“It’s A Different World!”

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

Ludacris and Taraji P. Henson wearing Howard nalia

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!!




8 thoughts on ““It’s A Different World!”

  1. I really like this post for more reasons than one! For me it really is insightful to see how a show like this is interpreted or was interpreted amongst the Black community in the US. I LOVED a Different world! I remember watching it religiously! And even as a child I never once grasped that it was a show about Black college kids at an HBCU! As a matter of fact, at age 22, I did not know what an HBCU was. Granted, I am from the beautiful caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago :). When I was applying to colleges in the US, I was applying to go to school…not go to a Black school. As a matter of fact I had no idea there was a difference! My culture and upbringing did not require that I be taught that you have to work twice as hard to succeed in this world. My culture did not teach me that I needed to become the BEST “BLACK” whatever. Instead, it taught me to be the best at whatever I do. I did not have to learn about all these racial issues that so many of my neighboring Americans had to face.

    I think that might be part of the reason I am not PRO-HBCU…Because I never saw the need for it because of the country I grew up in. We were not oppressed by the “White man.” We we a multi-racial society that lived in harmony for the most part. We were used to seeing Black leaders, prime ministeres, presidents, head of states whatever you want to call it. We were used to seeing Black business owners, and successful individuals regardless of race. We were used to being told EDUCATION first everything else after! So it is no wonder that you would find many Caribbean/African international students confused at the whole idea and even need for HBCUs. It’s no wonder I hate the term, be the best “black” whatever…Why can’t I just me the BEST, period?

    Now, after reading this, I want to go and get the entire series so I can watch it again with my new eyes! Since after all I did go to an HBCU and majored in socail work, and now live in America :).

  2. I was already in college when this show debuted and I considered transferring to a HBCU because of it. HBCU college life was also on the big screen in the release of Spike Lee’s School Daze. So attending a college or university that was a member of the United Negro College Fund seemed to be the “in” thing to do in the late 80s.

    Why didn’t I transfer, you ask? Well, there were a couple of reasons why. First was fear that a degree from a HBCU wouldn’t carry the same weight that a degree from a private, predominantly white school would. Secondly, was the lack of or limited resources for educational funding.

    I had heard horror stories about registering for classes and poor recordkeeping by the Bursar’s office and I didn’t want the added stress so I opted to stay in New England and get my BS in Marketing & CIS.

    These days while there are schools that are struggling to keep their accreditation, there is no doubt that a degree from a HBCU is just as valuable as one from an Ivy League school but the financial record-keeping is still an issue as you have blogged previously.

    We are definitely in need of a quality show like “A Different World” but alas the reality shows reign supreme(PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!). Thank God for dvd collections and my own VHS recordings!

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