How many people wanted to attend an HBCU after watching A Different World? After a slow first season, the Cosby Show spin off invaded the homes of millions of African Americans, giving them arguably one of the most accurate depictions of life on the campus of an HBCU. Whether an episode was capturing the complications of relationships through Dwayne Wayne and Whitney Gilbert, political activism through Freddie Brooks, or academic struggles as seen through Ron Johnson, A Different World artfully enlightened millions of Americans to life on historically black campuses.
Once Black artists behind and on-camera assumed control of the series, the show gained respect and viewers. Directed by Debbie Allen, a graduate of Howard University, Allen honed in on her prior experiences at an HBCU to accurately recreate the social and political life on black campuses. Allen had more than leadership to offer; as a 1971 Howard University graduate, she had firsthand experience at a black college. ”This show had waitresses in the school cafeteria,” she moans, shaking her head. ”I said, ‘Honey, what is this waitress shit? At this school you stand in line and you clear your own place.‘ ”
In order to portray images as realistic as possible, Allen instituted a yearly spring trip to Atlanta where series writers visited three of the nation’s leading black colleges, Clark Atlanta, Morehouse and Spelman. After meeting with faculty, alum, and students, writers immediately got to work. What they created would empower and instill a sense of self-pride into the Black community like never before
One of the most important contributions that people forget about now, is the national impact the show had on Americans. All across the country, middle school and high school students began discussing the myriad of issues seen on the show. Soon, students began wearing black college paraphernalia, rappers such as Tupac, TLC, actors like Will Smith could be seen on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air rocking a Howard U or FAMU hoodie. Moreover, students at the secondary and college level furthered discussions such as interracial dating, racism, AIDS, the Watts riots, and so many more issues presented on A Different World.
Most Importantly, A Different World made college seem a viable goal for many minority students. Positive images of African Americans excelling in the classroom, excelling in math, in the sciences, striving to be doctors, lawyers, and teachers was something indescribable. This was not a “College Hill” where students recklessly fought each other, skipped class and espoused negative stereotypes. A Different World became embedded in black culture. It’s evident in set details, from the ”Support Black Colleges” poster in the Pit to an announcement taped to Whitley’s refrigerator heralding the National Council of Negro Women’s 1990 Black Family Reunion Celebration. This was a show that embraced intellectualism and showed that attending a HBCU was not just a cool thing, but actually goes further in demonstrating the necessity of our institutions.
Before A Different World hit airwaves, the only way many minority kids had knowledge about college was if they had a family member going to one. The show dropped the experience in everyone’s lap. The positive depictions motivated so many of our youth, as a result, enrollment at HBCUs drastically increased.
In a NY Times interview with former Philander Smith President Walter Kimbrough, he discussed by the numbers, the impact the show had on the African American lexicon, culture, perception of HBCUs:
“Here are some facts that are probably little-known: From the debut of “The Cosby Show” in 1984 until the end of “A Different World” in 1993, American higher education grew by 16.8 percent. During the same time period, historically black colleges and universities grew by 24.3 percent — 44 percent better than all of higher education. But in the 11 years after “A Different World” ended, while all of higher education grew at a robust 20.7 percent, historically black colleges and universities grew only 9.2 percent.
No television series since then has really captured the essence of life at a historically black college or university. The BET reality show “College Hill” (2004 – present) reportedly caused increases on campuses where the first few seasons were aired. But the salacious nature of the show caused it to be rejected by campuses, and it morphed into a show covering black students in college in a city (not just students at historically black colleges and universities). Because very little of the show provided a true experience of historically black colleges and universities anyway, it has not fueled much interest in the institutions as a whole. More recently, movies have provided new insights into historically black college and university marching bands (“Drumline,” 2002), Greek life (“Stomp the Yard,” 2007) and debating (“The Great Debaters,” 2007). No definitive trend is visible yet, but I would personally welcome “A Different World” back! There is no doubt that popular culture can influence growth.”
We need more shows like A Different World, we need for our actors, rappers, entertainers, etc… to once again embrace our schools and help portray us in a positive light. We are curious to know your memories of A Different World, was the show important? What role does pop culture play in education, if any? Let us know!!