Like nursery rhymes and ice-cream truck chimes, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song was part of the soundtrack to my childhood. The fish-out-of-water tale of a streetwise teenager and his escapades with his wealthy relatives riveted me with its unusual storylines, hip-hop interludes, and ceaseless jokes. The show has since cemented its status as a quintessential ’90s pop-culture classic, but beneath the zany neon fashions and canned laughter, I found something more. To me, The Fresh Prince, which ended its run 20 years ago, traced a surprising and humorous parallel to my reality.
As a U.K.-born Nigerian girl living in the sparsely populated Highlands of Scotland, I was more likely to hear about another alleged Loch Ness monster sighting than I was to see an actual black person in town. My surroundings undoubtedly skewed more toward Highlander than Bel-Air, but through The Fresh Prince, I finally saw people who looked like me, who lived like me—as rare black faces in a predominantly white place. Besides giving me a vault of quotable punchlines, Will and the Banks family taught me countless lessons. The Hollywood Reporter may have initially said the series was “far from a revelatory experience,” but The Fresh Prince powerfully showed me how to embrace my blackness, irrespective of situation or location.
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.
But freedom comes at a cost. Like Carlton, I also learned that being in your skin can arouse dangerous suspicion. In the episode “Mistaken Identity,” Carlton and Will face arrest under questionable circumstances while taking a road trip to Palm Springs in a swanky Mercedes. Though gently couched in humor, the episode is clear nod to the harsh discriminatory realities African Americans face for “driving while black.” Steeped in sitcom tradition, the “very special episode” ends with Carlton reluctant to face an ugly truth. But even in its “regular” episodes, The Fresh Prince’s exploration of race and identity shed light on the humor and heartbreak that accompanies coming of age as a young black person in a majority-white culture.
Also crucial to me was how the show weaved black identity into the themes of home and heritage. Something as simple as the Banks sisters’ huddled reunions and their piercing yelps of joy reminded me of my relatives. The animated glee that came with greeting those who were your own—shared history, kin, and skin—was authentic. Even if I wasn’t quite in their circle, I felt present. As a first-generation child from the African diaspora, I identified with Will’s attempts to reconcile his heritage with his environment. Will’s identity and his perception of blackness were inextricably tied to his upbringing in West Philadelphia, and his episodic footnotes and references to home were his way of staying close to his roots. Will’s oral history of his life was ultimately for his benefit, not the audience’s—a public act of recognizing where he came from. From him, I learned that home was a location, but I could take my heritage anywhere.
By the age of 10, I had become a stalwart veteran of The Fresh Prince: all 148 episodes completed and countless reruns watched. Twenty years since the show has ended, my viewing skills are a little rusty, but I still remember how it showed me the meaning of the word “black.” What we call black is really a multitude of shades, dimensions, and cultures. We use one word, but there’s a richness that lies beyond it, a majesty awaiting ever-newer ways of expression. For a little girl discovering her world from a television set, it didn’t get fresher than that.
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