I recall one afternoon, when I was around ten, flipping through channels, searching for something to watch. Bored out of my mind, I soon fell upon a rerun of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a ’90s-era African-American sitcom featuring then-20-year-old Will Smith as a teenager from a tough neighborhood in West Philadelphia. Will’s mother, fearing for his safety and ability to grow in an underserved black community, sends him to live in Bel-Air, California with their wealthy relatives, the Banks. As I got comfortable on the sofa, I remember my mother walked in laughing because she recognized the TV series. She told me that it was my eldest brother Patrick’s favorite show, and that I was named after Patrick’s favorite character, Geoffrey, the British butler.
At that moment, it felt destined that I should stumble upon The Fresh Prince. When the show debuted in 1991, it aimed to challenge the societal norm that the black identity was static; that black people were criminals, dangerous, thugs, and welfare queens. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air presented blackness as a fluid identity. As a young African immigrant anxious to find his place in a foreign country, the show — and especially characters like Will, Carlton, and Ashley — served as a gateway into better understanding and embracing my own blackness.
When my mother and I arrived in America in 1999 from Cameroon, we settled in a predominantly African-American community in North Minneapolis. From the age of five, I withstood harsh name-calling by black boys and girls of the same age — at school and in our neighborhood — because of my African identity. I was always an extroverted child, but moving to the U.S. and feeling different from my black peers because I was African forced me into introversion. At the time, I didn’t understand why they taunted and isolated me. From my 5-year-old perspective, we were all black, and it was that shared blackness that drew us together, despite our various cultural differences. As I grew older, I kept trying to bridge the gap between being African and African American, my two black identities. Cameroon was my roots — it made me the individual that I am. But being African American meant constructing a black identity that would allow me to be welcomed in my black communities.
The Fresh Prince strategically used humor to interrogate divisive issues of race, class, and gender that allowed viewers from all races to relate to the show. More importantly, the show had a diverse cast of black actors that spoke to the experiences that black people, even black immigrants like myself, lived on a day-to-day basis. In high school, I witnessed first-hand how the show brought together me and the brotherhood, my high school friend group of African-American and Latino boys. Every day, we’d sit together during lunch discussing a variety of things: girls, music, and current events — literally everything. During one of these lunch periods, we discussed The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The episode that resonated most with us was “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” an episode where Will Smith’s father, Lou, suddenly reappears in his life. Lou reenters Will’s life as abruptly as he exits, leaving Will furiously questioning why his father doesn’t want him. Many of us in the Brotherhood grew up fatherless. Some of us had fathers that were incarcerated, while others had fathers who passed away when they were young. In my case, my father, like Lou, chose not to be a part of my life. When I was young, I often pondered what life with a father would be like. I constantly questioned my mother about who he was, how they met, where he was.
When I was 16, my mother and I returned to Cameroon. I told my mom before the trip that I wanted to meet my father. A week before our arrival, he suddenly passed away. I was in my room packing when my mom broke the news to me. She was concerned that I’d be angry with her, with him, with myself, and in some ways I was. However, in that moment, I simply told my mom,
“It’s alright. It’s his fault for not getting to know me. I owe him nothing.”
This was a front — deep down I wanted to break down, like Will does at the end of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse.”
My senior year in college, I chose to write my senior thesis in American Studies on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When I began my research, I had so many thoughts that my advisor had to sit me down and take a breather. Eventually, I decided to examine the way that race and class were presented via Will and Carlton Banks, Will’s nerdy, bougie cousin. Sadly, I was limited to 50 pages, but there was more to the show than these two characters: As I re-watched all six seasons of the series (best homework ever), I grew enamored with the character of Ashley Banks, Will’s younger cousin. Growing up, I was quick to ignore Ashley’s significance to the show, identifying more with Will and Carlton’s characters, while fantasizing a world in which Uncle Phil was my father. However, as I closely studied the series, it became clear to me that The Fresh Prince was ahead of its time, gifting audiences with a trailblazing black feminist icon.
When I think about the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, I think about Ashley, who, to me, in the 1990s was one of the pioneering women working to change the patriarchy on television. This was just one of the reasons that the show had such a resounding impact on me. As I closely examined every episode, I grew aware of the deeper significance lurking behind every knee-jerking, slap-sticking joke. It became apparent to me that The Fresh Prince was dedicated to the interrogation of blackness, masculinity, femininity, class, race, and brotherhood from innovative perspectives.
Moreover, no issue was left unresolved. At the end of every episode, the family would come together in the living room to discuss the issue at hand. Sometimes it would be a calm discussion on something problematic; other moments it would be like the final scene in “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse,” where Will is embraced by Uncle Phil, as tears trickle down his face.
There are episodes when Will and Carlton or another character have to confront one another to make peace. In its third season, the show examines the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots, and the family has a conversation about police brutality in America. Following their discussion, Will and the Banks family lend a hand in the cleaning efforts in the aftermath of the riots. As an impressionable Cameroon-American, I found the episodes and closing moments therapeutic because I didn’t have to sit with these real life issues by myself — I had a guide to navigate challenging conversations in my day-to-day life.
In one of the most powerful scenes of the series, Carlton is rejected from the black fraternity, Phi Beta Gamma, and delivers one of the memorable moments of the show. In the scene, Top-Dog, the fraternity leader, informs Carlton and the onlooking crowd of black students that Carlton wasn’t accepted into the fraternity. In disbelief, Carlton responds:
Carlton: Me? But, I did everything. I cooked, I cleaned, I hand washed your toilets.
Top-Dog: Everything your butler does for you. I’m not accepting no prep school, Bel-Air brand sellout into my fraternity.
Will: (Getting riled up) And you can stop with all that.
Carlton: No wait, Will. I got this one…You think I’m a sell-out. Why? Because I live in a big house, where I dress a certain way? Or maybe it’s because I like Barry Manilow.
Will: (Comically) He mean Barry White y’all.
Carlton: Being black isn’t what I’m trying to be; it’s what I am. I’m running the same race and jumping the same hurdles you are, so why are you tripping me up? You said we need to stick together, but you don’t even know what that means. If you ask me, you’re the real sellout.
Carlton unapologetically affirms his blackness when he states,
“being black isn’t what I’m trying to be; it’s what I am. I’m running the same race and jumping the same hurdles you are, so why are tripping me up?”
Throughout the series, Will and others often pick on Carlton, for not being “black enough.” Though he could be a cornball from time to time (or all the time), I identified with Carlton’s quest to be respected for his unique blackness. In electing to fight his own battle, rather than have Will intervene, Carlton asserted his blackness to be just as valuable as Top-Dog’s urban black representation. By Carlton’s definition, blackness is not and cannot be monolithic — it is an identity shared by all those who share the burden of being black, regardless of one’s class background, fashion sense, or way of speaking.
By acknowledging that blackness is boundless, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air served as an educational and motivational tool for building a strong black community, signaling the importance of being comfortable with one’s blackness. Will and Carlton’s relationship offered a representation of what a black brotherhood should look like. As both characters explored the multiplicity of their shared identity as black men, they grew to respect each other’s differences, and even more importantly, to embrace them. Through their — and Ashley’s — trials and tribulations with their identity, I learned to embrace my authentic truth. With each episode, I discovered a piece of black history that wasn’t taught in school — the nuance behind the harsh realities of being black in America.