The pride of being #HBCUmade — a graduate from a historically Black college or university — is palpable on social media and in pop culture, and it dates as far back as the early '90s, when both Martin Lawrence and Will Smith rocked HBCU 'nalia on their hit shows Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, respectively.
In partnership with Target, the latest episode of R29 Unbothered's Go Off, Sis podcast explores how TV shows like A Different World, movies like School Daze and Drumline, and concerts like Beychella, have introduced the layered beauty, excellence, and importance of HBCUs to the masses.
“Pop culture plays such an important role in so many ways. It’s oftentimes our introduction to things,” says Danielle Cadet, host of Go Off, Sis. “For me, A Different World was definitely my introduction to HBCU culture. It was really the first time I saw Black kids in college.”
Whitney Carlyle, a HBCU grad from Florida A&M University (affectionately known as FAMU) and content operations lead at Vice Media Group, felt seen the moment she saw Charmaine Tyesha Brown on A Different World. “She was spunky. She was fast talking. She was energetic. She was always in your business. She was going to correct you when you were wrong. All that is me 1,000%,” says Carlyle.
Cree Summer, who played A Different World’s resident activist Freddie Brooks, joins in to discuss how director Debbie Allen (a Howard University alumna) infused the show with HBCU realness and fought for the cast to tackle issues like date rape and AIDS.
“We had stepping. We had protests. [Debbie Allen] individuated all of these characters so that, as viewers, you could feel represented,” says Summer, who goes on to explain how the parade of celebrity cameos (including Lena Horne, Gladys Knight, and Halle Berry) were stunned by the offscreen shot-callers. “All the chicks that came on were just full of fire. And I remember the one recurring thing: They just couldn’t believe we were being directed by a Black woman, executive produced by a Black woman, and the show starred a Black woman. I mean, everybody couldn’t believe it.”
Summer, who is the voice behind some notable animated Black characters (like Susie Carmichael of Rugrats), also believes in the importance of having Black artists voice Black characters: "If I see a Black character, I want to know there's a Black person behind it. Otherwise, you don't understand my struggle."
To hear Summer talk more about her voice work as well as A Different World's long-term cultural impact, listen to the full episode, below.