30 years ago, Bill Cosby extended his legacy in television and touched on life that no other television show has touched on. After creating cartoons for children in the 70s, and setting the bar for black families in the early to mid-80s, but from the mid-80s to the early 90s, Bill Cosby tapped into the lives of black college students who went to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).
A Different World aired on September 24, 1987, on NBC. The series was a spin-off of The Cosby Show, as it centered around Denise Huxtable (played by Lisa Bonet) and her life at a fictional HBCU, Hillman College. After Bonet left after the first season, the show centered around Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert (portrayed by Kadeem Harrison and Jasmine Guy), and their friends. In its six-season run, the show provided uplifting and positive story lines of African American life, but it also touched on issues that were taboo for its time. A Different World broke barriers on race, gender, social class, and youth. It defined a generation and inspired many at that time, and those who have come after, to achieve more, go to college and use their talents to give back to their communities.
In honor of the 30th anniversary of A Different World, here are 11 topics that the show touched on before it was trendy to do so.
(1) Date Rape
In season two, Freddie became a victim of sexual assault while on a date with a baseball she had a crush on. Prior to this episode, there wasn't any language developed around incidents like this, and due to this episode, others can now verbalize what happened to them if they’re ever in this situation.
In the episode "Mammy Dearest", colorism came into play when a dorm dedication ceremony took place and Kim (played by Charnele Brown) had to come to terms with the insecurities about her skin tone. Using Mammy as the discussion platform and a Nikki Giovanni poem as a passage to strength, A Different World showed that black is truly beautiful with this episode.
(3) Domestic Abuse
In a disturbing episode from season five, Gina falls victim to domestic abuse and the Hillman community comes together to save her from a misogynist student and rapper. For many viewers, it was a learning experience on toxic love, looking for the red flags, and why people fall into those relationships.
(4) Sexual Health
In an episode starring Tisha Campbell and Whoopi Goldberg in season 4, A Different World touched on the HIV/AIDS epidemic happening in the late 80s/early 90s. At the time, HIV/AIDS was a difficult topic for the country to speak on, but the cast and writers of the show brought a storyline, a face, and true emotions to those who were suffering from the disease, letting the world know this disease wasn't a moral judgement.
(5) Racism/Racial Profiling
A Different World was not afraid to confront racism. From Ron getting car spray painted to a saleswoman believing Whitley couldn’t afford a gift because of race, A Different World didn’t shy away from showing one of the struggles Black Americans face every day.
(6) Gender Equality
Between Whitley being sexually harassed, Kim being belittled in Med School, and Dwayne having dreams of what it would be like to be a woman during the 1991 elections, A Different World didn’t shy away from the discrimination women, and women of color.
(7) PWI vs. HBCU
As social media grows, this conversation grows bigger and bigger each year. A Different World was the first to touch on this subject, in an episode where Dwayne’s childhood friend tried to convince him that going to a PWI would be more beneficial than a HBCU. Just like the episode, in the end, all that matters is that you have the degree.
(8) Economic Privilege
While the southern belle Whitley and the Detroit hustler Ron were better off than some of the characters from the show, they’ve both had moments where they learned about those who live less than them; Ron running into an old business owner turned homeless man and Whitley who worked at an inner city center and at a public school and realized that her upbringing was different from those who grew up in poverty.
(9) The Black Identity
Freddie, the free-spirited activist at Hillman, had her blackness questioned in class during one episode. It’s was the first time a television show showcased and made viewers question themselves on what exactly does being “black” mean.
(10) Interracial Dating
During season 4, Kim began to date Matthew, Freddie’s white cousin and was the subject of gossip. While many were quick to criticize Kim and her choices in partners, Kim had no problem clapping back at Shazza Zulu, and Ron who dated “Kathy Creamcheese from Virginia Tech”.
(11) White People in Black Spaces
Maggie, Millie, Matthew, Freddie’s mother, they were some of the first white people attending HBCUs, loving black people, and they were the first to get invited to the cookout.
What was your favorite moment from A Different World?