If you don’t think ‘A Different World’ was the coolest show, ever, this article is not for you. The show debuted this week in 1987 and for an entire generation of Black people, it was completely groundbreaking. It was entertaining, provocative and completely written from a Black perspective. A Different World challenged the culture on race, class, sexuality and a host of other topics, before other shows dared to do so. More importantly, it had a direct and measurable impact on Black life for the better. We need that show back and now.
Debbie Allen took over the show in its second season and determined that it would push the culture forward. She used her undergraduate experience at Howard to shape the show’s character and even insisted that the show’s writers spend time at HBCUs for inspiration. In essence, Allen made the college experience cool and something an entire generation of Black people would aspire to, merely by presenting the reality of HBCU campuses to a national audience. That’s it. When a Black woman was given a platform to inspire an entire generation for good, she needed only to show them what Black institutions are and what they can do for them. We need such a show back and we need it now.
In 2010 Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, President of Dillard University, told the New York Times, “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.” Further, he said, “During the same time period, historically Black colleges and universities grew by 24.3 percent — 44 percent better than all of higher education.” The arts and entertainment platforms are powerful. Entire cultures shift based on what artists sing, play or produce. We know that Jackie Robinson did more to normalize Black people than many other means of activism. Today, LGBT couples have been made more mainstream due to representation in the media. As a culture we trend towards what we see and reverence that which is upheld as our greater ideal. Debbie Allen made young Black people see going to college as cool and goal-worthy, thanks to A Different World.
As we wish for what was, we must also focus on what it. HBCUs are still doing the impossible — graduating poor and working class Black students and creating immeasurable impact. We must support them. Whether or not you went to an HBCU, they deserve our support. Find your closest HBCU and donate $10 each month to it. It’s an investment well worth it. We need media that impacts our young people for the better. A Different World hit the mark, now we await the contributions of other young, Black creatives.