Flashback to Revolutionary TV: A Different World

This is a guest post by Bianca of Latino Sexuality and of The LatiNegr@s Project. I’ll be cross-posting and blogging for the month of March! Read a bit more about me when we introduced The LatiNegr@s Project team.

This article is cross-posted from my Media Justice column.

The first time I started this series I focused on The Golden Girls.  Today I focus on another TV show that continues to impact my life: A Different World.  Many may know this show to be a spin-off of The Cosby Show. This is true, but it was also its own solid show that began with Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) going to college.

Centered at a fictional HBCU (Historically Black College and University) named Hillman, we follow several students (beginning with Denise from The Cosby Show) as they interact with the struggles that come with being college students of Color: time management, interracial dating, HIV, consent, roommate challenges, managing work and school, class differences, dating, friendships, joining sororities and fraternities, being an activist, gender differences, apartheid in South Africa, and shadism.

The first season of A Different World we follow Denise as she rooms with two women, Jalessa (Dawnn Lewis) and Maggie (Marisa Tomei) and makes new friends with women in her dorm such as Whitley (Jasmine Guy) and Freddie (Cree Summer). Of course meeting men was also part of the storyline and they included Dwayne (Kadeem Hardison), Ron (Darryl M. Bell) and Shazza (Gary Dourdan).

This series began when I was just completing my first year in high school. It was one of the first series where I saw people of Color as college students, as intellectuals, creating supportive environments for each other, and investing in a form of delayed gratification (obtaining a degree). At this time it was rare for a young person of Color to see themselves validated on a public TV station and represented beyond the one-dimensional stereotypes of youth of Color (which still continue today.

The opening song for the series is a perfect example of how the show was centered on normalizing the humanity of youth of Color. Performed by Aretha Franklin check out the opening credits and song below:

The lyrics include:
I know my parents love me,
Stand behind me come what may.
I know now that I’m ready,
Because I finally heard them say
It’s a different world form where you come from.

Here’s a chance to make it,
If we focus on our goals.
If you dish it we can take it,
Just remember you’ve been told
It’s a different world form where you come from.
It’s a different world form where you come from.

The lyrics read as a mantra, an affirmation, something one puts on their mirror or writes down to hold and be reminded. To this day I can sing along to the song whenever I hear it. It’s part of my socialization into young adulthood that I’m very privileged and proud to have had. It also makes me sad that the young people I work with today have nothing close to A Different World. There are no shows or narratives that speak to these topics in such an important and entertaining way.

Sure, many may recognize additional members to the cast such as Jada Pinkett (before she became Pinkett Smith) playing Lena, Sinbad as Coach Walter Oaks, or the guest appearances of folks such as rapper Tupac, Tisha Cambpell-Martin, Gladys Knight, Billy Dee Williams, Jesse Jackson, Heavy D, En Vogue, Halle Berry, and Diahann Carroll who performed as Whitley’s mother and Patti LaBelle who performed as Dwayne’s mother. For the past decade, and maybe even the past two decades, there has been no show that has brought so many people of Color, especially Black celebrities and talent on a television show. I can’t think of one right at this moment.

One of Jada Pinkett’s performances was uncovering and sharing with Whitley (a wealthy light-skin legacy), who is the dorm director, that her great great grandfather bought and owned slaves. In “Mammy Dearest”  Whitley’s background becomes important because she plans her dorm’s official dedication ceremony and chooses to include images of “mammies” (black nursemaids, often forced into that position during slavery) to remember women’s roles in history. Kim disagrees as do some other students and the topic of shadism and how the mammy image continues to impact Black women. The outcome is that at the dedication several women, including Kim, create and perform a piece on the evolution of Black women. This message is so important, especially after still witnessing Blackface performed at the Oscars.

Another episode titled “If I Should Die Before I Wake” discussed how HIV and AIDS impacts the Black community, especially the impact on Black women. Tisha Campbell-Martin is Josie, who shares her eulogy, a requirement for the class they are taking, and comes out as a young Black women living positive. Her professor is Whoopi Goldberg. Watch the clip starting at the 3 minute mark. The class does an amazing job of being honest, showing fear and ignorance, and of discussing how HIV is transmitted. “I am a voice in this world” is the motto of this episode and to this day I adore this message.

During the episode titled “Ms. Understanding”  Shazza publishes a book about the relations between men and women that starts controversy all over campus. The women plan a boycott and the men choose to do the same. The interracial relationship that Kim is in at the time also becomes a focus for other students. Gender differences, roles, and expectations along with misogyny is the focus of this episode, and these are always important reminders.

The episode “No Means No” focuses on sexual assault and rape on colleges campuses. Freddie is courted by a Garth (performed by Taimak) who is a popular athlete. This episode the young men athletes question what rape and sexual assault include and how it is defined. They confide in Coach Walter Oaks who holds Garth accountable while Dwayne does the same. The men are educated and taught what their responsibilities are and the men hold one another accountable. Check out the way Dwayne supports Freddie and how her community comes to support her as well. Unfortunately, these are not the ways that many young women of Color on college campuses are supported.

These are just a few of the episodes that stand out to me. They are formative and important pieces of US media. I have a presentation coming up discussing media and sexuality and I’m going to use these representations as examples of media justice. I encourage folks who have not seen the show to take some time out and watch it! There were six seasons in total and they are still quality episodes for each season.

Sadly, as the theme song shares, it is a different world from where you come from. It was a different world when the show was on, and today without the series being accessible, that world has yet to value difference in the ways we know we can. Instead we experience isolation, limitations, and oppression because of our differences. The memories I have of watching A Different World are fantastic! It was something we did with our families, it was what we talked about at school on Friday afternoons. I remember the collective screaming in anticipation and surprise at some of the endings of the episodes (especially during the relationship of Dwayne and Whitley). If there ever was a TV show that needs syndication because those images and narratives still need to be shared, I’d argue that A Different World must be at the top, if not the first item, on that list.

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