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In my neighborhood, “acting white” was an unfortunate thing we accused people of doing. We had access to education and teachers that cared. We grew up in supportive family structures. But those things do not equate to success in the ghetto. Most of the time our parents weren’t around because they worked a ton of hours, which made it way too easy to cut class in some of the public schools in our area. Peer pressure is a motherfucker when you’re just a kid.
The ghetto will eat you alive. Luck is an underrated thing—people that worked hard and changed their environments take that for granted. A stray bullet can hit you on an innocent trip to the bodega. That’s life where I grew up. Our role models not only included family, we also looked up to drug dealers because they had things we couldn’t afford. We looked up to TV characters, too. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air changed my life. Without it I probably wouldn't have gone to college.
The Fresh Prince gave us jewels on the regular. Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv (the first one, anyway) represented strong parents who wanted a different life for their kids. One a judge, the other a college professor. Both very pro-black. Their two oldest kids “acted white.” Hilary was the ditzy shopper, spoiled beyond belief. Carlton was the sell-out who dressed in sport coats, talked proper, and listened to Tom Jones. Will was there to remind everybody where they came from, but in doing so he came to realize the world was bigger than the streets of West Philly. This was a constant theme throughout the series. Will constantly struggled to shake his hood mentality while Carlton was reminded that he wasn’t “black enough” at every turn.
The show portrayed the differences between life in the ghetto versus life in the suburbs. Will’s mother moved him across the country because she feared for his life after he got into a fight with local thugs at a basketball court. Why would she be worried about a little scuffle? Because the hood plays for keeps. It is a struggle between life and death whenever you leave your house. The suburbs? Not so much, especially in a rich neighborhood like Bel-Air. There it's all about teenage hijinx and being popular. Kids growing up in the hood are forced to mature at an early age—there’s no Geoffrey to take care of you when your mother is working her second job.
The two episodes that have stuck with me 25 years later are the very first episode, “The Fresh Prince Project” and the fourth season’s eighth episode, “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud.” In the show’s premiere episode, Will arrives in Bel-Air and joins the family and members of Uncle Phil’s law firm for a formal dinner. Naturally, Will hasn’t gotten a chance to shake his “hood” mentality yet and makes fun of the bougieness of his new surroundings. The episode ends with Will and Uncle Phil facing off by misjudging each other. Will accuses his uncle of forgetting where he came from and is surprised to learn his uncle is very pro-black. Phil then dismisses his nephew as a lazy troublemaker and is stunned when Will starts to play "Fur Elise" by Beethoven when he leaves the room. It's a moment, despite their many differences, that cements their bond throughout the rest of the show.
In “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud,” Will and Carlton pledge for a predominantly black fraternity. Will is chosen over his cousin because the leaders feel like Carlton is a sell-out. Carlton then gives a phenomenal speech about who the real sell-out is, easily telling off the frat president. Despite that fact that he grew up rich, he still realizes that he’s black in America, and that being black in America means they have to stick together.
I had no idea how much Fresh Prince would seep into my own coming-of-age. I was that lazy, troublemaker like Will. I was accused of "acting white" like Carlton a bunch growing up because I was into sci-fi flicks and read books. My mind was also filled with meaningless pop culture references that most of my friends weren't that up on. I was like Oscar Wao, just not as nerdy. Despite that, I barely graduated high school thanks to my "fuck school" mentality throughout. It wasn't until I had a conversation with one of my older cousins one summer afternoon that I changed my mind. He had hustled most of his life and was worried that I was headed down the same road. It's easier to get a bundle of dope on consignment in Paterson than it is to get an education. He knew that better than anyone.
So I took my ass to the community college and figured I'd give it a shot. Next thing you know, I'm at a four-year school getting my Bachelor's. That's where I learned that being successful and driven wasn't a "white" thing. Now I had an education to go along with my contempt for "The Man." Because of The Fresh Prince (and Jay Z), I refuse to change. You might catch me on the block gutting a Dutch as I talk with my day ones about Macbeth and how Obama is going to be considered the GOAT president 10 years from now. Who could have guessed a sitcom would so deeply impact my adult life?
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air tackled race and class in a way that a young, Puerto Rican, Will Smith-listening kid from Paterson, N.J. could understand. That’s why ABC’s black-ish is such a success. It tells the same story for a different generation. Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross’ characters are successful parents trying to deal with their kids growing up in a different environment than they did. They realize, Anthony Anderson’s character especially, that “acting white” is OK. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air helped me shake that stereotype. It’s possible to be a nerd and still keep it street. You can be down for the cause and still give props to Beethoven.