Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Credit: Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank

February is Black History Month. Here, an HG contributor celebrates The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, one of the most prominent Black sitcoms of the ’90s, for how it made her a free spirit in her career, her style, and her way of life.

From the moment Will Smith stepped out of the yellow taxi cab and entered his new life in Bel-Air, it was obvious his transition would be anything but smooth sailing. With the exception of his younger cousin Ashley and his Aunt Vivian, no one seemed to embrace his colorful personality. The rest of his family didn’t understand him or the world he came from. In all honesty, they didn’t want to try to understand.

In the very first episode of the series, we already notice that Will speaks and dresses differently than everyone else. Soon, we also learn that he has a different perspective and different interests from almost everyone he meets in Bel-Air, too.

Will’s culture shock was essentially a reflection of my whole childhood.

While I was never uprooted from my urban, predominantly Black New York City neighborhood to live with my rich uncle in a predominantly white neighborhood, I always felt a deep connection to the struggles that Will encountered. He constantly tried to stay true to his identity while battling the expectations people had set for him based on his background. Within my own peer group, I never really found my place. Then I enrolled in a predominantly white high school, and my struggle to find friends worsened.

I was always stuck somewhere between fitting in and standing out. And I hadn’t yet accepted that standing out felt much more natural to me.

Most children found pleasure in joining cliques and participating in “cool” extracurricular activities. I preferred being alone in a classroom during lunch and recess so I could listen to music. Time to myself was more important to me than time spent trying to fit in with others. Most girls danced and jumped Double Dutch after school, but I loved ceramics classes and poetry slams. I once joined the school dance team just to prove to myself that I could dance as well as my classmates—and so that my parents would be happy. They always wanted me to do things they believed other girls my age should be doing.

But I had my own plans.

In the episode “Bang The Drum, Ashley,” Will’s penchant for self-expression quickly rubs off on his impressionable young cousin.

Ashley, the youngest member of the Banks clan, is the first person in the family with whom he truly bonds. Not long after meeting Will, she shares that she is unhappy with how her parents control her free time. Ashley has a packed schedule of extracurricular activities from violin lessons to tennis matches, and plenty of other activities that most 13-year-olds wouldn’t find remotely interesting. Will introduces her to the activities he enjoys, like rapping and playing the drums.

While Ashley doesn’t completely fall in love with the drums, she learns a vital lesson. For the first time in her life, she is able to tell her parents that she needs to do things that actually make her happy. The audience would never see a timid Ashley conform to her parents’ expectations again. Sure, her newfound freedom would get her in trouble sometimes (i.e. the Season 5 episode when she goes behind her parents’ backs and enrolls in public school). But it would also let her explore her passions.

If Will wasn’t inspiring other people to loosen up, his free spirit was evident in his style of dress.

When Will first enrolls in the all boys prep school, Bel-Air Academy, he is utterly disturbed by the stuffy uniforms that students have to wear. The thought of blending in drives him crazy. Will being Will, he flips the uniform’s navy blue blazer inside out, revealing a funky pattern and letting him feel more comfortable in a situation that forces him to be someone he isn’t. Soon, his willingness to stand out rubs off on others who copy his reversed jacket.

From the moment Will showed up at the Banks’s residence in loud, brightly colored streetwear, he brightened the dull neighborhood of Bel-Air. Will used fashion to reflect his identity—even if it wasn’t the “appropriate” thing to do. When I was younger, I wanted to dress however my heart desired, just like Will did. But as an impressionable teen, it felt more important to keep up with the latest trends.

I remember sitting in my bedroom when I was 15 years old, feeling so unhappy because the clothes in my closet didn’t feel like mine. They were carbon copies of the people I thought I was supposed to look like. Desperate to break away from the crowd, I decided to revamp my clothes myself.

I distressed everything, and turned old jackets into cools vests by adding patches and cutting off sleeves. I even went so far as to teach myself DIY nail art and make my own clip-in hair extensions. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have a rich uncle to bankroll my new fashion obsession—but it became a passion project instead. Eventually, like Will, I accepted that I was actually happiest when I could bring some flavor to my style, even if meant that my classmates raised their eyebrows at Mika 2.0.

But like Will in Fresh Prince, people soon embraced my uniqueness and wanted to emulate it.

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, which I learned as a 15-year-old trying to break out of a box I felt trapped in. When people were interested in my new style, I felt free—I had presented something different from the norm and, for the first time in my life, I could be proud of my differences—not embarrassed by them. Today, I still celebrate how my appearance exudes my personality. Whether I’m trying out bold makeup or wearing millions of prints, I feel my best when I’m not following trends.

When I embraced this freedom, I started uncovering parts of my identity that would essentially shape my adulthood. I started exploring my love of makeup and writing, which is now my career. Had I been focused on what everybody else—including my parents—wanted for me, I wouldn’t be the successful person that I am today.

In Fresh Prince, when Will was unapologetically himself, it often got him further than any of the other characters. Now, I feel the same way about my own life.