10/12/2012 12:47 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

A Different World: The Post-Millennial Perils of Black Family T.V. Programming

Growing up as a child in the mid-1980's, my friends and I practically lived outside!

We played football, I most commonly with the distinction of being "all-time quarterback" while guiding both teams on historic drives up and down our street. We raced our bikes downhill only to ascend the hill to race down all over again. We shared in games of basketball in my friend Rahim's backyard, then chased after Pam, the prettiest girl on the block who conveniently lived across the street from Rahim, thus expressing our undying love and devotion to her. When in need of nourishment, we spent much of our allowance at the candy house. And after devouring our treats, we resumed our play.

There were only two forces powerful enough to stop us mid-play and send us sprinting to our abodes. One was the street lights coming on and the subsequent fear of discipline for not being indoors.

The other, the top of NBC's Thursday night line-up! For an entire hour, our young eyes were affixed to our television screens. The characters we watched were articulate, beautiful, educated, engaging, humorous, and inspiring. These characters also looked like us. My early conceptions of family, fatherhood, higher education, and professional life were shaped by both The Cosby Show and A Different World. For much of my childhood, the Friday morning bus ride to school was spent recounting favorite scenes from the night before with my friends.

One recent evening, our young family had a free night to sit down and to watch an hour of television programming together, an admitted rarity. We began to peruse the prime time line-up for an empowering, inspiring, uplifting family show. Equipped with far more channels than the basic channels of the majority of my childhood years, we clicked our remote in search of well-acted, well-scripted entertainment for families similar to the ones of my youth.

Instead, what we encountered were all but.

Images of women purporting to be housewives and fighting in public places.


A sitcom whose story-line revolved around the frequency of the characters sexual conquests with each other.


A singing and dancing competition.


Yet another singing and dancing competition.


Our saving grace that evening? A Phineas and Ferb marathon.

To be clear, African Americans are not a monolithic people. Such cannot be attributed to any ethnic group. But based upon many of the most prominent depictions of Black life on television today, which itself is few and far between, it would appear that when depicting Black people, pathology is the order of the day. I am not suggesting that every Black character on television be a doctor or lawyer with five children, and I am not suggesting that all programming be created for family viewing. Yet rarely today are we afforded a depiction of smart, intelligent, inspiring Black characters, that can be enjoyed as a family, who give us something to celebrate rather than to frown upon.

The Cosby Show and A Different World were not only entertaining, but relevant, tackling important social issues in a ground-breaking fashion when other shows dared not touch them. Racism, teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, the impact of divorce on children, and many other issues were engaged to bring clarity and greater insight to these issues as well as encourage dialogue around them. And A Different World is credited with swelling the enrollment of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a noteworthy and unparalleled achievement for television in any era.

Last week, after a full day, our family returned home to occupy our living room. As our children began to enthusiastically play with their toys on the floor in front of us, a rerun of The Cosby Show came on. My wife and I watched as Vanessa and her short-lived singing group, The Lipsticks, received much needed voice lessons and were later torn asunder by Claire Huxtable for their too revealing attire and dance moves.

I briefly paused from our viewing to behold the radiance of my wife's smile and glassy, happy eyes that had been made moist by the intensity of her laughter. Then I gazed upon our children. They had ceased their play - an unfathomable occurrence - and were watching The Cosby Show intently, seemingly entranced by what was before them.

I was amazed! Almost thirty years later, the show still has the power to stop children mid-play!

As the episode concluded, my son asked, "Can we watch another one?" His echo, our daughter, quickly followed behind with a shortened inquiry; "Another one?" And while I was all too happy to oblige, I was deeply concerned as well. For it appears that to find meaningful Black family television programming in the new millennium, we must return to the old one.

It's a different world from where we came from.