About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Look for the About US newsletter launching this winter.
The hot spot on campus is an open space surrounded by trees where a multiracial group of college students gathers, some dancing, others sitting and one taking a selfie.
The campus “lame spot” is where two white students wearing red-white-and-blue trucker caps and what appear to be Trump T-shirts distribute fliers near a table dotted with American flags and a banner with a fake brick pattern and the words “build the wall.”
This is college 2018 for Zoey Johnson. This is “Grown-ish.”
The new Freeform network show, a spinoff of ABC’s “Black-ish,” debuted this month to solid reviews and a sizable audience, following Zoey from her suburban multigenerational California home with her doctor mother and advertising executive father to college at the fictional and multiracial California University of Liberal Arts.
“Grown-ish” is drawing comparisons to the influential 1980s sitcom “A Different World,” a spinoff of “The Cosby Show” set at the fictional historically black Hillman College, where the Huxtables’ daughter Denise attends their alma mater. Both sitcoms illustrate how politics play an important role in black college students’ lives, but they also reveal how the black college experience has changed in a generation.
The first episode of “Grown-ish” established the political landscape on college campuses. Zoey acknowledges that the university’s founder “dabbled in slavery.” The campus has gender-fluid restrooms. Aaron Jackson, a black male student, noted the lack of black professors on campus and his desire to have more of them.
On “A Different World,” which aired on NBC from 1987 to 1993, student Freddie Brooks discovered that her campus also has a slavery connection and was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Her schoolmate Whitley Gilbert revolted when the dorm and the restrooms go co-ed. And at Hillman, all of the college’s professors were black and constantly pushed black students to be twice as good in a world that will dismiss them even with a college degree. The show was credited with contributing to a rise in black college enrollment in the 1980s and 1990s.
Because both are spinoffs of groundbreaking sitcoms about black families, some comparisons between “Grown-ish” and “A Different World” are natural. Both series were developed around cool and confident young black women who are trendsetters on and off screen. Yara Shahidi, who portrays Zoey, is a social justice activist who often appears on magazine covers. Lisa Bonet, who portrayed Denise Huxtable, was an it-girl of the 1980s whose unique style and independence endeared audiences.
But “Grown-ish” isn’t this generation’s “A Different World,” and it shouldn’t be.
Black college students today have different experiences than their Generation X parents. They’re more likely to attend predominantly white institutions, where white supremacists have marched on campus carrying burning tiki torches. They’re facing acts of intimidation from roommates and they’re fighting against systemic racism at institutions across the country, most notably at the University of Missouri, where protests led to resignations of the chancellor and the university system president. On historically black campuses today, students are enrolled in colleges that are underfunded and struggling to survive.
This generation of black college students needs its own show that addresses contemporary issues they face, and it deserves more than one. Black people don’t exist as a monolith, and neither do their experiences.
In recent years, television has responded to the experiences of black college students with fresh portrayals. Last year, BET debuted “The Quad,” a one-hour drama set on a fictional historically black college campus where issues of sexual assault, hazing and institutional funding were explored. Netflix’s 2017 series “Dear White People“ addressed the interpersonal prejudices black students face along with clashes they have with campus police to administrators.
This new era calls for new narratives.
But “A Different World” will always be an important portrayal of black college students’ experiences. It was a groundbreaking show because it was among the first TV programs to address the AIDS epidemic, date rape, the police beating of Rodney King and the resulting Los Angeles rebellion. And the show did it through a black lens and illustrated how current events off campus affected black students on campus. The show was a significant representation of black culture and it is the reason I attended two historically black colleges.
Although it was edgy for its time, “A Different World” was devoid of LGBT representations and people with diverse sexual identities and gender expression. Black college students with those identities existed then and they do now.
“Grown-ish” moves to where college students are today and includes the issues they face, even if the rest of us don’t want to face them. The show offers an authentic, realistic and diverse portrayal of college life today from students’ drug use to social class clashes within families and LGBT identities. “Grown-ish” shows there are many paths that lead to the first day of school and graduation day.
In its first two episodes, “Grown-ish” has made clear that it is prepared to be real about today’s college students’ experiences and how they’re affected by the political climate. It is what this generation needs now and what the rest of us need to see.
More from About US: