Netflix recently added A Different World to its collection and I gladly re-watched the entire series with fresh eyes and a grown up perspective. The Cosby Show spin-off starring Lisa Bonet’s character Denise Huxtable and her experience at Cliff and Claire’s make-believe historically black alma mater Hillman College was a ground breaking show and I had no clue because I was too young to understand.
I was only seven years old when the show debuted in 1987 and I was still an innocent tween when it ended in 1993. My family was of course already watching The Cosby Show every Thursday when ADW was introduced.
Rudy Huxtable and Bud were my imaginary friends and now I would, in a sense, also grow up with even more images of educated, affluent, black faces whom I could relate to embedded in my childish psyche, not really grasping the impact it had in shaping who I was and who I am today.
I grew up in a black neighborhood that started out with a lot of pride and dignity. However, like many of these neighborhoods centered around Martin Luther King Blvd and rec centers across the country – gang activity, violence, and drugs took over in the 80’s and 90’s, in spite of the majority of hard-working people trying to make a good life for themselves like my family and so many others.
In the midst of what I saw in my environment, I could see a picture of a different possible reality in The Cosby Show and A Different World weekly. I believe ADW affected me more so because the storylines focused on the lives of black college students…young enough to be relatable and cool to a child, but not old enough to feel like an authority figure…ie. parents, teachers, etc.
I wasn’t aware of how many important topics were covered in the six seasons this series aired. Teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, sexual harassment in the workplace, physical abuse, date rape, racism, a gun on school campus, and the effects of the Rodney King verdict to name a few. It was amazing to see how all of these topics are still relevant today. This show had the courage to tackle these issues with class and integrity, educating the audience about current problems and black history while entertaining us in the process.
Even while dealing with heavy subjects, laughter was always present with the truth – that friends can become like family, mentors play a vital role in the transition from teen years to young adulthood, you’re never too old to learn something new, and the one constant in life is change. Life can be messy and unpredictable, but it can still be beautiful.
I know now that while watching A Different World as a youngster the seeds were planted early. I was the first one in my immediate family to graduate college and I have to give some credit to this awesome show for playing a part in my success and developing my thinking skills as a little black girl coming of age in the ‘hood.
The themes in ADW reinforced the importance of education for me. Not only in the form of a college or university because I understand that this type of structured learning is not for everyone (Denise’s believable exit after season one for example), and that’s ok. Vocational training, career development, or simply reading books, traveling, and trying new things regularly can expand your mind and worldview. Learning is a lifelong process and comes in many forms.
I saw pieces of myself in almost every female character portrayed. Denise’s lack of focus, Freddie’s free spirit, Kim’s over achieving perfectionism, Jaleesa’s maturity, and Whitley’s sheltered point of view of the world and life. Ron, Dwayne, and Walter could have easily been any of my homeboys from back in the day :-).
I guess it’s a question of ‘does art imitate life’ or vice versa. I say it can go both ways. Art in the form of a conscious and smart sitcom inspired me more than I realized…and helped me see the world differently.