The Magnolia Literacy Project
Randrika Henderson "Media Representation: From A Different World to The Quad"
Updated: Jan 16, 2021
Randrika Henderson, a graduate of Jackson State University, examines Hollywood portrayal of HBCUs in two popular television shows: A Different World and The Quad. Henderson is a member of the National Communication Association and has presented papers at conferences such as the Mississippi Communication Association; The Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Southeast Colloquium; and the National Association of African American Studies Conference. She teaches Speech Communication courses at Jackson State University and is working towards completing her PhD in Mass Communications in the Communications Studies program at the University of Southern Mississippi.
"Media Representation: From A Different World to The Quad"
I created this post to encourage discourse about A Different World and The Quad, two television shows centered on HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and University) life. Both shows present a fictitious HBCU. One offers a realistic account of Black life, history, and culture in an academic community of higher learning. The other undermines the rich legacy of HBCUs. My frustrations start here.
According to Momodu (2018), when A Different World aired from 1987 to 1993, audiences were in awe of the producers’ and writers’ vision for the show, which included social and political awareness. According to TVhertstory.com, with the airing of The Cosby Show and A Different World, enrollment at HBCUs grew by 24.3 percent. My exposure to A Different World began during the second season when Debbie Allen (co-producer) captured my attention and created a visual of the HBCU experience.
My first desire to attend college was heavily influenced by my viewing of A Different World. Allen was very creative in her approach to telling the story of Black heritage through several different characters. A Different World showed young, Black college students in a positive way, adding a level of humanity to the depiction of who we are, a perspective that had not been previously shown as effectively. Allen’s emphasis on domestic violence, rape, racism, womanism, sexism, accountability, friendship, community service, activism, love, and educational empowerment made Black people in the 1990s appreciate their Blackness. This show created a place where hope met determination. While no show fully represents an entire culture, A Different World was relevant in its season, and the show is even more relevant today. A Different World gave me a perspective that “we” could be funny, smart, sexy, vibrant, courageous, and passionate! The show introduced the world to HBCU culture (e.g. Black love, scholarship, wisdom, brotherhood, sisterhood, and leadership). The show’s portrayals of Black people as individuals who were more than poverty stricken, loud, angry, unethical, and ghetto was refreshing. It depicted individuals who took pride in being Black because the writers of A Different World knew how important it was to accurately display the HBCU experience.
A Different World highlighted issues that made us vulnerable yet proud. The writing was purposeful, and the show was true to life. Honestly, as I reflect on my experience at Jackson State University; the highly credentialed professors; my unique and courageous colleagues; my ambitious and spiritual friends; and my selfless and motivational mentors, I can say that A Different World was my reality. My social, emotional, and educational advancement at my HBCU taught me that if I focus and diligently seek to reach my highest potential, I would. I discovered that my Blackness was deep, and my quest to enhance my mind, community, and spirit would be the most satisfying thing in the world. My HBCU experience taught me that our heritage is rooted in surviving adversities; making the impossible, possible; and building upon the foundation established by our ancestors. It is this spirit, which was captured so eloquently in A Different World, that heightened my awareness of Black vulnerability and Black pride, and ultimately shaped my perspective of HBCUs.
Flash forward. When BET (Black Entertainment Television) aired the television series, The Quad, in 2017, the media spotlight was on HBCUs again, this time in a less favorable fashion. As I watched The Quad, I wondered where the representations of Black culture and tradition were. I was shocked at the audacity of the producers and writers, who issued an insulting example of HBCU life in a desperate attempt to make money. This was made evident to me in the first two episodes. The show featured horribly inaccurate and oversimplified scenes, supposedly to spotlight African American history. I was disappointed to see that the students appearing in one scene did not discipline themselves to read or observe artifacts, speeches, documentaries, or other resources on our history and were not even capable of engaging in dialogue. This ill-conceived scene reflected the producers’ and writers’ lack of insight and creativity.
How could they create a series based on the HBCU experience devoid of substance? I felt like I was reading a discussion on Twitter or Facebook, and the only thing missing was a hashtag at the bottom of the screen. Surely, the writers of The Quad know that scholarship exists on the HBCU experience, so why doesn’t the storyline include intelligent classroom scenes? In any given classroom on a real HBCU campus, one might find students workshopping ideas on Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, Frederick Douglas, Lorraine Hansberry, Tony Morrison, August Wilson, or other brilliant Black minds. A Different World embraced and underlined this reality while simultaneously educating viewers. Missing from The Quad were images of professors who modeled and taught such brilliance; dorm directors who strictly enforced policies but also committed themselves to mentorship; thought-provoking scenes about racism; community service (not as a punishment); soul food and table talk; constructive relationships between students as friends and colleagues; and emphasis on a culture of scholarship and excellence. Sadly, I find The Quad very disrespectful to the individuals who wake up early mornings, ready to educate, inspire, and serve their students while fulfilling their institutions’ missions at HBCUs.
What were they thinking? That HBCU students do nothing more than go to parties, have sex, and play rap music? Not only is The Quad’s portrayal of the HBCU experience inaccurate; it is offensive – and no different from a blackface minstrel show.
Every scene in The Quad reinforces the negative stereotypes in narratives that are consistently embedded in people's minds through media about Black people – narratives that we are ignorant buffoons, unlawful citizens, and promiscuous people. It is hard for me to accept this lazy style of writing as a mirror of HBCU culture.
MY HBCU, Jackson State University, is a place where I found a sense of my Blackness. A place where I saw countless Black professionals – women and men – with doctorate degrees. A place where people educated students and went the extra mile to help them succeed. A place where students could hang out in their skin. A place where students were more than just a quota for funding. While the inclusion of Black content is heavily emerging in the media, we must never compromise our value for a monetary win. HBUCs function as places where Black Scholarship, Black Culture, Black History, and the Black Future are one. In “The Talented Tenth”, W.E.B. Dubois referred to the most exceptional members of the Black race as “missionaries of culture among their people.” The goals of HBCUs have been traditionally aligned with Dubois’ philosophy. Throughout the history of their existence, HBCUs have aimed to prepare young, Black scholars to be brilliant leaders in their communities. The writers and producers of A Different World clearly understood this, but the creators of The Quad were clearly clueless.
Advanced TV Herstory. (2017, December 7). tvherstory.com. Retrieved November 01, 2020, from https://www.tvherstory.com/longform/2017/ 12/7/debbie-allen-shapes-a-different-world
Dubois, W.E.B. (1903). The Talented Tenth. Teaching American History. Retrieved November 01, 2020, from https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-talented-tenth/
Momodu, S. (2018, January 25). A Different World (1987-1993). Retrieved November 01, 2020, from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/different-world-1987-1993/
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