Reflecting on The Cultural Impact of ‘A Different World’ 35 Years Later

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If you fall within or are anywhere close to the millennial generation and ended up attending an HBCU, chances are that this decision was highly influenced by the on screen depiction of the experience as laid out by TV sitcom, A Different World. And if you didn’t make it to a Hampton, Spelman, or North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, (Aggie Pride, y’all), you were at least able to feel a sense of familiarity and commonality along with those that did. As we approach the show’s 35th anniversary, many are reflecting on its lasting impact on the Black college experience, as well as Black culture at large throughout the decades.

If you are perhaps unfamiliar, A Different World which aired on NBC from 1987 to 1993 in a primetime slot, featured a cast of undergraduate students attending the fictional (and yet still famous in its own right, Hillman University. As a spinoff of The Cosby Show, the show first focused around the second eldest Huxtable kid, Denise, who audiences thought finally “got her act together” as she enrolled in the college. Despite Denise (who was portrayed by actor Lisa Bonet) not making it past the first season, the show’s legacy had already been cemented.

“We have done so much real things on the show. So many things that felt real—from the AIDS and the apartheid and all of that,” actor Kadeem Hardison who played everybody’s favorite Blerd Dwayne Wayne said in a recent interview with The Breakfast Club.

And while this is true, perhaps the most tangible or calculable impact of the show’s success is evidenced in the enrollment rates at HBCU’s during and after the show’s airing. According to The National Center for Educational Statistics, between 1976 and 1994, HBCU enrollment increased by about 26%. However, the majority of this meteoric rise took place between 1986 and 1994, years where A Different World consistently held a top 10 tv ranking in the nation.

Many believe that part of the appeal beyond breaking stereotypes around Black youth, and tackling hard topics, was that it was so easily relatable for Black students of all types.

“Whatever age group you were in, whether you were retired and trying to make your contribution to these young people like Mr. Gaines was,” Charnele Brown, who played Kim said in an interview with NBC in 2017. “Whether you were a former military person like Colonel Taylor was. Whether you were somebody who thought it was over for you, but you were gonna take a chance on yourself and reboot yourself and try again like Jaleesa was. Or you were privileged and really had no concept of what the average person had to deal with like Whitley was…There was something for everybody.”

Brown added: “People could feel our pride being black. This is who we are. We love who we are. We want to learn. We want to grow. We want to be great people. We want to please our parents. I think that’s why a lot of people are holding on to us.”

Over the last week as clips from various interviews have been circulating, many ADW fans have taken to social media to show their everlasting love for the show, and reflect on their favorite moments.

Also during The Breakfast Club interview, Kadeem Hardison and Jasmine Guy who played the iconic tv diva Whitley Gilbert discussed in detail the infamous wedding scene that took place during season 5. The actor spoke on how much of the iconic speech he delivered as his longtime on screen love stood at the altar with another man, was improvised.

Speaking on how he felt “nervous” to the point where he forgot his lines, Hardison said“I was so nervous about if I don’t get it right the first time, it’s going to degrade, it’s going to get worse because I am really having a hard time committing to all of these words. I don’t believe it. Kadeem don’t believe it.”

But the audience did. And 30 years later, it’s known as one of “the greatest wedding scenes in history.”

Do you have favorite memories from A Different World? Let us know in the comments.

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