Twenty-five years—that’s how long it’s been since the first episode of A Different World aired on NBC. The Internet’s been standardized, the skyscraper bang has been beaten into obscurity and stars have blazed across the fickle stage of celebrity and fizzled, remembered only through the randomness of reality shows and VH1’s I Love the 90s. But after 25 years, A Different World is still relevant, not only because TV One so graciously continues to breathe life into its syndicated reruns, but because it was the only show to paint a realistic picture, for an entire generation of kids, of what life is like on a black campus. Many of them were the first in their families to even have a shot at going to college and some went on to serve their four years in the hallowed halls of higher education. I was one of them.
I am a product of the bluest collar family this side of the 47 percent. My grandfather worked in a steel mill. My grandmother worked in a factory. My mother works in a factory to this day. All but one of her five siblings, they all work in factories, too. And they made it quite clear, since I was old enough to be even remotely lucid, that the Harris legacy of manual labor was going to end with me. I liked to read, I had a natural curiosity and so I was groomed, good and early, to earn a degree on behalf of the whole blood line. No pressure.
But because none of the adults in my life had gone to college, I’d never even set foot on the grounds of one, much less understood the nuances of life there. I knew you went away—far, far away, depending on how much your parents got on your nerves—and I knew it cost a lot of money, since my fledging education savings was my mom’s reason for not buying me 8 Ball jackets, Adidas shelltoes and just about any other designer, brand name fashion trend during my impressionable adolescence. Those were some long years in cut-rate clothes, my social status making the sacrifice, yet I still wound up with student loans. I can’t quite figure out what happened.
A Different World was my window into post-secondary school autonomy and the wholeness of college life. I remember racing to get my homework done before 8 every Thursday so I could be an honorary Huxtable first and then, immediately thereafter, watch the episodic antics of Dwayne and Whitley, Kim and Jaleesa, Ron and Freddie. As a little kid struggling with the complexities of little hand/big hand time and decimal placement, campus life seemed so foreign and grown-up. The spontaneous step shows that broke out in front of The Pit, the deep, revealing classroom discussions about gender roles, AIDS and casual sex, the passionate, on-campus sociopolitical protests, the playful banter between the roommates and girls in the dorm, the occasional rap star cameo, and the guys, guys, guys—it all ruined me for anything else.
I applied to NYU just to say I got in and Temple because it was local, but I’m not even so sure I ever entertained much of anything but a black school. For six seasons, Hillman life had shaped my expectations and visions of the college experience. By the time my predominantly white high school years thankfully, finally, heaved their last few breaths, I was all set to enroll at Lincoln University, the first HBCU in the country and not completely unlike that fictional—but very realistic—Huxtable alma mater.
I got more than a classroom education there in the rolling hills of that little black school in the middle of the Pennsylvania backwoods. I scheduled my days around hot water outages, I exercised Buddhist-like patience in mile-long financial aid lines and I learned, good and fast, that you better save your papers every 10 minutes religiously, lest some shotty electrical setup obliterate the fruits of your labor and send you groveling at the doorstep of an unsympathetic professor’s office. (Even to this day, I’m compulsive with the control + S. Matter of fact, let me do it right now.)
That was the stuff they didn’t show you on A Different World, but I’m thankful for it. I look at folks crumbling at life’s little inconveniences and chuckle because I, like a lot of HBCU grads, have been fire baptized on the frontlines of the black college experience. It makes you both book and street smart, even if your closest street is a dirt road.
Watching A Different World now as an adult and an alum 25 years later yields, of course, a completely different set of observations than it did when I was just a kid with the legacy of my family propelling me academically. I notice now how hard the writers worked to balance the cast, to represent a wide swath of black folks—the rebels and the conservatives, the religious zealots and spiritual free spirits, the continental Africans and their westernized brethren—much like those who people the campuses of Grambling or Bennett or Tuskegee or Wilberforce. Some naysayers argue that there’s not enough diversity on black college campuses and some schools, balking under the pressure to pander to multiculturalism, have abandoned their distinction as a historically black college status and rebranded themselves to make grant funding and tuition dollars flow more easily. That’s like getting breast implants to fit into a DD rather than just wearing a bra that’s your size. Sad.
In contrast to The Cosby Show, beloved as it was and will probably always be, A Different World challenged us, brought to the fore the issues that were really being discussed not just in the black community but in intellectual spaces in general. It was funny and reflective, smart and silly at the same time. There’s talk of bringing it back, but I think it’s left well enough alone. You just don’t mess with characters like Whitley Gilbert and Freddie Brooks a quarter of a century after they fell off the sitcom map and expect to recreate that magic twice in a television lifetime. They’ve all moved on and so have we, but we’ll always have that Hillman nostalgia to look back on.