The Black College Narrative: From Hillman College to California University (LA)

In a year when President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are lampooning Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in our nation’s hallowed halls and at graduations, the black college narrative is even more important.  When Ms. Devos said, “HBCUs are the real  pioneers when it comes to school choice,” it was clear that for her the vast system of oppression, slavery, Jim Crow and discrimination never existed. She used HBCUs to promote her school choice agenda. She failed and was met with swift resistance. On twitter. In newspapers. On news shows. On podcasts. Even on Sportscenter. 

Devos’ debacle led all involved to work on their messaging. HBCU presidents and chancellors, the White House and the department of education released statement after statement clarifying and re-framing their positionsMeanwhile, Sportcenter’s Jamele Hill and Michael Smith’s remake of the opening title sequence for A Different World (1987) went viral, highlighting HBCUs.

Their remake featured stars of the seminal black college show, Dawnn Lewis (Jaleessa), Sinbad (Coach Walter), Darryl M. Bell (Ron) and Glynn Turman (Colonel Taylor). ESPN mainstays Cari Champion, Kevin Neghandi, Hannah Storm, Kevin Scott and Elle Duncan—also provided cameos. Who could turn away from the catchy theme song whether performed by Phoebe Snow in Season 1, Aretha Franklin in Seasons 2 through 5, or Boyz II Men in Season 6?  At one minute and three seconds, longer than most, the opening title sequence isn’t interpretive or artistic; it simply depicts snapshots of black college life from the library to graduation.

A Different World by Bill Cosby, Stu Gardner and Dawnn Lewis
I know my parents love me,
Stand behind me come what may.
I know now that I’m ready,
Because I finally heard them say
It’s a different world from where you come from.
Here’s a chance to make it,
If we focus on our goals.
If you dish it we can take it,
Just remember you’ve been told
It’s a different world from where you come from.
It’s a different world from where you come from.

In 1987 this singular show was revelatory, and now thirty years later it is the DNA of the black college narrative. It is important to note, that the show that defines the black college experience, was very different in its first season. At the onset it lacked the HBCU imprint. The first season of A Different World (ADW) focused on Denise Huxtable’s (Lisa Bonet) transition to college life at Hillman College. The show never quite coalesced with less than memorable characters, storylines and sets; even the opening title sequence of season 1 lacked specificity and originality. The show simply did not convey the HBCU experience. This isn’t surprising. The show set out to reach middle America. Bill Cosby  focused on a white student’s experience at a HBCU. The original premise was to have a white student have Lena Horne as an acting teacher, but in production, the premise changed from being a story about a white girl in a black college to a black girl (Denise Huxtable) in a black college with a white friend. Under the creative direction of Debbie Allen, the show refocused in the second season blossoming into the revolutionary one we know today. Spike Lee’s Seminal film School Daze (1988) also shaped the revamped show. Three of the series’ principals—Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, and Darryl M. Bell—had previously worked together in the film.

a different world

A spin-off of The Cosby Show, ADW was appointment tv for the show’s six-year run. With a wink to three popular HBCUs, Spelman-Hampton-Howard, ADW tackled race, class, gender and other topical issues: apartheid, interracial dating, sexual consent, war, faith censorship, colorism, AIDS, black imagery, 1992 Los Angeles riots… The half-hour comedy did not trample in its creator’s, Bill Cosby, respectability politics. The show beautifully portrayed the complexity of college life on a black campus. When Cliff Huxtable introduced his alma mater on the Cosby Shows‘s first season everyone knew that one of the Cosby kids would attend Hillman. In fact, two of the Huxtable children attended HBCUs and two attended PWIs. Sondra graduated from Princeton and went to law school, Vanessa went to Lincoln University and Theo graduated from NYU. No one would have guessed it would be Denise Huxtable who’d enroll at her parents alma mater. Though she did later drop out, Denise was a third generation Hillmanite. Bill’s father also attended.
The black College experience
Though fictitious, Hillman college had become the college of choice for many college bound students in the 90’s. It also spurred an increase in HBCU applications and the debate over HBCUS vs PWIs (predominately white institutions). Above all the show’s theme was one of black excellence and self-reliance. Before Papa Pope’s Twice as Good Speech on Scandal, there was Clair and Bill Huxtable and the many surrogates at Hillman- who pushed the students to work hard.
ADW endures because it captures HBCUs emphasis on the whole student. The series addresses the educational, emotional and social needs of black students. There are as many episodes about classroom activities as there are campus life, including dating, working and partying. The through line of the series maybe Whitley and Dwayne’s relationship, but the growth and development of the characters is commendable for a comedy. The characters are diverse and eclectic from returning older student Jalessa to math whiz Dwayne Wayne, free spirit Freddie, trouble maker Ron, and bougie Whitley. This show was aspirational and inspirational. With a who’s who of guest stars including Dianne Carroll, Joe Morton, Patti Labelle, Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Lena Horne, and Tupac Shakur, the show was hot as grits with the two Americas. The show opened as the number two show in America,  and closed as the seventy-first show, number six for black households.
A forerunner to FUBU (For Us, By US), ADW also began a wave of movies about black college life, most notably, School Daze (1988) Higher Learning (1995), Drumline (2002), The Great Debaters (2007) and Dear White People (2014).  Though only School Daze premiered during ADW‘s six year run, its impact on the other movies is clear. Whether focused on a HBCU or PWI, these films explored identity in ways that are unique to POC but applicable to any underrepresented group.
In February 2015 ADW began streaming on Netflix. Though its arrival was not nearly as reported as Dave Chappel’s comedy specials, it introduced a whole new audience to HBCUs. Depending on your political leaning, this show is either aptly named or burdened by a misnomer. The first television show to center the black college experience, it spawned many other shows about college life notably Felicity (1998-2002), Veronica Mars (2004-7), Community (2009-15) and Sweet Vicious (2016-). With varying degrees of success and cult like followings, these shows targeted very different audiences relying on the trail A Different World blazed. ADW proved that television success could be attained by a show with a distinctive voice, telling the story of a specific group. Critically and commercially successful television shows could tell a trite (following a crush to college) ridiculous (high school detective) meta (diverse study  group) or irreverent (rape victim turned vigilante) stories that are simultaneously singular and universal.
ADW was so indelible, it took nearly thirty years for another television show to explore the black college narrative. Set on the fictitious Georgia A & M University, BETs The Quad (2016) is more Drumline than the Great Debaters. With 360 storytelling, it forces itself not to thread on its predecessor’s fame. Its voice is less distinctive as it tries to be all things: comedy, thriller, drama, romance, social commentary, musical… Like ADW, The Quad will need to focus its storytelling in subsequent seasons. In season one, newly elected President Dr. Eva Fletcher (Anika Noni Rose) must save the financially troubled school as she deals with a troubled marriage, rebellious daughter, misogynist board, powerful band leader, inappropriate sexual relationship, diverse student population, murder, campus rape…
the quad.png

This is not a show exclusively about HBCU students. The student and non-student stories are all viable, however the pace with which they are introduced and resolved is beyond the soapy annals of Dynasty or Empire. These stories lack effective pacing and instead of supporting a clear theme, they are in competition with each other. The show’s ability to authentically capture HBCU life does resonate in its title, sets and music from the Marching Mountain Cats and its rapping/spoken word freshmen. The Quad largely wastes, Rose and HBCU storytelling veteran  Jasmine Guy with mediocre scripts. It does not trust its audience. Consensus storytelling is not engaging. The Quad is more Greek or Blue Mountain State than ADW, overly dramatic and unfocused.

The Quad’s ratings and critical response have not been particularly noteworthy nor disastrous. Not surprising, HBCUs Presidents and Chancellors have railed against the show. Exhibiting their respectability politics and a lack of understanding or reverence for artistic freedom, the admonishments were quick. Unwilling to accept the show’s commentary on some of the problems at HBCUs, they note that it misrepresents HBCUs tradition and legacy.  Hampton University president William R. Harvey’ letter to BET said, “It also feeds a false narrative about the irrelevance of HBCUs.” The show’s weaknesses are more about story structure than respect for HBCUs.

 dear white people.jpgThe Quad and Dear White People (2017) do give us a window into the black college narrative as demographics shift and attendance decline at HBCUs. The black college narrative is evolving whether it is focused on HBCUs or PWIs. Regardless of setting, smart, authentic stories focus on identity (race, sexuality, double consciousness…) including all the joys and frustrations of the defining period in a young person’s life. DWP does this exceptionally well capturing the language, microagressiongs, and privilege of students at the fictitious Winchester University. Told in Rashomon-style, Chapters I and II of the 10-episode series, is sharper and better written than The Quad. Relying heavily on the movie, the concept transfers well to Netflix without losing any of its wit nor social commentary. Indeed, the writing remains topical and funny, “You’re not Rashida Jones bi-racial, you’re Tracee Ellis Ross bi-racial!” Like Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Issa Raes’ Insecure,  DWP threatens to dominate the award season with its innovative and brilliantly distinctive storytelling. When writers at the ivy league college humor magazine, Pastiche, throw a blackface party on campus, the school’s masked racial tensions explode. The Quad takes a macro approach to its storytelling, while DWP takes a micro approach to the complexity of the black college narrative. Neither is better theoretically, but DWP‘s approach is used far more effectively. The story also focuses exclusively on the students at the PWI.
The black college narrative has a brief but definitive timeline, from  A Different World (1987-93) to Quad (2017) and Dear White People (2014/17). This succinct and revelatory period is set to be extended with Liberal Arts (2017), the Blackish spinoff slated for Freeform, ABC’s younger-skewing network. The show’s back-door pilot focuses on Zoey Johnson’s (Yara Shahidi) two day orientation at California State University, Los Angeles. When her father Dre (Anthony Anderson) forgets to send in her housing request, she visits the Dean’s office only to become part of the plan to close the black dormitory angering the black students, especially her new love Aaron (Trevor Jackson). With the help of Charlie’s (Deon Cole) late-night marketing class, she works out a deal to keep the dorm open and learns the difference between segregation and congregation. Co-opting a central plot point of Dear White People the movie, Liberal Arts is less confrontational and militant. Zoey is not the knowledgeable and articulate young woman that Samanta White is or the actress Yara Shahidi. This show aims to show how one becomes a version of the other at a liberal PWI.
la 2 blackish spinoff

Fictionized, serialized and commercialized, the black college narrative is a definitive fault line from the slavery and biography films to which black lives have often been regulated. These shows highlight how the black college experience has changed. Black schools are no longer exclusively black spaces and increasingly blacks are attending PWI. The black college narrative will continue to change but America’s inability or unwillingness to confront racism requires this storytelling. Black bodies still experience the world with an additional layer of fear, apprehension, and weariness. It’s always there, like smog in LA or China. This reality often strips us of joy and an ability to simply live in the moment, to take risks, to be spontaneous. Race, poverty and gender limits if not eliminates mistakes or errors as learning tools. Our skin increases our vulnerability especially now.

Unlike Education Secretary Betsy Devos, most Americans understand the historical importance of HBCUS. These schools did not commence at the height of racial segregation as ‘pioneers of school choice’. Ms. Devos learned quickly that she could not whitewash or use alternative facts for America’s racial misdeeds: slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, institutional racism. There are 107 HBCUs in the United States today, including public and private institutions, community and four-year institutions, medical and law schools. As enrollment declines and demographics shift at HBCUS, their financial health threaten their very survival. This is the pain seen on the HBCUS Presidents’ faces in that now infamous photo in the Oval office. Intention establishes purpose, keeps one focused and creates synergy. Like Wonder Woman’s airplane Trump and Devos’ intention was transparent but so is the black college narrative. So before you apply to one make sure it’s an actual school; Hillman College, Georgia A&M and Winchester University appear real but they are fictionalized like their websites!

HBCUs-logo-2016

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