I was around 7 years old when I knew I wanted to go to college.
It wasn’t because my mama and daddy told me I should. It wasn’t because I knew any college students. It was because I heard Cliff and Clair discussing the importance of education with their kids on “The Cosby Show.” It was because I watched my favorite character, Denise Huxtable, take off on her own via “A Different World.”
That spin-off show ended 25 years ago as I was finishing the eighth grade. And Wednesday night, “grown-ish” marks the first time we’ll see black student life properly portrayed on prime-time television again.
“Grown-ish” is told through the lens of Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi), the oldest child on ABC’s “black-ish,” a show that has earned comparisons to “The Cosby Show.” Zoey doesn’t attend a historically black college like Denise Huxtable did. But that’s OK. The show keeps things anchored on her experience as a young black woman forming her identity.
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I got to preview the first three episodes. And, honey, Yara Shahidi is #blackgirlmagic.
“I’ve had to relate to whiteness for a very long time. For many people of any sort of background, whether you are POC, you’re a woman, you’re an immigrant, there’s a certain having to relate to mainstream culture when mainstream culture finds it unnecessary to relate to you,” Shahidi said on a recent panel about the show. “What’s really special about this is each character is not monolithic and not telling the usual story in any sort of way.”
Showmakers Kenya Barris and Larry Wilmore created a cast of poster children for diversity as it should be — inclusive and imperfect. Zoey’s squad includes her Cuban Republican sweetheart of a roommate, a sexually empowered Jewish bisexual woman, a Southeast Asian student with Drake dreams who pushes pills, a free-spirited Basquiat, a young Malcolm X and a set of super-athlete twins, a la Venus and Serena. They are a hot mess of hormones, beauty and brilliance.
“Grown-ish,” airing on Freeform, captures adolescent angst with “Breakfast Club” inspirations and walks a delicate balance between fun sitcom and real-life issues. On “black-ish,” Zoey is popular, pretty and always right. “Grown-ish” allows us to see behind the curtain. She’s lost. She’s a little insecure. She doesn’t know who she wants to be. She’s asking a question many of us ask more than once in our lives: Is she living for herself or for others?
And she’s being young, dumb and fun. She’s unapologetically, well, flawed. OK, the show isn’t completely realistic. It’s a sitcom. She’s in a midnight class with a teacher who calls himself a professor and a doctor but is neither. The fashion is Rihanna worthy.
But the storylines don’t shy away from depth, either. The students debate about what hook-up culture means, experiment with drugs and alcohol and make the wrong decisions. In this space, freedom allows her to fail and learn, but the lessons aren’t condescending. For young people, seeing a once-perfect character like Zoey fall down is a liberation from the pressure. To see her get back up is an inspiration to do better. These types of characters matter.
When Denise went off to college and epically failed, something happened. I didn’t need to be flawless like her. Because she wasn’t flawless after all. And I didn’t need to come from an upper-class family or live in a big-city brownstone. I met characters with families more like mine with problems like the people in my neighborhood. They tackled real-world issues like poverty, racism, STDs and abusive relationships. And since Hillman is a (fictional) historically black college, blackness was portrayed in all of its beauty and nuance and shades.
“A Different World” changed my life. That’s not an overstatement. I started dreaming of Georgetown University and wishing for a place at the mecca of black education, Howard University. College was in my future. I landed at Norfolk State University and I lived out all of my Hillman dreams. And I’m not the only one. There’s a reason an entire webstore of Hillman shirts exists and SportsCenter’s Jemele Hill and Michael Smith paid tribute to the show. It’s more than a show we still stand for on Amazon Prime and Hulu. It was a movement.
From the debut of “The Cosby Show” in 1984 until the end of “A Different World” in 1993, the number of students going to college grew by 16.8 percent, according to the The New York Times. Enrollment at historically black colleges and universities grew by 24.3 percent. There’s no denying the cultural impact.
This “black-ish” spin-off is taking baby steps toward that big bang influence. It’s already been built and cast on truths that make a difference. Diversity must be intersectional, and education doesn’t just happen in the classroom. It happens in the choices we make outside of it and in the people we build with. There is no mastering life. No matter how old you get, there’s still more to learn. We’re all grown-ish.
It’s too soon to know how the series will grow. But I’ll be watching.
Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star culture columnist, @jeneeinkc.
Where to watch
“Grown-ish” airs at 7 p.m. Wednesdays on Freeform (formerly ABC Family). It premieres Jan. 3 with an hour of back-to-back episodes.