HBCU representation in pop culture has seen a significant rise in the last ten years and has helped bring attention to these historic institutions.
One of the main pioneers in this space was the legendary show “A Different World,” which aired in a coveted primetime slot on NBC from 1987 to 1993. Saturday marks the sitcom’s 35th anniversary, and its impact on Black culture cannot be overstated.
“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 the iconic character Dwayne Wayne, said on The Breakfast Club during a recent interview.
But perhaps chief among the show’s influence was its effect on enrollment at the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1994, about 280,000 students attended 103 HBCUs. Between 1976 and 1994, HBCU enrollment rose by 26%. However, most of this increase transpired between the years of 1986 and 1994 — coinciding with the years “A Different World” was consistently a top 10 rated show.
Beyond promoting Black colleges, “A Different World” also offered a wide array of stereotype-busting, multi-facated, relatable characters that were not typically associated with Black people.
“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.”
The show also helped paved the way for similar series like “All American: Homecoming,” an HBCU-centered young adult drama that is building on the foundation supplied by “A Different World.” Because of that, HBCU-themed shows are continuing to be created, keeping Black colleges in the spotlight more than three decades later.
HBCUs are pivotal to the advancement of Black people and they need to be supported and represented in ways that show both their power and impact. These schools produce leaders and change-makers, facts that are reflected and felt through the TV screen when producing shows centered on Black colleges.
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