Living in A Different World

In one of my frequent phone conversations with my good friend Kofi, I heard a familiar sound in the background. “I know which episode of A Different World that is!” I remarked. I was wrong and Kofi reveled in it with a rib at my expense.

“You know what, you’re right. It is the telethon episode (Episode 420: “It’s Showtime at Hillman”). It’s been a long time since I watched A Different World,” I replied with honesty.

For the first time in 15 years, Kofi and I conversed about our love for A Different World. What makes the previous sentence profound one is how well the two of us know each other. In Atlanta, there were summers in which Kofi and I spent every day around each other; in college we went to Fox Sports Grill at Atlantic Station to eat nachos and drink Red Stripe beer, twice a week, for a year; Kofi knows the play-by-play of every girl I have interacted with and dated since I was 20; been the ear to listen for all of the breakups and family dramas, Kofi paid for the third time I took the GMAT, and a book’s worth much more.

And somehow, the first time either of us mentioned our favorite television show was in our mid-thirties.

“I never told you this?!” I asked Kofi. He laughed and replied no. “I found a bootleg box series where someone taped every episode off TV One back in 2009 and Timile and I used to watch it every night. It helped me get through my breakup with her in ’09 and it became a thing of ours,” I continued.

Before I continue, a synopsis. A Different World was a spin-off of The Cosby Show, which ran on NBC from 1987-1993. In the first season, the show focused on Denise Huxtable (played by Lisa Bonet), in her sophomore year at fictitious Hillman College, the school her parents Heathcliff “Cliff” (Bill Cosby) and Claire Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) attended. During hiatus, Bonet got pregnant in real life by her husband (Lenny Kravitz); but the powers that be did not want to portray Denise as a teenage mother and wrote her off the show. From its second to final season, the show was revamped: Phylicia Rashad’s sister, Debbie Allen became the showrunner (who made a trip to Morehouse and Spelman College in Atlanta to speak to college students about their experiences); and while it was an ensemble cast, the stars became Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) and Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison). The impact of A Different World led to a significant increase in enrollment at HBCU’s.

As alumni of Morehouse College, Kofi and I related to A Different World. We knew every character on the show because we became and/or befriended each archetype they represented. Some of the details differed; nonetheless, to a tee, the story of Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert was mine and Timile’s. Wayne was from New York and Gilbert from Virginia, so were we. Unlike Dwayne, I was no star student but was well-known around campus as a rapper/producer. Timile did not grow up affluent but was prim and proper, like Whitley (note: Timile graduated from Spelman College, the all-woman school across the street from Morhouse).

I could not watch A Different World after Timile died. If I caught it on television, I watchced an episode or two; but it reminded me of too much younger version of myself and my experiences. However, the conversation with Kofi and my current mind state prompted me to watch again. At 35 years old, I feel removed from the parallels between Whitley, Dwayne, Timile, and me; it feels like I have caught up with old friends, the same way I do when I attend Morehouse and Spelman’s homecoming.

Then I got an idea.

On a Friday night, I told my daughter, Cydney “We’re watching A Different World tonight.” Weeks earlier, I conducted an interview with my Cyd for the album I am working on, There’s Always a Girl Story. On camera, I asked my child if she had any questions about her mother. She inquired “What did other people think about you and Mommy’s relationship?” She was satisfied with my answer. Nonetheless, I felt A Different World could give my little girl some nuance and context. All I said to her was “Watch Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert. That was me and your mom.”

When Cydney is into a movie or television show, she has one of two reactions: ask millions of questions or radio silence. For two weeks, she has been the latter whenever it is on. If I play an episode as I fold laundry, she will pop her head into my room and soak it all in. As episodes play, I will point out the real buildings, used as backdrops for a fictional school, and say to her “You and I walked by this building,” or “We took pictures by this building, remember?” to color in details and draw palatable connections. At first, she did not recall. After a few episodes, she remembered.

A few nights ago, I watched Cydney’s facial expression as she absorbed all she saw and had yet to process what she observed. Halfway into the third season, Cydney finally had something to say, and it was a loaded statement.

“Now I see what you mean by Dwayne Wayne and Whitley were you and Mommy,” Cydney quipped.

So far, I feel this has been a great way to explain a lot to my daughter about her mother she does not remember. I know she has questions and I try to answer as best as I can, with honesty and integrity. However, I know my daughter needed a catalyst to understand and develop a relationship with her mother, outside of me.

As for me, college was a long time ago. I made friends-like Kofi-whom I built beautiful bonds with and our brotherly ties will last a lifetime. There are instances in which it can be a little difficult to explain to others, especially women, how I must keep the memory of Timile Brown alive for our daughter. If anything, the fact I can watch A Different World, with my daughter or by myself, is a testament to where I am, where I’m headed, and how on the night of my daughter’s birthday, I told Timile in heaven it is time to move on…I’ll write about it later.

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