by Neyat Yohannes
Entering from stage left: a svelte, 5’2’’ young woman resplendent with the archetypal accouterments of a Southern Belle: “Denise, welcome back. How was your summer? I just worked my little tail off interning in daddy’s chambers. Have you ever spent a summer in Richmond? You can fry an egg on a Jaguar!” Whitley Gilbert’s voice is grating as she cascades down the stairs of her new dormitory in a glaring red blouse, printed blazer, black pencil skirt, and hair slicked back, secured by an oversized leather bowtie.
Whitley has arrived for her sophomore year at fictional Virginia-based HBCU, Hillman College and she’s come down to the common room to greet classmate, Denise Huxtable. More specifically, she has arrived at Gilbert Hall. It’s no coincidence that she shares a name with her new dorm assignment; Whitley is a legacy child of red bottom pump and Louis Vuitton luggage-level proportions and we become privy to this right away.
A Different World is a six season series that encapsulates the black experience. The black college student’s experience, that is. It’s unfortunate that this distinction is considered nuanced when we live in a world brimming with white college student focused shows, like Felicity and Undeclared, but it’s not everyday that we get to witness black kids going to school on television. Underdeveloped characters that only exist to serve the purpose of spitting a sassy line or supporting the white protagonist in their endeavors—aka the Magical Negro—don’t count.
At first, it was black America’s—let’s be real, all of America’s—sweetheart Lisa Bonet who was on the roster as the show’s leading lady. A spin-off of The Cosby Show, A Different World was meant to be a series that followed Denise Huxtable’s college years at her parents’ alma mater. But with an assist from Lenny Kravitz, she became pregnant with daughter Zoë; and Bill Cosby, who was still running the show at the time, didn’t jive with the idea of tackling a pregnancy plotline despite Debbie Allen’s insistence that it could be compelling.
While it is unquestionable that Denise was a crowd favorite on The Cosby Show with her effortless style and special brand of charisma, Lisa Bonet’s bowing out of A Different World makes for a pivotal moment in the series. Debbie Allen takes over the reins and the characters begin coming into their own rather than continuing to serve as Denise’s flunkeys. For how many seasons could an audience possibly bear to watch the girl flail through life, flunking all her classes? It turns out, just one.
After a bland first season—Debbie Allen comes through with the revamp of the century and cable television is gifted with the new-and-improved A Different World. A show now tasked with providing an honest portrayal of the HBCU experience. And it delivers. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Debbie Allen:
A graduate of historically black Howard University—drew from her college experiences in an effort to accurately reflect in the show the social and political life on black campuses. Moreover, Allen instituted a yearly spring trip to Atlanta where series writers visited three of the nation’s leading black colleges, Clark Atlanta, Morehouse and Spelman. During these visits, ideas for several of the episodes emerged from meetings with students and faculty.
A survivor of multiple cast and crew changes, script re-writes, and general helter-skelter, A Different World finally delivers the real deal. And it does so with the gregarious Jasmine Guy’s Whitley Gilbert now at the forefront.
Season One Whitley is at best unnerving, at worst, peak levels of insufferable. She’s rude, entitled, and every interaction underscores her inability to relate to peers of other socioeconomic backgrounds (read: all of her peers). Instead of a desk, she has a boudoir table trimmed with a floral sham and covered in crystal vials filled with presumably pricey perfumes; plus, a peach rotary phone she keeps a lock on whenever she isn’t making cash flow-related calls to her father.
While her foot-in-mouth syndrome is comical, it is funny in a laughing-because-you’re-uncomfortable sort of way. It isn’t until at least Season Three that Whitley produces genuine guttural laughs that come from a place of compassion for a character who has been. through. it. Because Whitley isn’t a villain by any means—she’s simply a young woman who experienced an ignorant upbringing and started college with a lot left to learn about the world outside of her bubble.
Whitley’s transition from intolerable to endearing doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t take place in the traditional way films use pathos to garner sympathy for generally unlikable characters.
Whitley’s evolution is most notably marked by her friendship, relationship, and eventual marriage to Dwayne Wayne, but it is kick started when she meets her roommate, Kim Reese. Kim is unlike anyone Whitley has ever known. She puts forth every effort towards earning an M.D. while Whitley longs for an M.R.S. degree. Whitley has her daddy’s credit card, while Kim must work multiple odd jobs to keep her head above water–at one point, she even finds herself working at a mortuary, taking on the smell of formaldehyde for the hope of a better future.
This day and night difference between friends has served as a solid television plot device for longer than Whitley’s immaculate Season One fingernails, but with good reason: it works.
Whitley teaches Kim to loosen up—if only a little—and Kim, in her loving but no holds barred way, relentlessly calls Whitley out on her tactless and uninformed way of interacting with the world until it finally begins to stick. Whitley is more of a burden to Kim as she all too often relies on her listening ear and mad tailoring skills—the girl can truly alter a dress in a pinch–but in the end, it’s clear that Whitley has indeed touched Kim’s life as well.
During a toast to her in the Series Finale, Kim says:
I met Whitley’s things before I met her. My freshman year, I walked into our room and I found her Chintz EZ Chair and her monogrammed toothbrush. I knew right then that we would never be friends. But I’ve never been so wrong in my life. You have helped me through a lot, I really appreciate it. Not only do you have a princess attitude, you have a princess heart.
A sentiment that speaks volumes as Whitley prepares for her pregnancy–not to mention her big move to Japan with Dwayne–and Kim finally accepts her dreamboat lab partner Spencer’s, umpteenth marriage proposal. The two are off to brave separate new worlds, but not before recognizing the parts they’ve played in each other’s lives.
Dwayne Wayne: maybe not as much as Whitley, but he too forces us to reassess our gaze over the course of the series. He emerged onto the Hillman scene as a walking pair of flip-up glasses–an iconic accessory inspired by a Bowie concert–who attempted to woo women with his perfect SAT score. Put kindly, he was a struggling Casanova. Or rather, an aspiring Casanova. But with Denise, his initial dream girl and prime stalking victim out of the picture, Dwayne had the time and space to grow into the sort of man who walks around with a leather saddle bag balanced on his shoulder. The sort of man who decides to forgo accepting a fancy tech job at the fictional Japanese company Konichiwa Electronics in order to give back to the place that taught him so much (spoiler alert: he does wind up at Konichiwa in the end, but not before making a major impact on his community). When he begins to teach at Hillman College and we see Dwayne at the blackboard instead of goofing off in a desk, we get one of those heartstring tugs a brilliant 180 transition has the ability to induce.
And it’s only right that Hillman’s most changed man should end up with its most transformed woman.
Whitley and Dwayne were a fated match long before either of them was ready to accept it. From what originally feels like a moment of happenstance–or charity on Whitley’s part–when the pair shares a slow dance in The Pit during a Season Two episode, their incalescence is palpable. But it takes a bit of time before the two are in synch in their desire to date; when Whitley is ready for Dwayne, he is too busy being entranced by the lanky and alluring Kinu who he met in Japan and when Dwayne’s feelings for Whitley resurface, she’s in the throes of a tumultuous engagement to State Senator Byron Douglas III. The latter gentleman is, however, left stupefied on their wedding day when Dwayne decides that he cannot forever hold his peace and shows up in an apricot suit with a brazen “Baby, please, please!” to beg for Whitley’s hand in a last ditch effort that pays off.
What Byron doesn’t know is that Dwayne had exchanged a few meaningful words with his fiancée on the eve of his wedding:
Dwayne: “When I first came to Hillman, I was Joe Knucklehead—goofy freshman with flip-up glasses but I ended up with you…the woman I couldn’t stand became my best friend, my girl, my lover. Even though you challenged me every step of the way, baby.”
Whitley: “Well, you know me, all or nothing.”
Dwayne: “Well, you better not change.”
Whitley: “Dwayne, I thought that I would always be dependent on a man.
I thought that’s just the way it’s gonna be. But you taught me to depend on myself.”
Dwayne: “You taught me how to love, Whitley.”
Whitley: “You taught me how to love.”
For the duration, Whitley is a pile driver. She may refer to Dwayne as daddy—which is cringe-worthy, albeit hilarious—but Whitley truly hold her own. While she’s naive in nearly all areas of life, Whitley doesn’t take a backseat in this marriage. In the beginning, Dwayne works three jobs as he struggles to pay the bills on his own, but Whitley eventually comes around and secures a position as a substitute teacher. “I didn’t realize that I was putting so much pressure on you,” she says during a candid conversation. But smooth as ever Dwayne replies, “Well, as much as I hate to admit it, that’s exactly what I needed to get my act together.”
By the sixth and final season of the series, Whitley carries but mere fading traces of her former prissy self. She is a woman who has learned to “relax, relate, release.” After experiencing the 1992 L.A. Riots first-hand during her honeymoon—a necessary episode met with mixed reviews—she is a woman who, at long last, comprehends the racial injustices that her wealth once blinded her from. And when she and Wayne are robbed of their possessions upon moving into their new home, Whitley comes to take the humble lifestyle adulthood has dealt her in stride.
Moments before her parents thought she was to become Mrs. Byron Douglas III, Whitley’s father kisses her on the cheek and tells her he’s proud of her. The stunning bride throws him a questioning look and says, “I haven’t done anything for you to be proud of.” And on cue, her superficial mother retorts, “Of course you have, you’re marrying a man who can support you.” We hear from the horse’s mouth what Whitley used to spew left and right on the outset of her college career. Whitley was raised to marry rich.
Until her time at Hillman, her sole objective was to find a man who would pick up, financially, where her father left off. But Whitley proves to be more ambitious than even she herself anticipated. She puts her Chanel power suits to the test and lands an art buying job—during which, she prevails over workplace sexual harassment—and before she even receives the M.R.S. she’d set out for, Whitley graduates with a degree in Art History. Come Season Six, when she is forced to wear the same tired powder pink double-breasted work blouse day-in and day-out post-robbery, Whitley is in a place where she can be faced with adversity and overcome it on her own.
Dwayne, Kim, and the folks of Hillman may have helped bring her down to Earth, but once there, Whitley strives to stay grounded all on her own.
It is a rare joy in television to have the opportunity to follow a three-dimensional young black woman as she transitions into adulthood and learns the facts of life. So rare that it’s hardly happened before and since Whitley. Because of this, through the power of television syndication—and most recently, Netflix—black girls everywhere continue to feel a gravitational pull towards Whitley Gilbert as she stands the test of time.
She’s nothing like us, but she is us. She isn’t a sassy shallow version of a black girl that gets to speak once every few episodes and maybe has the chance to serve as a minor plot pusher. She is, certificate of authenticity and all, a full-fledged black woman. As the show’s theme goes—sung by the likes of Phoebe Snow, Aretha Franklin, and Boyz II Men: “I know now that I’m ready/Because I finally heard them say/It’s a different world from where you come from.” Hillman was, without a doubt, a different world for Whitley Gilbert, but to watch her conquer it is to witness the essence of #blackgirlmagic.