Memories of ‘A Different World’ and ‘School Daze’ remain strong for HBCUs and administrators
Stars of the 1980s TV show and film tour campuses to describe the legacy of both projects, which still resonate with school officials
Morehouse College football coach Gerard Wilcher vividly remembers his college recruitment visits in Atlanta in the spring of 1987.
When Wilcher arrived at Clark Atlanta University he saw a camera crew filming and eagerly offered to be an extra. At Morehouse, students took the recruit to a local KFC that Wilcher would see nearly a year later in director Spike Lee’s movie School Daze.
Though he didn’t make the final cut of the film, seeing students at a historically Black college featured in a movie is something the Chicago native couldn’t envision before his trip to Georgia.
“It was insane [and] unreal. When you’re 17, 18, 19, you don’t understand the magnitude of stuff like that. There was this little movie we didn’t even know what it was going to be called, but it became, like, a cult classic,” Wilcher told Andscape. “So you just don’t understand the magnitude of some stuff.
“When I was in high school. I really didn’t know about HBCUs. I didn’t know about HBCUs until Morehouse showed up. I didn’t understand the relevance, and nobody explained the differences [between] the schools to me.”
School Daze and the television sitcom A Different World, which showcased life at fictional Hillman College, were two of the few mainstream representations of Black college life in the late 1980s and 1990s. Now, more than three decades after each premiered – School Daze is currently celebrating its 35th anniversary year and A Different World marked its 36th anniversary on Sept. 24 – the legacy of the film and TV show still resonates with the cast members, and HBCU administrators.
Actors Darryl Bell, Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison, who participated in both projects, still travel to historically Black colleges and universities across the country to discuss the cultural significance of the film and TV show. The trio traveled to the Toyota HBCU NY Classic on Sept. 14 to talk about A Different World and School Daze, and they also will appear on a panel Thursday at Elizabeth City State University as part of the college’s slate of events for its homecoming, which is themed Vikings Unleashed: A Different World. Jackson State University’s 2022 homecoming theme, “It’s a Different World, was a tribute to the sitcom as well.
Despite filming School Daze before shooting A Different World, the television series was aired first. At the time, none of the actors knew the influence both projects would have on generations of Black students.
“Spike told us when we did School Daze that this was a historic moment. I remember Jesse Jackson dedicated the film before I started filming. I said, in my mind, how do you know something is historical until time has passed,” said Guy, who portrayed Whitley Gilbert on A Different World and Dina in School Daze.
Bell, who portrayed Ron Johnson on A Different World, remembers the moment he realized the potential significance of the show.
“The night after it premiered the production assistant got the ratings and ran across the stage,” he said. “We were the No. 2 show on television. I knew then it was going to be special.”
The sitcom’s lasting impact is why cast members are happy to visit so many HBCUs, he said.
“That’s the greatest part of our legacy with A Different World, that not a day goes by that one of us doesn’t have someone come up and say to us, I’m an engineer [or] a doctor because I watched A Different World. I’m an HBCU president because I watched A Different World,” Bell said. “Someone will always say to us how they impacted our lives. It’s why this show remains so relevant, because it keeps creating generations of fans and encouraging young, particularly folks of color, to go to school and get an education.”
A Different World ran for six seasons on NBC. Hardison, who portrayed Dwayne Wayne on A Different World and Da Fella Edge in School Daze, learned about the importance of higher education and HBCUs through both roles.
“I didn’t know about HBCUs until I met Spike, and I still didn’t really understand what it was,” Hardison said. “Then once we started doing A Different World and [producer and director] Debbie [Allen] came on, then I started to feel, like, OK. The first season, it didn’t feel like an HBCU that I knew from doing School Daze with Spike. When Debbie came, all of a sudden it started to feel more like my first experience.”
Conversation topics in A Different World and School Daze ranged from colorism and classism to student activism and sexual assault, themes Bell said remain important in today’s society.
“There’s an episode that deals with almost any subject that’s relevant today, whether it’s health, mental health, gun violence, student protests, financial troubles, racism, apartheid,” Bell said. “There are no issues that we dealt with on A Different World that you can’t find an analogy for today, and that’s why so many of the people who watch A Different World in real time now watch with their kids. Their kids have found A Different World and found it just as important to them.”
Current HBCU administrators say they hope to impart lessons learned from the sitcom and film to the college communities they serve.
Winston-Salem State University athletic director Etienne Thomas remembers the impression School Daze and A Different World left on her as a teenager in New York.
“I don’t think you run into any Black person that was around in the ’80s and ’90s that doesn’t have a story from School Daze or A Different World,” Thomas said. “We looked at School Daze [and] we were all waiting for Spike Lee to have another one. We wanted to know what message he was going to tell this time.”
When starting her college search, Thomas expanded her choices to include HBCUs. An HBCU college tour during her junior year of high school gave her the chance to explore many options. She wanted to attend a school that evoked the same level of connection she witnessed among the characters on A Different World.
“I was on a search for Hillman. … I couldn’t find Hillman, but I knew I wanted that experience,” Thomas said. “When I got there [to North Carolina Central] … I called my parents and I was like, ‘Oh, I found it.’ I found North Carolina Central … only because of watching School Daze, The Cosby Show and A Different World.”
Thomas said the characters portrayed in A Different World, such as cafeteria owner Vernon Gaines, are familiar to people who have attended an HBCU.
“We all remember our cafeteria workers, our financial aid workers, campus police from our days at HBCUs — we still do. Those are your go-to people. They know everything, everybody,” Thomas said. We all knew that they didn’t know anybody’s name, but we were all ‘baby,’ ‘honey,’ ‘dear’ and ‘sweetheart.’ … [The show] very much followed HBCU life.”
Jacqie McWilliams-Parker, commissioner of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, watched A Different World, and School Daze during her freshman year at Hampton University.
“We were watching A Different World and The Cosby Show and Spike Lee’s School Daze when we were 17, 18, 19, which is crazy to think about, but we were understanding all the things that come with that age group in college,” McWilliams-Parker said. “In A Different World, you saw all people, you saw all of us coming together, and experiencing the Black college experience in a way that is fun. The challenges of what’s happening on your campuses, relationships, you name it, I could appreciate that.”
She enjoyed the score of School Daze and would frequently dance along with her basketball teammates. However, the movie didn’t fully describe her HBCU experience, she said.
“School Daze, it was entertainment, but it also gave you the look of fraternities and sororities and the interaction, and I don’t know if that’s all true or not,” McWilliams-Parker said. “That’s what movies do. They show you some truths, and they show you some nontruths to entertain you.”
Regardless McWilliams-Parker, who occasionally still watches episodes of A Different World with her daughter Samone, appreciates growing up in an era with a positive portrayal of the Black community on television.
“There are shows of us, but it’s not the same HBCU connectivity, Black family community show that all of us can watch without wanting to turn it off because of language and all the other things that come with it,” McWilliams-Parker said.
“[In A Different World] these were real stories in our mind that we could relate to that were maybe happening in our own lives,” she added. “There’s a personal connection to the characters and the stories. Things that were happening then, in some ways, they’re still happening now. We’re still talking about equity, rights, classism.”
Before taking over his alma mater, South Carolina State University president Alexander Conyers watched A Different World and used the show as a example of how to navigate college as a first-generation student.
“I actually watched it in college and for me it was inspiring. It was the real world. But for me it was also educational, especially for students like myself whose parents did not attend college and who did not know a lot about college,” Conyers said. “So for many students it was a glance, a glimpse, into what college life may be like for those who did not have any real references like I did.”
One of the most memorable lessons Conyers took away from the show was learning how to face problems, a message he tries to convey to students on his campus.
“We will all go through challenges and how to overcome those adversities, how to remain on track to obtain the goal that you set out for yourself, which is to obtain a college degree,” Conyers said. “So I think really it was about, you know, friendship and also overcoming adversity and sticking to your goals. I think it helps this generation to know that what they’re going through isn’t new.”
McWilliams-Parker said the friendships and personal relationships shown on A Different World and School Daze ultimately helped demonstrate the value and appeal of Black colleges.
“You want to be what you see, so when you see an environment and you see leaders, presidents and people on campus that look like each other, I do think it sparks interest,” McWilliams-Parker said. “The activism that you saw, the differences of the hair, you got all of that. … From A Different World to School Daze, you got to see all of what [Black college] culture is.”