and the re-runs of this important series sustains and reminds me that television can still serve a purpose, if the content is worthy of being praised for many years after the powers that be decide it is no longer has a value. Television can still incite progress, change and revolution in ways we have never seen before, if only we demand it.