Reunions & Representation: Goonight, sweet (Fresh) Prince (of Bel-Air)

28 Dec

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, 1990-1996. Image via theurbandaily.com.

I’ve never been a big television watcher, but the 90s TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was my jam.  I wasn’t religious, but I watched that show like it might broadcast the Second Coming.  I loved Carlton’s dorky antics, and Will’s smoothness with prep school girls, as well as his ambition. Ashley’s figuring-it-all-outness paralleled mine, while Hilary’s rampant materialism was hilarious backdrop against which to compare the quest for a meaningful life.

Hearing about the cast’s reuniting last week gave me a warm feeling of reconnecting with an older part of myself.  Seeing pictures of the whole gang (sans Vivian Banks #1 Jane Hubert-Whitten or Vivian Banks #2 Daphne Maxwell Reid, unfortunately) made me realize how much I had loved the show – and what Fresh Prince had done for my own development as a conscientious human being. Alfonso Ribeiro as Carlton, James Avery as Uncle Phil, Tatyana Ali as Ashley, Joseph Marcel as Geoffrey, and of course, Will Smith as Will Smith.  As a fictional family, as an ensemble cast, and as a pivotal part of nineties’ culture for millions of viewers, they were excellent.

The cast of The Fresh Prince reunited for the 2011 holiday season. Image via mirror.co.uk.

Fresh Prince succeeded at mixing base and high-brow humor with real situations to great comedic effect.  For a gangly, white, largely single-parented elementary schooler, the show was a window for me into a totally different world. I’ve always had friends from different cultural backgrounds, but somehow, peering into the Banks’s living room every night provided a new sense of (one kind of) Black American life. One that was imperfect, and full, and family-oriented- and kind of like mine, but harder. I learned from what felt like primary sources what it meant to be Black in America in the post-Black Is Beautiful movement, during the ongoing rise of hip-hop and harder-edged rap. Seeing a pixelated representation of the self-proclaimed Prince’s grappling with his own identity helped to develop my own sense of the privileges I do and don’t carry.  And at the same time, the show was consistently laugh-out-loud funny and relateable.

Fresh Prince had its issues, like any program – Jazzy Jeff, for instance embodied many negative stereotypes of young Black men such as theft, stinginess, and coming on too strong to women – but the fact that Fresh Prince was dedicated to depicting a Black family’s world in a thorough way was important. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air left viewers with a message each time they tuned in, but it was one the show didn’t conk you over the head with a skillet of wholesomeness, à la Seventh Heaven.

Instead, Fresh Prince proclaimed something Americans need to see represented much more often: that the Black experience is rich, is important, is complicated, is fun, and is valuable.  There are definitely problematic elements to my overrelating to this show. But for me, as a dorky white girl who tuned in like getting my braces off depended on it, this positive representation was a part of why anti-racism is so important to me today. Representation – who has power in a fictional scenario, who has the most lines, the agency, empathy – is critical. Like Ripley in Alien, Fresh Prince broke some stagnant old barriers.

And helped a generation of us who can do the entire “In West Philadelphia, born and raised…” rap to grow up.

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