"The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" showed me there is no one way to be Black
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air premiered on NBC 27 years ago today, September 10th.
Anyone who is familiar with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air knows that Will Smith had somewhat of a “rags to riches” story (the actor plays a fictional version of himself with the same name). He grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood that was perceived as rough; his life would have remained stagnant had he stayed there. Because of an altercation between Will and some other guys during a basketball game, his mother sent him to live with his well-off uncle and aunt to have a shot at a better life. (You know how the theme song goes…)
Before entering college, I too lived in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.
The schools that I attended consisted of mostly low-income Black students and Black teachers. My friend group was made up of other Black kids who looked like me and who I could easily relate to. Everything in my daily life was comfortable and familiar.
I didn’t know how it felt to be outside of that comfort zone until I arrived on my college campus, which is a predominantly white institution.
I was already aware of the type of university I was attending, but that initial shock still fell over me when I entered classrooms in which my brown skin was the darkest shade in the room.
Although Bel-Air Academy, the school Will and his cousins attended on the show, is a preparatory school and not a university, I’ve found quite a few similarities between Will’s academic experiences and mine.
Let’s start with the episode titled “Day Damn One,” in which Will found out that Bel-Air Academy was an all boys’ school. Though Will had to adjust to this new school, his method of adapting still allowed him to stay true to himself (and to his amazing fashion sense).
The Fresh Prince writers let Will’s character maintain the same personality that he had when he was living with his mother in Philadelphia, and I think that’s one of most excellent parts of the show. His Philly accent stayed in tact; he didn’t become stiff or uppity simply because he was surrounded by people who lived different lifestyles than he was accustomed to. He also never tried to change the people who were around him. He continued to be himself, and he allowed his friends, family, and peers to live unapologetically as well.
I remember the episode, “The Alma Matter,” when Will and his cousin, Carlton, are interviewed by a Princeton recruiter at their academy. Despite needing to prove to the recruiter that he was good enough to get into the prestigious school, Will’s approach to the interview did not compromise his character.
It is important to note that, not only is Princeton a private Ivy League university, Princeton is a predominantly white institution — two privileged environments Will had not been exposed to before moving to Bel-Air.
Will’s solution to this dilemma? Be the person he knows how to be the best: himself. With his jokes, snarky comments, and overall carefree attitude, he made a good impression on the recruiter, which resulted in him receiving a conditional acceptance.
He did not have to do anything outrageously different to make the recruiter like him — which is far from the biased reality experienced by most Black people trying to advance themselves in the professional world.
Will did not have to shapeshift into an “acceptable” or “digestible” Black person in order to be taken seriously. No accent changing or code switching took place. He wore the same inside-out jacket that he always wore to school. Will was normal, real, authentic, and the recruiter still thought he would be a great fit for Princeton. That Fresh Prince moment really touched me because that is not usually my reality when I am in professional spaces. In those kinds of environments, I find myself needing to be hyperaware of my body language, my appearance, and my hair, of how I talk, and especially of what I say. I do it out of fear of being seen as the “angry Black girl” or as “ghetto.”
I am still working on building the amount of confidence that Will showed during his Princeton interview, but seeing someone who shares my Blackness be his most authentic self confirmed that I don’t have to be a certain type of Black person to be worthy of respect and opportunities.
While I mostly relate to Will’s character, there are actually a few scenes where I feel myself deeply aligned with Carlton. (Plus, no Fresh Prince appreciation post would be complete without mention of Carlton.)
The scene that instantly comes to mind is from the episode “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud.” We see Carlton and Will pledging a fraternity at the fictional University of Los Angeles. Will’s carefree and laid-back personality once again proves to work in his favor; he receives an offer of acceptance into the fraternity.
The fraternity president, who is also Black, rejects Carlton, calling him a “sellout.”
The president’s reasoning for his judgment was due to Carlton’s wealthy upbringing and the fact that Carlton’s geeky personality wouldn’t “fit in” with the rest of the brothers.
Carlton defends himself:
(You can watch the entire scene here.)
I didn’t completely understand the gravity of the conversation between Carlton and the frat president until I received backlash from relatives and high school peers after choosing to attend a predominately white institution. Several of my high school classmates questioned why I’d want to attend a school with thousands of students who don’t look like me, and who don’t understand Black culture.
I had even been accused of hating myself and my Blackness. They claimed I was only going to this school to further erase my heritage. I couldn’t believe it.
These insults used to bring me a great deal of pain, but during my time in college, I have grown to not only love my Blackness more than ever before — but I have grown to love all the different kinds of Blackness on the spectrum.
Carlton was singled out a lot in Fresh Prince because he didn’t act like the “typical” Black person. He was equipped with a large vocabulary and spoke in a “professional” tone. He wore clothing that Will teased him for, and he had no shame in showing off his intelligence.
In several episodes, however, Carlton tried changing how he looked, spoke, and behaved in order to fit in with Will’s friends and with their expressions of Blackness. Carlton was never able to keep up the charade very long, though, and Will was usually the one who made him snap out of it.
In today’s television era, it is rare to find a show with mostly Black characters that I can relate to.
There are many aspects of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that feel familiar to me as I navigate how I fit into this world: Hillary’s desire for the finer things in life despite her obvious spending problems, Ashley’s fight for independence while she develops into her own person, and Geoffrey’s sarcastic and witty comebacks.
The characters on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air showed me that there is no one way to be Black. Blackness is not one size fits all.
So, on the 27th anniversary of your first airing, here’s to you and everything you represent, Fresh Prince. And, of course, rest in peace Uncle Phil.