When the show debuted on British screens, it offered a kaleidoscopic array of black characters rarely shown on mainstream television. In the ’90s, only the barbershop-family sitcom Desmond’s and the BBC sketch show The Real McCoy offered a tiny, comedic glimpse into black British life. According to the media scholar Timothy Havens, The Fresh Prince gained “unexpected popularity” in Europe, and by 1997, it was the second best-selling U.S. sitcom in international markets. The globalization of African-American culture and music resonated with young British audiences, contributing to the show’s appeal.
Though it was a U.S. import, The Fresh Prince showed U.K. and global audiences that black people were multidimensional individuals, rather than a uniform entity. In a 2015 interview with TIME, the show’s co-creator Susan Borowitz noted, “There was a sense of this monolith of a black experience ... We liked the idea of challenging that.” On The Fresh Prince, black characters could be serious, whimsical, profound, shallow, or dorky. We could see ourselves as professors-turned-dancers, Barry Manilow fans, millionaire Ivy League lawyers, glee-club singers, or even—like the sarcastic butler, Geoffrey—British.
The show’s younger characters were instrumental in helping me forge my identity as a black girl. If my white friends related to Lizzie McGuire, then Ashley Banks, the family’s younger daughter, was my Transatlantic counterpart. She avoided the one-dimensional tropes common among black female characters—she was neither the Loyal Best Friend With Sage Advice, nor the racially codified Sassy Sidekick. Sometimes she even had the spotlight all to herself, allowing the show to trace her development as a character. The Fresh Prince showed her going on dates with teenage heartthrobs, engaging in Girl Scout-related hijinks, exploring after-school jobs, and dreaming of a music career. In showing that her story mattered, the show signaled to me that I mattered.
Of course, I also desired to be cool like Will and stylish like Hillary, but it was preppy Carlton’s exploration of his racial identity that I found most fascinating. Carlton woefully lacked the requisite cultural signifiers Will associated with being an authentic black person. His cluelessness about rap music and African-American youth slang, coupled with his country-club attire, was the antithesis to Will’s idea of blackness. However, the straight-laced, Princeton-bound teenager functioned as the necessary straight man to his cousin’s carefree clown. Carlton’s existence didn’t hinge on an arbitrary concept of blackness, as formulated by his cousin. Instead, he usually “Carlton-danced” his way through Will’s incessant jabs, Tom Jones record in-hand. This signature goofy dance was a subtle act of defiance: Funny as it was, it allowed him to resist the scrutiny he faced for being black on his own terms—with this dance, he declared that his blackness would not be a constraint but could instead be its own kind of freedom.