To make a long story short, American culture is a mix of both European and African influences. The whites of Europe and blacks of Africa, coming to America in radically different scenarios, made their marks upon society. It’s hard to deny that the black influence makes America dynamic and distinctive. The disruptive, disgraceful history of slavery denied so many people a fair and free existence. Nevertheless, their home was that same place that refused to honor them. I was so shaken during the George Floyd protests when I heard former Celtics coach and now 76ers coach, Doc Rivers say, “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”
Black Americans have been in this country longer than my family and probably more than most Americans. They have deep connections to this land. Without getting lost in the woods of a historical dissection, I only want to set the backdrop. Black Americans have struggled to be seen as Americans. From the chains of slavery, to segregation and Jim Crow, to Jackie Robinson and birtherism on Obama. White America has consistently fought back against inclusion.
One place where black people were allowed to be seen was in entertainment. The earliest minstrel shows were black people acting as clownish caricatures. Shortly after, they invented arguably the best form of American music: jazz. To be followed by blues, rock n’ roll, RnB, rap, hip-hop, and pop. The first album I ever bought was Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle in 1993. I was way too young (13) for it, but I loved the music and rapped all the ludicrous lyrics. I think I grew up in a time of white reluctantly beginning to accept black. Back when Bill Cosby was still “America’s Dad” and not “Rapey Cosby”, black culture was all over my radar. I listened to rap, followed black sports stars, and watched MTV/TV, which was increasing the black cultural footprint. The Cosby Show, Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were all must-see TV for me. But it was the latter which I remember most.
Will Smith and I shared a first name and last initial. He’s from West Philly, I’m from West of West Philly. We were both class clowns and loud, goofy and charming. I used to and still can rap every lyric of his theme song: “In West Philadelphia, born and raised…” I bought his rap albums from Homebase up until Big Willie Style. In prep school, I turned my sport coat inside out like he did at his prep school. I used to do the Carlton dance. I had a wicked crush on Ashley (she is one year older than me). I used to think Vanna White was my first TV crush, but I think it might have been Ashley. I still think she (Tatyana Ali) is gorgeous.
The Fresh Prince was my glimpse into a black family. The Cosby show was funny but preachy. Family Matters was overflowing with nerd jokes. But Fresh Prince had nerd jokes where the nerd fought back, preached but helped to forgive the sinner. Fresh Prince had family, friends and celebrities exist together in that brief moment of naivety called the mid-90’s. Hillary was a snob, Ashley was curious, Carlton was motivated, Geoffrey was aloof, Uncle Phil was imposing, and Will was cool. Jazzy Jeff used to show up and literally get thrown out of the house. The first Aunt Viv was dashing and vivacious. The second Aunt Viv was chill and supportive. Thanks to reruns and the short 6 seasons run, I probably saw every episode thrice.
HBO Max just ran a reunion episode. James Avery, who played Uncle Phil, died in 2013, and had an amazing dedication. Everyone else was there to celebrate and reminisce. I didn’t realize it, but I needed this show. For whatever reason, for whatever nostalgic impulses were flooding me, I cried, laughed and clapped (usually simultaneously) nearly the whole hour. I laughed for the jokes, cried for my youth, clapped for Carlton’s dancing. It was great to remember Will’s faces and Uncle Phil’s strong role-model parenting. The two Aunt Viv’s finally met each other and hugged! In the episode where Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv passionately explain their struggles of being black and how hard they worked to become successful to Will, I knew that wasn’t a script. That was real.
There was a sadness the show revealed in my lack of true understanding of the black experience, in the absurdity of fighting to not be seen only through the prism of one’s involuntary and strained history. There was also some kind of homesick reaction within my laughing tears, a pre-adult, pre 9/11, pre CoVid nostalgia. The idea of how things can move on without you, transforming as you grow up. Even more was that I might never be part of anything so amazing as to deserve a reunion. High School? University? Those aren’t special, they are ordinary. Plus, ain’t nobody interested in an all-boys prep school reunion of bragging bankers and haughty hedge funders. Championship? I never won anything. Growing up and feeling important, the lead in my own life movie, I thought we all reach some kind of personal reunion moment—le dénouement de moi. Perhaps we do, but since we don’t live on TV, we just continue to the next stage, without the cheers and applause.
Something happened to me watching this cheerful reunion that I didn’t expect. It took me back to my own playground, through my own memories and I realized that in a pop culture world, sometimes that world becomes part of your own culture. The Simpsons, Seinfeld, South Park, Sopranos, The Daily Show and SNL, In Living Color, Fresh Prince, Chappelle’s Show—that’s my America. There’s no ending to this essay, just like there is no easy end to the oldest American issue: how to make all colors of people succeed concurrently as Americans. However, we all need to learn to live together because not everyone can move to their auntie and uncle’s house in Bel-Air when a couple of guys start making trouble in your neighborhood.