How ‘A Different World’ Saved The Young, Gifted and Black
I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria during the heady eighties — and my mother worked for The Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) where she organically fostered the height of “expressive television” to an impressionable teenager.
From Dynasty to The Cosby Show — there was no shortage of hyperactivity to match the kinetic energy of a culture that seemed united in the mission of keeping viewers securely fastened to their TV sets.
The perks of having a parent who worked in television — was the access to the marathon of hits from your latest obsession. In 1986 — I was completely immersed in the sexual tension between Dempsey and Makepeace — and promptly compared it to the seductiveness of the hot as fuck pair that gave Moonlighting its blinding appeal.
Then I turned fourteen — and got a first class invite to a world that had me at “Dwayne Wayne!”
So, let me set this up for you: I had a gigantic crush on Lisa Bonet — who played Denise Huxtable — the fiery stylish and hippie-minded second daughter of Cliff and Claire — who were both traditionalists in their approach to child-rearing — which led to Denise’s college acceptance letter from the same school her parents attended.
When Hillman College became Denise’s new residence — I was lucky enough to oblige. That was when I started to appreciate my mother’s influence in a genre that I was raised to respect and enjoy. She was part of the team that helped to expose a world that seemed different at first — before I got to bond with friends I never met, but knew quite well.
I was there when Denise arrive on the scene and quickly garnered her equally dope posse. I remember how much I wanted her and Dwayne to make out. I recall how much I admired Jaleesa for being unapologetic about the fact that she was “older.” I totally dug the vibrancy of Maggie and I adored how she shunned a marriage proposal — in favor of pursuing her life. I almost wanted Dwayne and Ron to be a real life couple. Whitley was gorgeously dramatic as well as appetizingly layered. Stevie was the absolute shit — in her mannerisms and the sting of her fluttery voice that always delivered the zing of the moment. Millie was cutely caught between the friend she didn’t need and the guy who needed her. Mr. Gaines was the dude that kept the block intact — through the softness of tough love.
After Denise decided that college wasn’t really her thing and Lisa was let off the hook so she could face real life as a young mother — the pack of all-stars expanded to include a much-needed makeover. So, hats off to the genius of iconic choreographer and television director/producer — Debbie Allen — who was recruited to color-coordinate the campus of Hillman.
By this time — I was contemplating the reality of leaving my family and the country of my heritage for the territory of my birth. I had an early education with the British classics — Mallory Towers and St. Clare’s — and that helped to manage my boarding school days with imaginative zeal.
But when A Different World took over my lobes of enlightenment — I was quickly enraptured with the notion of an all-Black college with students from varied backgrounds — intertwined in the mission of giving the young, gifted, and black — permission to adopt the personalized anthem of victory.
I fell head over heels in love with Freddie for obvious reasons. Kimberly was the breath of fresh air that echoed in the darkness of her skin and the fierceness of ambition — that demolished the deadly stereotypes of “little black girls” with raw pigtails — and no admittance. Lena was my fucking bitch! That girl was smooth and groovy and if I honestly went that way — she would’ve been my bitch for real. I ended up accepting Lettie — because she raised the stakes and uttered the best comebacks to my darling Whitley. Gina was delightfully hilarious except for that one time when we found out that she was hiding her status as an abuse victim.
That was the thing about A Different World — it felt urgent and reassuring.
There was the sense of validation that embraced me years later when the discovery of Nina Simone — years later —proved why she was singing about the manifestations of — “Young, Gifted and Black.”
As a Nigerian-American — who was raised in a city where everyone resembled each other — there was the shock of experiencing how all the various tribes rejected the trajectory of a map that cramped us into a nation — to the point of a pointless civil war.
The place of my birth — was heralded as the most heavenly place in the world. The wealth of land and the freedom to call your president an “asshole” without the danger of extinction — drew so many to the location of their dreams.
After being stuck in the Midwest for longer than necessary — I got a good taste of what it feels like to comprehend the breakdown of communication between Whites and Blacks.
Yet, I was prepared for the shock of it all — because I grew up gazing at the World that ended up not being all that Different.
I was given the lesson of a lifetime — as episodes fleeted by with the fury of wisdom and the takeaways that give you the recognition of your worth. I was born at the right time and came into my flesh during the season of ceremonious astuteness.
I was forced into the truth of how Whites view Blacks, which explains why Blacks feel like kneeling during the national anthem is an appropriate response to the murderous rage of White people:
I was schooled into realizing what had happened to me when I wasn’t able to label it — after Freddie got a dose of a world she wanted no part of. It wasn’t the exact same scenario — but the panicked need to escape — hit too close to home, and gave me tears of cheer when Dwayne plotted his mission:
The ride was supremely encouraging and when the series ended in 1993 — it still seemed a bit premature. We wanted more of the World where we thrive under the guidance of mentors and warriors who instill the temperance of activism.
I was young, gifted and black — with the aimless path that keeps burgeoning minds under wraps for too long. I was selected for the “me generation.”
This was an environment that fostered the success of a very pooled group of minorities— that refused to return the favor to the ones behind them. The mentality dictated that the if the sect before you suffered to “get there” — then you had to do the same.
This practice is over. Now, we are blessed with the Avas and Issas — who are more than willing to spread the wealth without reservations of burden of duty.
But even way back when I was a teenager with hopes of achievement and the opportunity to live on campus with the adventure of the optimistic young Black girl — I never would’ve been confident enough to thwart my parent’s idealistic view of things and the scolding about how Black people are too lazy for my attention. It took Gilbert Hall to depict the dignifiedly chaotic backdrop of Black scholars — seeking their privilege with the hope that Blackness doesn’t stain their path to the top.
When Kim reacted poorly to the “Mammy” images that were featured in an episode that revolved around an event that required cultural representation — I knew that I would never ever get over the loss of a show that gave me all the tools of life — when you’re in pursuant of an existence that is hampered by injustice.
I’m pretty certain that I’m not the only once-young and presently-older African-American— to be eternally grateful and keenly nostalgic for a time when conversations in the places of chill — birthed ideas and the memories of clicking without the lit-up buttons.
You know damn well that Vernon Gaines would’ve smashed every iPhone in the building in retaliation.
A Different World turns 30 — and I’m mature enough to gasp at the furiousness of distance and girlish enough to revive the waves of excitement at what was unfolding — and what I was hoping to unfold when it was my turn to own my Blackness — as a young woman in a country that won’t allow me to get to my first ever real job — in one piece.
Shows come and go — and especially now — when we hail anything that celebrates us as the greatest ever — there is the danger that those of you far behind us — won’t have the pleasure chest to access for extra fuel.
I got mine — and I still feel like the Black girl with her whole life ahead of her — and the laugh track of the Gifted and Black as the accessory for the trek to a World that was unique enough to make me one of the preferred standouts.
That life never ended. It’s just different now.