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The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Jeffrey Bissoy '16 works at a laptop

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

by Jeffrey Bissoy '16

All Carleton students complete a senior comprehensive exercise, known generally as a senior thesis, and known on our campus as “comps.” The following text comes from the comps research of Jeffrey Bissoy ’16, who majored in American Studies with a concentration in French and Francophone Studies.

Blackness has always played a fundamental role in U.S. culture, one dependent upon an institutionalized complex of prototypical signifiers: the African’s dark skin; his coarse and curly hair; her earthy and unrestrained culture; his brute physicality. –Darnell Hunt[1]

Born in Cameroon and then emigrating to the United States at the age of five, I’ve grown up confused about my African-American identity. When my mother and I arrived in 1999, we settled in a predominantly African-American community in North Minneapolis. Every day I was confronted with harsh name-calling by black boys and girls of the same age, at school and in our neighborhood, because of my black African identity. At the time, I couldn’t understand why they taunted and isolated me; from my 5-year-old perspective we were all black and it was that blackness that drew us together, despite our various ethnic backgrounds. As I grew older, I kept trying to bridge the gap between my two black identities, African and African-American. Cameroon was my roots – it was what made me the individual that I am – being African-American meant constructing a black identity that would allow me to be accepted in the African-American neighborhoods I inhabited.

I recall one afternoon, flipping through the channels searching for something to watch and falling upon The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. My mother walked in and started laughing because she recognized the TV series. She told me that it was my eldest brother’s favorite show and that I was named Jeffrey after the British butler, Geoffrey, Patrick’s favorite character. At that moment, it almost felt destined that I should stumble upon The Fresh Prince. Later, in my teens, the show would serve as a gateway into better understanding and appreciating my own blackness. What attracted me to The Fresh Prince was its humor and the way the show presented a multiplicity of black narratives that were relatable to me and other viewers that identified as black.

What amazed me most about the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and what inspired me to do a study on the 90s sit-com, was the potential of the show to be used as an outlet for discussions on race, class, and the black experience, amongst other things. I say this because I witnessed first-hand how the show brought me and the brotherhood, my high school friend group of African-American and Latino boys, together. Every day, we’d sit together during lunch discussing a variety of things: girls, music, music, current events, everything.

During one lunch period we spent our time talking about the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. We each shared our favorite episodes and moments from the show, and then started talking about the deeper significance of some of the episodes. The episode that stuck with us most was “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” an episode where Will Smith’s father suddenly reappears in his life, and just as quickly as he reenters he leaves, leaving Will frustrated as he tries to rationalize why his father doesn’t want him.[2] Many of us in the brotherhood grew up without a father, myself included, and because of that we empathized with Will, who at the end of the episode breaks down into tears because his father doesn’t want to be involved in his life. Although we had all known each other for a couple of years, it was the first time that I shared a similar struggle with the brotherhood. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air helped me to engage in important dialogues with my brothers and more importantly, through its portrayal of various black characters, the show made me feel comfortable with my own blackness.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a 90s African-American sitcom that starred then-20-year-old Will Smith, as a teenager from a tough neighborhood in West Philadelphia, whose mother, who fearing her son’s safety and ability to grow in an underserviced black community, sends him to live with their wealthy relatives, the Banks, in Bel-Air, California. As an African-American male and an American studies major, I selected to study The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air because I’ve witnessed and studied how television mediates social constructions of race and identity. In this essay, I am examining the societal pressures that led to the creation of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and investigate how the show managed to effectively refute a static representation of blackness in media.

Darnell Hunt notes, “blackness has always played a fundamental role in U.S. culture.” Contextualizing this notion historically allows me to make sense of The Fresh Prince’s intervention.[3] Having a basic understanding on the history of blackness in America helps to grasp how blackness operates in The Fresh Prince. Valerie Smith states that blackness is a shared experience of Africans and persons of African descent in the United States, arguing that blackness is always undergoing shifts in response to the changing demographics of African-American communities.[4] Accepting Smith’s claims, I affirm that blackness is not and cannot be a monolithic identity, thereby arguing that blackness is a fluid identity that responds to the changing of times.

In the documentary, The Two Black Nations of America, Henry Louis Gates Jr. argues that in order to understand current notions of blackness one must first understand the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, Black Nationalism, and affirmative action, which he contests had a major influence on the black identity.[5] Gates narrates that affirmative action, particularly in the 1980s, not only gave black students a pathway into college, but also provided many of them an entry-point into the American middle-class. The two black nations of America, for Gates, refers to the divide between lower-class blacks and middle class blacks, and the effect of the separation on the multiplicity of black identity. Gates points to class difference as the catalyst for the shift from blackness being accepted as a monolithic identity, to one that becomes more open to other black identities. In agreement with Smith’s claim, Gates notes that the emergence of a black middle-class presented new opportunities, and created a need for middle-class African Americans to better understand and negotiate their blackness.

In this essay, I argue The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s was seeking to challenge society’s understanding of blackness, which the show was able to do through their portrayal of the American family. Portraying the American family is a very common approach for sitcoms, particularly African-American sitcoms, because it allows for the shows to present a family that is relatable to all viewers, black and white alike.[6] Reading this argument, I will first attend to previous work done on The Cosby Show, which created an image of the African-American family that resembled the stereotypical modern American family: middle-class and traditional. This spoke to the idea that through hard work and dedication anything could be possible. The Cosby Show simply recreated a stereotypical white family that simply happened to be African-American. On the other hand, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, while similar to The Cosby Show in its depiction of an upper-class African-American family, differed primarily because of the character of Will Smith, whose presence in the household challenged the Banks’ black bourgeoisie identity.

Class division creates separation between blacks from the inner-city and blacks that have had the opportunity to climb the socio-economic ladder.[7] Regarding Gates, I believe that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air associates blackness with class, arguing that there is a relationship between both blackness and social-economic background that impacts one’s black identity. Imani Perry states that representing a monolithic identity is dangerous because it endorses racial exceptionalism, a practice that creates meaning at the expense of people of color who don’t fit a certain stereotypes or racial-narrative-based conceptions.[8] Even as The Cosby Show attempted to paint a different picture of black people, in many ways it solidified a monolithic notion of blackness because the Cosby’s served as the exceptions to the rule—the dichotomy reinforced the negative axis. The Fresh Prince of-Bel-Air presents various representations of blackness, not in competition for “what is true, or good, blackness,” but rather in the negotiation over the meanings of blackness in America. There are various ways in which blackness is experienced, lived, and expressed, and these ways are always in negotiation with American at large.

To analyze how The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air contributed to shifting perceptions of blackness, I include an in-depth analysis on how Ronald Reagan’s Presidential campaign and The Cosby Show influenced Americans to view blackness as a monolithic identity in the 1980s. Once I have outlined how blackness operated in the 1980s, I will examine how The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reconstructed and presented numerous ways in which blackness is enacted, with a diverse portrayal of the black experience through the show’s main characters, Will Smith and Carlton Banks. I have selected four episodes that highlight how blackness operates in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I searched for episodes that were memorable, intense, and focused entirely on the black identity. In addition, I wanted episodes that mediated the way in which class affected the black identity. In this section, I will be analyzing the episodes in sequence that they aired, as I underline how Will and Carlton’s relationship provide representation of a fluid black identity. As I searched for episodes, I became interested in Carlton’s character, and how he transforms from a Cosby-like character, who doesn’t acknowledge race, to affirming his upper-class identity as a black identity. I will first take a look at the Pilot episode that introduced many Americans to the infamous theme song, that would forever be remembered, and Will Smith’s arrival in Bel-Air. The arrival of Will, who is the representation of authentic urban blackness, disrupts the upper-class portrayal of the Banks’ family. I’ve also chosen the episode, “Mistaken Identity,” where Carlton and Will are arrested for “driving while black.” This episode is important for the character of Carlton, who learns that being an upper-middle class citizen and being a straight-A student doesn’t exempt you from the harsh realities faced by African Americans throughout the United States.

In the third episode, “72-hours,” Carlton takes on Will’s bet to spend a full day in Compton, a suburb of Los Angeles that boasts a high density of African-Americans, and is infamous for its gang violence and poverty. This episode is very significant because it presents a role reversal between Will and Carlton, as Carlton, the upper middle-class suburban prep-school kid attempts to survive in the ‘hood.’ In the fourth and final episode, “Blood is thicker than mud,” in season 4, Carlton is refused entry into Phi Beta Gamma, a black fraternity at his and Will’s university. This episode is crucial to my argument that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air advocates for a more fluid definition of blackness, because in this episode Carlton and Will both decide to pledge; however, Will gets in, but Carlton is rejected because he is deemed not “black enough.” This episode is critical because it is the first time that Carlton, who is the representative of upper-class blackness, claims his black identity, while making a strong statement on the ridiculousness of dividing the black race between lower and upper-class blacks.

The 1980s: Ronald Reagan and The Cosby Show

In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan ran for president against incumbent President, Jimmy Carter, he employed race and television as propaganda for his political campaign, which allowed him to gain many liberal voters that felt as if the Democratic party had been more devoted in African American rights for freedom and equality since the 1960s, rather than the needs of the white middle class. Knowing this, Reagan used mass media to spread his message on how African-Americans were making a mockery and stealing from the system. Reagan’s slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again” was symbolic of the rhetoric and reasoning that pioneered his campaign. Reagan’s hope was that voters would ask themselves who or what is to blame for the downfall of America. Reagan lashed out on Jimmy Carter and his administration for their investment in progressive social welfare programs. He also blamed the liberalism of the post-civil rights era, which transformed the U.S. into an inflated government that supported favoritism and entitlements towards minorities who were supposedly killing the economy.[9]

This propaganda helped him to garner votes from white Americans, mostly former democratic supporters, who grew tired of the democratic party focusing the majority of their efforts on helping racial, ethnic, and other minority groups after the civil rights movement.  In “Watching Race,” Herman Gray discusses the impact of Reagan’s presidency and the historical period on race matters and blackness:

Through the discursive production and organization of television news images and reports of about black welfare “cheats” and moral panics about black “family disintegration and epidemic drug use and violence in the nation’s cities, race and popular media, in particular television, were central to the consolidation of a conservative cultural and political hegemonic bloc…Race and television were at the very core of the new right’s largely successful efforts to establish a rightward shift in the political, cultural, and social discourse. This discourse established the foundation for matters ranging from the economy to morality. The “sign of blackness,” its discursive production, contestation, and mobilization, was an essential element of the political and cultural realignments that helped stage and install the neoconservative hegemony referred to as blackness.[10]

Gray highlights how Reagan used blackness as a divisive tactic to secure both the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections. During Reagan’s campaign, blackness became the symbol against which whiteness affirmed itself as the cultural and political norm. The 1980s rewrote the script for blackness in America, one that stigmatized African Americans, creating negative stereotypes for blackness: irresponsibility, menace to society, criminality, instability, drug usage, teen pregnancies. In other words, anything other than white. Gray adds that “Reaganism had to take away from blacks the moral authority and claims on political entitlements won in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”[11] Reagan’s anti-black campaign reveals the detrimental power that media can have on a group of people. In “Channeling Blackness,” Darnell Hunt writes about the strong influence that television has on American citizens. Hunt remarks, “It provides space for the mediated encounters that distinguish the lived experiences of today from those of old; it is also a comfort zone from which we can identify with our heroes or affirm our differences from undesirable others.”[12] Hunt and Gray’s works on television demonstrate the influencing power that television wields on citizens, particularly white Americans, building opinions on important, often polarizing, issues.

Preceding The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the 1980s, The Cosby Show challenged Ronald Reagan’s deployment of blackness, through its portrayal of black doctor and lawyer parents, and college-bound kids. Kristal Brent Zook clarifies in Color by Fox that most cultural theorists praised The Cosby Show but failed to note that the conflict between the prevailing stereotype of the poor rural or inner city black and The Cosby show’s middle class professional black created a representational struggle. The Cosby Show was one of the top-rated programs on television during the 1980s. Though the show was adored by a wide variety of the American audience, debates over the meaning of blackness portrayed in the series have been on-going since the show debuted in 1984.[13] The aim of The Cosby Show was to combat the negative propaganda machine. However, by adopting a conservative rhetoric about what’s good, the show actually added fuel to that fire, by presenting the Huxtable’s as exceptional, unlike other black people. [14]

When a black family is viewed as an exception of blackness, they in turn become the token, or rather the representation of what all white Americans want African-Americans to be. Moreover, the significance of The Cosby Show adopting a conservative rhetoric affirms that white Americans have been conditioned, by Ronald Reagan’s words and actions in the 1980s, to view blackness as criminal, dangerous, thugs, and welfare queens. At the same time, it is important to recognize how valuable and unique the upper-middle-class, Huxtable family was to American television. Prior to The Cosby Show, the majority of African-American sitcoms only portrayed single-parent, and often poor black families, such as Good Times and What’s Happening, just to name a few. Considering the history of poor portrayals of African-Americans in black sitcoms, coupled with the negative black images circulating on behalf of the Reagan campaign, The Cosby Show aimed to present an oppositional narrative that would shift away from the way that blackness has traditionally been played in black sitcoms.[15]

As Zook remarks, The Cosby Show’s oppositional narrative was “a controversial attempt to uncouple the monolithic blackness and poverty, perpetuated by the Reagan-Bush era, with the goal of establishing the possibility and comfort of a black middle-class.”[16] Christine Acham adds that The Cosby Show “seemingly offered the perfect antidote for a black image in crisis through its presentation of a wholesome and wealthy family led by the well-known assimilationist comic Bill Cosby.”[17] In other words, The Cosby Show was called upon to challenge the negative characterizations of black families promoted by news media and Ronald Reagan during the late 1970s and 1980s, which emphasized stories of the crumbling black family, welfare issues, and inner-city crime.[18]

Zook and Acham’s studies of The Cosby Show reveal that the show, in attempt to establish a functioning middle-class family, failed to adequately provide a narrative that accommodated “monolithic blackness and poverty.” In doing so, the show silenced lower-class blacks in America, with the goal of transforming black portrayals into a monolithic black middle-class identity. Although, the show failed in its delivery of a more fluid representation of blackness, Acham argues that The Cosby Show was still (and is) an authentic black show. Though, the show did not discuss blackness until the end of the series run in 1992, the setting and design of the show reflected black art and music. Paintings by African-American artist, Varnette Honeywood, and copies of Bill Cosby’s paintings from his actual home were hung in the Huxtable home. Moreover, there were framed pictures of prominent African-American leaders, such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition, the Huxtable household was often filled with jazz music and featured many guest appearances from well-know black figures such as, Stevie Wonder, Lena Horne, and Sammy Davis, Jr.[19]

Interrogating a History of Blackness

According to Herman Gray, the 1980s rewrote the script for blackness in America, one that stigmatized African Americans, creating negative stereotypes for blackness. Gray states that blackness became synonymous with irresponsibility, menace to society, criminality, instability, drug usage, and teen pregnancies, the antithesis to normative whiteness.[20] In response to the negative images on blackness, The Cosby Show worked to oppose negative negotiations of blackness by presenting a well-to-do family that viewers of all backgrounds could relate to. Zook and Acham argue that The Cosby Show was unable to provide a fluid and multifaceted depiction of blackness, because similar to Reagan’s campaign propaganda the show attempted to show only one side of blackness. Whilst, Reagan’s sought to demonize blackness, Cosby simply ignored the reality of the suffering of African-American communities in America’s inner-cities. In presenting a singular representation of blackness, The Cosby Show affirmed Reagan’s media portrayal of African-Americans, making the urban poor the representation of authentic blackness. When The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air debuts in 1990, we are presented with two black male primary characters: Carlton who serves as a Cosby-figure, meaning that he is the representative of the upper-class black identity, and Will, who serves as the representation of authentic (inner-city) blackness. The budding relationship between these two distinctively black characters, which I will examine in the following sections, complicates the notion of a monolithic black identity.

Understanding how blackness was portrayed and represented by the Reagan campaign and The Cosby Show in the 1980s is vital in order to comprehend the works that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is trying interrogate; it is into these contests over the representation of African-Americans that The Fresh Prince walks. The show attempts to reconcile what The Cosby Show failed to do, when it portrayed blackness as a monolithic upper-class identity. Like Cosby, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wants to interrogate blackness. Furthermore, the series is intrigued by issues revolving around race class, as it tries to comprehend how one defines or claims their blackness. The show also challenges notions of the politics of respectability, which is a concept that is explored in The Cosby Show. The 1980s sitcom aimed to provide a respectful image for African-Americans, who talked and dressed properly, while having goals and ambitions that drove each member of the family. This was important because it helped to portray this black family as hardworking, unlike like the welfare queen stereotype. The politics of respectability began as a philosophy promoted by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor; it has since evolved into a philosophy that focuses on managing the behavior of black people left behind in an American society with boundless opportunity. The politics of respectability promulgates self-care and self-correction as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition, with the goal of preparing them for the market economy.[21]

Respectability politics is explored in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as 16-year-old Will Smith transitions from West Philadelphia, a predominantly low-income black neighborhood, to live with his aunt and uncle in the luxurious Bel-Air, California. Will’s Uncle Phil is a judge, who later becomes a politician, while his Aunt Vivian, his mother’s younger sister, is an English professor at a local Los Angeles university. Uncle Phil and Aunt Vivian agree to move Will out to Bel-Air, after Will’s mother started to fear his safety in the inner-city streets of Philadelphia. Phil and Vivian Banks serve the purpose of teaching their nephew how to become a successful individual. In order to do this, however, they must first correct Will’s “bad habits,” his speaking and his dress. From the opening minutes of the show’s debut, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air builds on the notion of respectability politics by drawing out the contrasts of speech and dress between Will and the Banks’ family. Will, who serves as a representation of authentic blackness, speaks in Ebonics or AAVE, African-American Vernacular English.[22] Will’s style of dress also stands out as a marker of lack of respectability, because it is flashier and less professional than the clothes worn by the Banks family. In other words, Will is not presentable to a formal audience.

Through Will’s character, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wants to bring to light conversations about class and blackness, and more specifically about how the class difference impacts how one acts out their blackness. As The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s theme song foreshadows:

But wait I hear they’re prissy, bourgeois, all that.

Is this the type of place that they just send this cool cat?

I don’t think so.

I’ll see when I get there.

I hope they’re prepared for the prince of Bel-Air.

The show’s theme song is important because Will Smith, who prior to acting was a well-known rapper, raps about why he had to move to Bel-Air. Analyzing these lyrics, I notice that Will is setting up viewers for a show that will deal with differences, and learning how to navigate an unfamiliar setting. Moreover, Will is confused that his mom would send him to a “prissy” and “bourgeois” household, and ponders how he will manage in this new environment. The last line, “I hope they’re prepared for the Prince of Bel-Air,” sets the tone for the series, as it reveals that Will’s arrival will have a significant impact on everyone in the Banks’ household.

As I’ve argued throughout this essay, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air presents blackness as a fluid identity as the show analyzes the relationship between race and class, primarily through Will and Carlton’s characters. In addition, the show attempts to understand the relationship between blackness and femininity through the characters of Aunt Vivian (Aunt Viv), Hillary, the eldest Banks’ daughter, and Ashley the youngest child.[23] There’s more than enough content from The Fresh Prince’s six seasons to provide a gendered analysis of this series, but my research has led me to focus on the relationship between race and class through black male protagonists. I will note, however, that it is challenging to study femininity in the series because all the women in the show are secondary characters. Unlike Will, Carlton, and even Uncle Phil, who are primary characters, allowing them to do as they wish, the women are often limited to the domestic space, or are simply secondary characters that are limited to the actions of the men in the series. Moreover, there was a lot of drama surrounding the show, after the directors changed the actress that played Aunt Vivian after the third season. This change had noticeable consequences to the show’s portrayal of black femininity, as the first Aunt Viv had a very powerful role in educating Will, and would often be the family’s voice of reason when issues would arise. Whereas the second Aunt Viv wasn’t as forthcoming throughout the series. Some could say her presence was absent, as there were spurts during seasons four through six where she wouldn’t have lines, let alone be seen in an episode.[24]

Despite the drama surrounding the character of Aunt Viv, and the secondary roles given to the women in the series, The Fresh Prince remains consistent in its fluidity of the black identity. All three of the women are very different from another; Aunt Viv is an English professor, who like Will, grew up in the inner-city of Philadelphia. Hillary plays the “dumb blonde” stereotype, which is usually reserved for white women in white mainstream sitcoms.[25] Lastly, we have Ashley Banks, who to me is the most interesting character in the entire series. Hillary is placed in opposition to Ashley’s character, who as the show progresses develops into a strong and independent woman dedicated to the fight for woman’s, particularly black women’s, equality. In the first two seasons Ashley, who is twelve at the time, spends a lot of time with Will, who teaches her about black popular culture, and in return she teaches him how to survive in Bel-Air. As Ashley develops into a young woman, she begins to challenge societal expectations for women.[26] For example: although she loves beauty and fashion, Ashley doesn’t want to be shallow and superficial like her older sister, Hillary. In addition, she fights back against the domesticity of the black woman; rebelling against her father, Will, and Carlton, she lies and sneaks out of the house in order to obtain her freedom.

As I’ve remarked it is possible to provide a gendered analysis of the series, but my research leads me to understand that the most important dialogues in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are its interrogation of the relationship between race and class, drawn out through Will and Carlton. The show works so well because of the way it utilizes humor to discuss the important conversations surrounding these two topics. Humor is important to The Fresh Prince because it makes delicate and complex issues light and simple to comprehend for all audience members, particularly white audiences, who would have a harder time understanding the black experience.[27] Moreover, what made The Fresh Prince so unique was how the series incorporated current events into the episodes, allowing the Banks’ family and Will to discuss the importance of an event and how it impacted their lives. In the wake of the Rodney King beating and the LA riots in 1991, the following year, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (In its third season) featured an episode called, “Will Gets Committed,” where the family volunteers in the post-riot clean-up.[28] Furthermore, at the end of nearly every episode, the family meets in the living room to discuss, challenge, and settle any remaining conflicts. This final moment not only ensures that a conflict is resolved, it also highlights the main issues that an episode is interrogating. Consequently, making it easier for viewers to interpret and critique what they’ve witnessed.

Episode Analysis

According to Zook, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was created as an attempt to disrupt “black-on-black prejudice” among “haves and have-nots.” In other words, the purpose of the show was to stop the discrimination and hate between upper-class and lower-class blacks. After watching the two episodes that Zook highlights, and learning about the mission of The Fresh Prince, Will and Carlton’s relationship became my primary focus. I wanted to understand how the two of them grew closer as the series went on, challenging “black-on-black prejudice,” while also affirming that blackness is boundless. More importantly, I questioned Will’s impact on Carlton’s understanding and claiming of his black identity. To provide evidence of Will’s influence on Carlton, I traced their relationship from the pilot episode until the end of series, selecting episodes where Carlton questioned his own blackness in the earlier seasons, and later choosing an episode that showed Carlton asserting his blackness. As I analyze the four episodes, there are two central questions that I hope be answer: how does dress and language effect blackness, and how does Carlton come to terms with his blackness?

In the Pilot episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “The Fresh Prince Project,” we are introduced to Will Smith, a teenage boy from west Philadelphia. As I mentioned, the pilot episode is important because it sets the tone for the central themes in The Fresh Prince. This episode presents the Banks’ family in stark contrast to Will, suggesting that the show is providing an analysis on race, class, and the politics of respectability. Will arrives in Bel-Air wearing a lime green striped-shirt and short blue shorts, with his baseball hat tilted to the side. When he arrives at the Banks’ home, Will is greeted by the Banks’ black British butler, Geoffrey, who is dressed in a tailored black tuxedo and well-polished black shoes. Immediately, I noticed the difference in attire between Will and Geoffrey, which speaks volumes about their class background. Geoffrey, the Banks’ butler, is dressed in a very upper-class manner, tuxedo and dress shoes, whereas, Will’s attire is representative of his inner-city and lower class background. Analyzing Geoffrey and Will’s exchange, I noticed that the show wanted black and white spectators to automatically be confronted with two class portrayals of African-Americans, which plays out through the character’s dress, language and actions. Will’s usage of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), characterizes his inner city Philadelphian identity. Being both black and British, Geoffrey, presents a certain level of class and respectability that is revealed through his diction and formal attire.

From the start of the pilot episode, language and dress are represented as a class dividing issue, a theme that the Fresh Prince builds upon throughout out the rest of the episode. Following their brief exchange, Geoffrey welcomes Will into the Banks’ home, where he is greeted by his aunt Vivian and Uncle Phil, who proceed to ask him the full details of his flight:

Will: Oh, the plane ride was stupid, I was in the first class…” (Cut off by his Uncle Phil)

Uncle Phil: Excuse me! (Stern)

Will: No, I mean I was saying was the Plane ride was dope!

Uncle Phil: (Slightly more outraged) Excuse Me!!

Will: No, stupid, dope…no, no that doesn’t mean what you think…I mean how would you say this? (Will mocks Uncle Phil’s English diction) The flight was really neat, yeah.[29]

From their first interaction, it is evident that Uncle Phil is unhappy with the way Will has presented himself, and he is quick to critique Will’s dress and language. For Uncle Phil, AAVE and dressing too flashy reflects ghettoization, which doesn’t belong in an upper-class household. This is reflective of The Cosby Show during the Reagan Era, when the 1980s sitcom rejected “authentic” blackness from being portrayed in the series until pressured to do so. Uncle Phil doesn’t understand Will, as he is more inclined to judge his nephew for his lack of proper etiquette than seeking to understand him. Aunt Vivian,  attempting to quell his temper, reminds him that Will is part of their family and that they must embrace him with open arms.

Soon afterward, Will meets his younger cousin, Ashley Banks, who explains to Will the grandeur of the Banks’ home, which includes a pool and a tennis court. Will, curious and unsure about how well he would fit in a prissy and bourgeois setting, expresses his excitement and exclaims that living with the Banks will be a vacation. Uncle Phil, however, reminds him why he has made the move from Philadelphia to Bel-Air there, as he states, “Hold on, just a minute son. We promised your mother that you are here to work hard, straighten-out and learn some good old American values.” This last statement, which touches upon tradition, education, and hard work, refers back to the central ideas of The Cosby Show in the 1980s, which argued that the only way for an African-American to become a successful individual is by learning some “good old American values,” which is another way of framing the politics of respectability.

Furthermore, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air illustrates that such values are only attainable for African-Americans when they leave predominantly black spaces for a more upscale living, providing many more resources. In order for Will to learn “good old American values” he has to make the permanent transition from a dangerous West Philadelphia neighborhood to an upper-class Bel-Air mansion. As Uncle Phil speaks of learning “good old American values,” ironically, we are introduced to Hillary Banks, who barges in and asks her father for three-hundred dollars to buy a new hat. Hillary, the eldest of the Bank’s family, is presented as a young black woman that appears to be more concerned with her status and life of luxury than family ties.

The last character we are introduced to is Carlton Banks, the second protagonist of the show, who is also the same age as Will. Carlton walks into Will’s room and examines the tuxedo that has been laid out onto Will’s bed. As he stares intensely, he comments that both he and Will will resemble two brothers walking down to the dinner party in their tuxes. Will bursts out laughing and replies, “I don’t think anyone would ever mistake you for a brother.” In saying this, Will implies that Carlton simply isn’t black enough to be his brother, because he lacks a certain blackness that is apparent in Will’s character, but not apparent in Carlton’s. Because Will is the representation of “authentic blackness” it is apparent to most viewers as well. Carlton shrugs off Will’s comments and preps Will for the dinner party that Uncle Phil has prepared for his law partners and affluent neighbors. We later learn that Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the Banks’ next door neighbors, were invited to the dinner. From the pilot episode we learn that The Fresh Prince is interrogating issues of respectability politics, class and race, and the 1980’s legacy of the Ronald Reagan presidency and The Cosby Show.

At the dinner party, Will’s presence has already negatively impacted the family and consequently the party itself. First, Will elects not to wear his full tuxedo to the dinner, choosing to wear the suit jacket with a green tank-top underneath, along with the dress pants, a black bowtie, his lime-green hat twisted sideways. He also sports Nike Air Jordan’s instead of dress shoes, making everyone in attendance uncomfortable. As if his attire isn’t embarrassing enough, Will also makes inappropriate jokes in front of Uncle Phil’s lawyer friends. Later, we witness the influence he’s had on Ashley, who after her brief rap lesson decides to rap the prayer at the dinner table. After all the party guests leave the house and most of the family head to bed, Uncle Phil approaches Will to voice his frustrations over the dinner and Will’s behavior:

Uncle Phil: I want to talk to you, From the minute you walked in, you have been a one-man wrecking-crew, trying to tear down what has taken a lot of work to build up, skewering everything with your flippin’ shenanigans…You know what I’m talking about. You deliberately tried to embarrass me tonight, and I don’t get it. Your aunt and I went into a lot of trouble to bring you out here and this is the thanks we get?

Will: Man, I didn’t ask to come here. Everyone’s talking about shipping me off and dressing me up and changin’ me into something I don’t want to be.

Uncle Phil: Nobody wants to change you.

Will: You told me yourself, I got to straighten-out and when in doubt act as Carlton. Man, I don’t want to be like Carlton. I mean, yeah, I’m a joker, I play around, I have fun.

Uncle Phil: Being Joker is what’s gotten you into trouble. You may think it’s cool to be in the streets at 17, but when you’re my age it’s a waste.

Will: Well, I can’t think that far ahead.

Uncle Phil: That’s your problem you can’t take anything seriously.

Will: Look Man, I don’t got the problem, you have the problem. Aight, I remind you of where you came from and what you used to be. Now, I don’t know, somewhere between Princeton or the office you got soft and you forgot who you are and where you came from.

Phil: You think you’re so wise. (Will looks away) Look at me when I’m talking to you. Let me tell you something son, I grew up on the streets just like you, I encountered bigotry you could not imagine. Now, you have a nice poster of Malcolm X on our wall, I heard the brother speak. I read every word he wrote. Believe me, I know where I come from.

Will: You actually heard Malcolm speak man?

Phil: That’s right. So before you criticize somebody, you find out what he’s all about.

In this particular scene, Uncle Phil is unpleased and angry with the way Will has introduced himself to the family, and more embarrassingly to his colleagues. Uncle Phil wants Will to fix his behavior, more specifically he wants him to act in a way that mirrors Carlton: proper and correct. He also wants to inform his nephew that you should never judge a book by its cover. On the other hand, Will has felt targeted since his arrival, as he states that everyone is trying to change him into something that he is not, which is an authentic, unapologetically black teenager from Philly. I’ve already stated that Will is the representation of inner city black youth; this scene foreshadows what to expect from the series, which is growth in Will and those around him, but mostly Uncle Phil, and Carlton. Will must learn that being black has a multiplicity of identities, which are not always about being ‘hard’.[30] In addition, Uncle Phil teaches Will that he has a lot to learn about himself and African-American history, particularly if he wants to be able to understand others. Will’s bad-mouthing of his uncle shows that he still has room to grow as a respectful young man, and Uncle Phil will serve as the father-figure Will never had. In return, Uncle Phil reveals his pride in his origins and background, and Will’s presence brings that out of him.

The moral of the final scene of the pilot episode speaks to the message that the producers of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air sought to create for black viewers: to stop black-on-black prejudice in order to learn from one another. Will and Carlton’s first interaction speaks to that message, as Will critiques Carlton for his apparent lack of blackness. During the final scene, Will’s interrogation of his uncle sets the tone for the class differences that the show examines; In addition to the common belief amongst lower-class African-Americans that the road to success makes you forget about the struggles that has led to one’s success.

At the end of the pilot episode, Uncle Phil is exhausted from the dinner party and his conversation with Will and calls it a night. While heading upstairs, he looks back to witness Will playing the piano, suggesting that Will could be taught good old American values of hard work and education. Zook finds the pilot episode intriguing in the ways that it challenges the notion of “authentic” blackness. Her work suggests a mutual respect between both Uncle Phil and Will is created, as she writes, “While Will is shocked to learn that his bourgeois uncle had been politically active during the 1960s (and had even heard Malcolm X speak in person), Philip Banks is stunned to discover that his ‘ghettoish’ nephew plays classical piano.”[31] The act of playing the piano is often characterized as an upper-class trait, so for Uncle Phil, knowing that Will can play the piano acknowledges the possibility that he can assimilate and function within the Banks’ upper-class world. For Will, learning that his uncle had been politically active and even heard Malcolm X assures him that living in Bel-Air with his bourgeois family may not be as difficult as he had thought.

In the following episode, “Mistaken Identity,” the sixth episode in the first season, blackness is the central to the plot of the episode, as Carlton interrogates his black identity, after he and Will are racially profiled and arrested for driving Henry Firth’s Mercedes Benz. In this episode, Aunt Viv and uncle Phil head to Palm Springs on a retreat with Phillip’s law firm associates. Will is determined to go to Palm Springs, as he has his eyes set on relaxing on the beach. Will asks Henry Firth, Uncle Phil’s law partner, if he can drive his Mercedes down to Palm Springs, but Henry appoints Carlton as the driver of the car because he views him as the more responsible one. Unrelenting, Will sneaks into Firth’s car to tag-along on Carlton’s road trip. On their way to Palm Springs the boys get lost and are pulled over by the police:

Carlton: That’s the police?

Will: (Being humorous) Punch it man, we’re in a Benz.

Carlton: Are you crazy? I call this a lucky break. A policeman is our pal, we can ask him for directions. (The officer exits his car and starts to approach the car).

Will: Listen to me Carlton, when he comes up, keep your hands on the wheel. (Officer approaches the driver seat window).

Carlton: (Enthusiastically) Good evening officer, Carlton Banks. (Carlton extends his hand to shake the officer’s hand).

Officer: (Stern) Keep your hands on the wheel.

The juxtaposition between Carlton and Will is revealed, as their responses to the officer correlate with the environment that raised them. Carlton, who seems to have never been pulled-over before, attempts to talk his way out of the situation while also hoping to get directions to Palm Springs. Meanwhile, Will is noticeably calm and comprehensive about how to handle the situation. From his demeanor, one can presume that Will has had experiences or teachings about how deal with police officers. These experiences surely date back to living in West Side of Philadelphia, where Will may have had encounters with the law, or was warned by his mother on how to act when being pulled over or simply interrogated by an officer. Based off Carlton’s approach, it is apparent that growing up in the comforts of a sheltered upper-class household he was never taught to fear authority, which speaks to his class privilege.

Because Carlton doesn’t take any of Will’s advice on how to negotiate with the police officer, Will and Carlton are taken into custody, where they are further interrogated on how they acquired the Mercedes. It is revealed that the two boys have been racially profiled, as the officers ask them to confess their involvement in the car theft that had been occurring in the neighborhood, where they were pulled over:

Officer: Okay fellas, we’ve had a lot of car thefts in the area lately, you want to talk about it?

Carlton: (Snarky) Okay, I think it’s terrible.

Officer: You making fun of me?

Carlton: You’re the one who wanted to talk about it. Quite frankly, I think it’s a matter for the police to handle.

Will: (Sharp tone) Carlton, they’re handling it now.

Carlton: What on Earth are you talking about?

Will: They think we stole the Benz!

Made aware that he is a criminal suspect, Carlton pleads for his freedom, as he starts to recite his elevator speech: that he is an honor student with ambitions of attending Yale. The officers are disinterested in Carlton’s pleas and throw both boys into a cell. The boys, stranded, then use their free phone calls, but no one at the house, nor at the retreat to pick up. Due to their misfortune, tactfully, Will tells the officers that he and Carlton are prepared to confess to the crimes that they have not committed, but clarifies that they are only willing to confess with a News crew presence.

As a result of Will’s quick thinking, uncle Phil and aunt Viv were able to see their children on the evening news as a breaking report, which saw them quickly react to save their boys. Aunt Vivian and uncle Phil arrive at the police station angered and ready to let out their frustrations on the officers, who not only falsely accused the boys of a crime, but also didn’t undergo proper procedure in the arrest of the minors, contacting the boys’ guardians. After the drama at the police station they return to Bel-Air, where they inform the others what happened:

Carlton: The police thought we stole Mr. Firth’s car, but they were just trying to do their jobs.

Hillary: Why would they think you stole it?

Uncle Phil: Hillary we’ve been over it all weekend. It’s late. I think we should all try to go to bed.

(Everyone exits the scene, leaving Carlton and Will alone in the living room)

Will: Yo Carlton, those cops were just trying to do their jobs?

Carlton: Will, don’t get bent out of shape.

Will: Man, you didn’t learn nothing this weekend did you?

Carlton: I most certainly did, always bring a map.

Will: WHAT?

Carlton: If we would have had a map, we wouldn’t have had to drive two miles an hour trying to find a freeway entrance and we wouldn’t have been stopped.

Will: Oh, ok, ok. I get it now. We were stopped because we were driving too slow. We were breaking the slowness limit. Oh ok…but you see, I never heard of that law before, but I did hear this other law. It’s called “if you see a black guy driving anything but a beat up pinto, you better stop him because he stole it” law. Yeah, I heard of about that one, oh but see, I thought it was the black guy law, when in actuality it was the slowness limit law. Thank you for this Carlton. Goodnight.

Will challenges Carlton because of his comment about the cops “just doing their job.” Evidently, Will doesn’t think that Carlton understands that he and Will have been racially profiled, nor Will’s larger point, which is that black people are more likely to be profiled and stopped by the police than whites.[32] Moreover, Will is dumbfounded that Carlton doesn’t comprehend the injustices that have occurred, and attempts to drive this point home as he adds, “You just don’t get it do you?  No map is going to save you. And neither is your glee club, or your fancy Bel-Air address, or who your daddy is. Cause when you’re driving in a nice car in a strange neighborhood, none of that matters. They only see one thing,” pointing to his dark-brown skin. Will wants Carlton to realize that as a black man you can never be too comfortable around police officers, especially when driving nice cars, because there is a high chance that you’ll be stopped. When you are black and driving a nice car, nothing else matters. At the end of the episode, Carlton is left questioning his identity, wondering if his blackness was the only reason he was pulled over and detained. This episode served the purpose of educating viewers on the realities of racial profiling, and more importantly its impact on black communities and their relationships with the law.

Will and Carlton’s contention over blackness, and more precisely on who can claim blackness as an identity continues to be an issue that both the boys and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air interrogates. This debate over blackness is further examined in the episode, “72-hours,” in which Will and his best friend, Jazz, bet that Carlton wouldn’t survive three days in Compton, California. Zook finds this episode fascinating for its intertextuality, through bringing together fictional, presentational, and documentary representations. She writes, “by constructing Will and Jazz as authentic “niggahs,” the narrative becomes richly complicated for in-group viewers (black viewers/Hip-Hoppers)—particularly those who realize that Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince never occupied such a space as rappers.” Basically, Zook highlights that this episode is an interesting blend of fiction based of actual truths and some false realities from Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff’s actual life. Furthermore, she reveals the irony in the “authenticity” of the episode, where you have two characters, who are supposed to represent “hard” black characters, but who in reality are “soft” in comparison, and have never in real life occupied those spaces.[33]

In the episode, Will and Jazz place the bet to test Carlton’s resolve, in an effort to prove to him once and for all that he isn’t “black.” The episode begins as Carlton and his white classmates rehearse their performance of the Commodores’, “Brick House.” Their routine is ruined, when Will and Jazz ridicule their performance lacking authentic blackness:

Carlton: Look, just because I grew up in the best neighborhoods and pronounce my ING’s at the end of my words doesn’t make me any less black than you.

Jazz: No, it’s that tie that does it.

Will: Look, face it C. I’m telling you, if you went down to Jazz’s neighborhood looking the way you look and talking the way you talk, you wouldn’t come home walking the way you walk.

Carlton: And what neighborhood is that?

Will: Compton.

Jazz: And if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.

Similar to the pilot episode, blackness is being negotiated under the terms of dress and language, which highlights the class divide amongst lower and upper-class blacks, and also dictates who can claim blackness. To self-proclaim yourself black, Will and Jazz, representatives of “authentic” blackness, think that you must speak in AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), and you can’t dress as preppy as Carlton does. Although this scene is comically portrayed, when Will says, “If you went down to Jazz’s neighborhood looking the way you look and talking the way you talk, you wouldn’t come home walking the way you walk,” the humor does not negate the implications that Carlton would be attacked or mugged for being who he is, a recognizably upper-class black teen. To put it frankly, Carlton would be targeted because he does not share the same class background as the African-Americans that reside in Compton. Therefore, making him a target for pickpockets’.

In fact, when the three of them arrive in Compton, it’s impossible to avoid the differences between Carlton’s million-dollar mansion and Jazz’s cramped, run-down apartment. As soon as they arrive, animosity is built between Carlton and the brothers, Jazz’s roommates, because Carlton consistently corrects their diction and word choice. To fit into the new environment, Carlton studies African-American Vernacular and Hip-Hop flashcards. By the time that Will and Jazz return from the restaurant they remark that Carlton has undergone a shocking transformation, from a prep student into a homeboy.[34] This is made visible through Carlton’s change in style and speech. Moreover, Carlton has taken on the nickname, C-note to appear more “tough.” In her analysis, Zook also takes note of Carlton’s sudden transformation, as she writes, “whereas Carlton carried himself with a straight-A posture, C-Note moves casually, with rounded shoulders and a suddenly broad, muscular back—donning dark sunglasses and a gansta-like bandanna. Having studied “hip-hop flashcards,” he now speaks in the language of “the streets.”[35]

When he returns, Will is surprised and worried that Carlton’s transformation into a homeboy may be permanent as he asks, “Carlton, what’s wrong with you?” Will fears that his cousin may be foolish enough to throw away his sheltered upper-class life for a life full of danger and poverty. Fearing these consequences, he returns to Bel-Air to inform his Aunt Vivian about everything that happened. Aunt Vivian, furious by Will’s actions and also fearing Carlton’s safety in Compton, heads to Jazz’s apartment to save her son.[36] Her arrival is disappointing because it shuts the door on the scene’s potential to redefine blackness by returning Carlton to his proper identity, educated and rich, and therefore not black.[37] When they return to the house, Will and Carlton are scolded by both Aunt Vivian and Uncle Phil, before being left alone in the living room for the final scene:

Carlton: I won the bet. I humiliated you in front of your peers, plus you said I couldn’t handle Compton and I did. I’d say its time to gloat.

Will: Goodnight, Carlton. (Starts to walk away)

Carlton: See you just embarrassed because I beat you at your own game. Look, I never judge you for being the way you are, but you always act like I don’t measure up to some rule of blackness that you carry around.

Will: Hold on, hold on, hold on, wait, wait…You don’t judge me? You do everything but carry a big old gavel around. I mean you treat me like I’m some kind of idiot just because I talk different.

Carlton: Differently. (Audience laughs)

In this exchange, we witness a role reversal in Will and Carlton’s character. One where Carlton, having completed his task to claim his blackness (as defined by Will), now feels like the dominant figure, while Will becomes victimized. During this interaction, Will reveals that he has felt like an outsider, since his arrival in the Banks’ home, particularly by his cousin, who he feels has branded him an idiot because he speaks in AAVE. At the end of Will’s sentence, Carlton corrects him, further affirming Will’s claim that Carlton has always been judging him. Ultimately, this episode is a critique on the ways that lower-class and upper class African-Americans relate to one another, constantly casting judgment on one another. This black-on-black prejudice is precisely what The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wants to eliminate, because even though both classes have different cultures, traditions, ways of speaking and dressing, they all share the burden and challenge of being black in America.

Issues of mutual understanding and respect between upper-class and lower-class African-Americans remain a central concern in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the following seasons as well. This thematic is further highlighted in the season four episode, “Blood is thicker than mud.” A close examination of this episode from beginning till end brings to light that although the show invites white viewership to learn more about blackness, the targeted audience are African-Americans of all backgrounds, who must answer and find the solution to black-on-black prejudice in the black community. Before I continue, I must recognize the transition that I’ve made from season one to season four, because a lot has transpired in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Since the last episode I analyzed, “72-hours,” Will and Carlton have learned to respect each other’s blackness, although they still have hold their differences. Also, they have both graduated from Bel-Air Prep Academy and have recently started college. In “Blood is thicker than mud,” Carlton and Will decide to join a fraternity at their university. Carlton is interested in all-white fraternity that celebrates academic excellence and upper-class standards, which includes expensive outings and dressing professionally for casual occasions. However, Will intervenes and suggests that they both join Phi Beta Gamma, an all-black fraternity.

In order to make the fraternity, Will and Carlton must first survive “Hell-Week,” where they must perform a series of tasks for Top-Dog, the Gamma’s leader. Upon their first meeting, Top-Dog doesn’t like Carlton because of the way that he presents himself, upper-class and privileged. As a result, he makes a goal of making Hell-Week additionally challenging for him, by making Carlton do twice as much work as everyone else (often times with significant handicaps).  To celebrate the completion of Hell-Week, the Gamma’s throw a welcoming party for all the new brothers. At the party Will learns that he was accepted into the fraternity, but that Carlton was rejected for not being the type of brother that the Gammas look for. Will, confused, asks Top-Dog what it means to be a Phi Beta Gamma, and he responds, “Well it’s not Ralph Lauren shirts and wing-tipped shoes, and corporate America. We don’t need a brother like him in this fraternity.” Once more, the notion of dressing, symbolizing socioeconomic class, is mentioned when describing blackness. And once again, it is Carlton, who is viewed as not black enough because he comes from an upper-class background.

When Will learns that Carlton was rejected because he didn’t fit a particular mold of blackness, he rushes to his cousin and lies to him about being rejected from the fraternity, urging him to leave the party. As they exit, Carlton confronts Top-Dog for his logic for not accepting Will into the fraternity. Top-Dog informs Carlton and the on-looking crowd of black students that it was Carlton, not Will, that wasn’t accepted into the Gammas. Carlton confused, asks:

Carlton: Me? But, I did everything. I cooked, I cleaned, I hand-washed your toilets.

Top-Dog: Everything your butler does for you. I’m not accepting no prep school, Bel-Air brand sellout into my fraternity.

Will: (Getting riled up) And you can stop with all that.

Carlton: No wait, Will. I got this…You think I’m a sell-out. Why? Because I live in a big house and dress a certain way? Or maybe its because I like Barry Manilow.

Will: (Comically) He mean Barry White y’all.

Carlton: Being black isn’t what I’m trying to be, it’s what I am. I’m running the same race and jumping the same hurdles you are, so why are you tripping me up? You said we need to stick together, but you don’t even know what that means. If you ask me, you’re the real sellout. (Promptly, He and Will walk out leaving the party scene in dead silence.)

The first couple of episodes I analyzed presented Carlton Banks as an African-American adolescent that didn’t fully understand his blackness. Because of his upper-class background, Carlton grew up not having to negotiate his black identity. When Will arrives in Bel-Air, as the representation of authentic blackness, he challenges everyone around him, particularly Carlton, on their blackness. Ultimately, Will’s arrival makes Carlton acknowledge and engage with his blackness, forcing Carlton to define and come to terms with his black identity. This scene is the second time in the series that Carlton is forced to affirm his upper-class blackness as a black identity, but it is the first time that he is called upon to defend it. Carlton’s dramatic speech is followed by energetic applause from audience members, and unlike “72-hours,” where Carlton goes to Compton is forced to return home by his mother, both he and Will return to the safety of their unified household.[38]

In this last episode, the issue of authentic blackness is raised. When Carlton is not accepted into the Phi Beta Gamma fraternity, whilst Will, who is authentically black was, it highlights that there is a bias on who gets to be black and who doesn’t. Throughout the series it is the authentically black characters that police other black folks: Will, Jazz, and Top-Dog. Top-Dog states that Carlton has sold-out his race, and has become a sellout, referring to Carlton’s “preppyness”[39] and bourgeois background. Rushing to his defense, Will attempts to step-in for his cousin, who he feels he has the duty of protecting, as demonstrated in the episode, “72-hours.” In one of the most powerful scenes in the series, Carlton stops Will and elects to fight this battle on his own, which results in Carlton providing the true definition for blackness. By Carlton’s definition, blackness is not and cannot be monolithic, it is an identity shared by all those that share the burden of being black, regardless of one’s class background, fashion sense and way of speaking. In this passage, Carlton unapologetically affirms his blackness when he states, “being black isn’t what I’m trying to be, it’s what I am. I’m running the same race and jumping the same hurdles you are, so why are tripping me up?”

Carlton’s affirmation of his black identity fights against the notion of black-on-black prejudice in the black community amongst African-Americans of different class backgrounds.[40] Carlton speaks for African-Americans like Henry Louis Gates Jr., who directed The Two Nations of Black America, where Gates attempts to understand his identity as an upper-class African-American and the division between him and African Americans of lower class. This lower-class, “authentic black” identity, is represented by Will’s character. The episode, “Blood is Thicker Than Mud,” directly interrogates the black-on-black prejudice and invites audience members to truly engage and continue the dialogue sparked by the episode. Zook states that the episode illustrates the shift in Will and Carlton’s relationship. Furthermore, she writes, “as Will moves away from narrow notions of “authenticity,” viewers are also encouraged to entertain the possibility that ‘blackness’ is not fixed but fluid.”[41]

When the boys return home, they are confronted by the entire family, who are waiting in the living room:

Aunt Vivian: Hey, we looking at the new Phi Beta Gammas?

Carlton: No, apparently I’m not enough of a brother to be a brother.

Uncle Phil: (Outraged) What?

Will: Pledge leader said he didn’t like sellouts.

Hillary: Well who does? You wait and wait and wait until everything’s gone. (Clearly not following the conversation).

Uncle Phil: You know this irritates me. I’ve worked very hard to give my family a good life, and suddenly somebody tells me there’s penalty for success? I’m sorry you had to go through this, son. When are we going to stop doing this to each other? (Camera zooms out and Scene turns to black).

As in many other scenes, the humor in this scene, which is played out by Hillary’s misunderstanding of the situation, is meant to take a break from the intensity of the conversation surrounding race and class. Like Carlton’s last words before departing the Phi Beta Gamma party, Uncle Phil’s final lines in this scene are meant to be cutting and memorable. Uncle Phil, who has had a similar upbringing to that of Will’s, angrily preaches how much his hard work and dedication for himself and his family still has its downfalls, particularly amongst other blacks, who reject him for having high aspirations and achieving them. The scene is reminiscent of the pilot episode, where Uncle Phil scolds Will for attempting to tear down what he has worked so hard to acquire. After Uncle Phil says, “When are we going to stop doing this to each other?” the camera zooms out and the scene slowly turns to black, leaving viewers in silence to reflect upon his words.


The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the first of its kind. What made the show unique was its usage of humor in dealing with issues of race, class, and gender facing the black community in a way that was subtle, yet comprehensive. Ultimately, as Zook notes, the show became a mass-appeal sitcom, where Will Smith charmed, disarmed, and alarmed white and black viewers with his streetwise ways.[42] Due to its major success in the 1990s, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has become a reference for post-90s African-American sitcoms that seek to better understand diverse and complex black identities.

A current sitcom, Black-ish, is a fitting example of an African-American sitcom that is continuing to challenge how society views and understands blackness. In addition, it is worth noting that this new series, like the Fresh Prince, is also interested in the negotiation of race and class. This time, however, the focus is on how to educate upper-middle class black children about their blackness, and more importantly the impact of being black in America. In contrast, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air worked to restore peace amongst upper and lower-class class blacks, in its portrayal and affirmation of blackness as a fluid identity. The show was called upon to challenge monolithic portrayals of blackness that were initiated and endorsed by Ronald Reagan and The Cosby Show in the 1980s. The consequences of this upper-class portrayal was the silencing of the millions of blacks, who lived in poverty, and were hugely impacted by Reagan’s policing of blackness.

           Blackness is not any given thing. By acknowledging that blackness is boundless, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air serves as an educational and motivational tool on how to build a strong black community, and the impact of claiming one’s blackness. As Carlton states in the episode, “Blood is thicker than mud”: “Being black isn’t what I’m trying to be, it’s what I am. I’m running the same race and jumping the same hurdles you are, so why are you tripping me up?” Through my analysis of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I learned that the Fresh Prince advocated for a strong and diverse black community that is inclusive of all black people in America. Will and Carlton’s relationship offers a representation of what a black brotherhood should look like. As both characters explore the multiplicity of their shared identity as black men, they learn not only to respect each other’s differences, but to embrace them. This presents a refusal of allowing blackness to be seen as static and instead urges black viewers to relearn what this identity truly entails, and white viewers to challenge their understanding of blackness.

In August of 2015, Will Smith announced that he was joining a team of producers to reboot The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.[43] One can only speculate what the series will look like in our current racial climate, where protesters are demanding justice, peace, and better policing, and where shows like Black-ish, which I mentioned earlier, and Empire, and movies such as Dear White People, who have been influenced by the legacy of The Fresh Prince, are currently adding to the discourse about what it means to be black in America. This show had a huge impact on me growing up as an African immigrant that I’m invested and interested to see how this new series will turn out. Will it simply be a re-editing of the old series? What sorts of issues will this show interrogate, if they decide to situate the show in the 2010s? Ultimately, I question if the re-booted Fresh Prince of Bel-Air will be as brave a show in tackling issues of black homogeneity, and examining the relationship between blackness and class? Lastly, I ask: How will this new Fresh Prince of Bel-Air mediate new definitions of blackness for the next generation?


[1] Darnell Hunt, “Making Sense of Blackness of Television,” Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1.

[2] This episode is the highest rated Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode. It’s also important to note that every actor/actress on and off stage became emotional after Will Smith’s improvisation at the end of the episode. All of that speech was non-scripted. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Man,” IMDB. (Accessed February 22, 2016).

[3] Darnell Hunt, “Making Sense of Blackness of Television,” In Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1.

[4] Valerie Smith, Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 15-20.

[5] The Two Nations of Black America. Directed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 1999), Film.

[6] The American family is a universal subject. The goal of an American family portrayal on television is to present a relatable family regardless of class or racial background. Jennings Bryant, Television and the American Family (Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1990), 207-228.

[7] Valerie Smith, Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 2.

[8] Imani Perry, More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 128.

[9] For more on the politics of and legislation of Ronald Reagan and his administration, see Thomas B. Edsall and Mary D. Edsall, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics ( New York: W.W.Norton, 1991).

[10] Herman Gray, “Reaganism and the sign of blackness,” Watching Race: Television and The Struggle for Blackness (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 15.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Darnell M. Hunt, “Making Sense of Blackness on Television,” Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1.

[13] Christine Acham, “The Cosby Show: Representing Race,” How to Watch Television, ed. Ethan Thompson and Jason Mitchell (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 103.

[14] Kristal Brent Zook, “Blood Is Thicker than Mud: C-note Goes to Compton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Color by Fox the Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 15.

[15] Christine Acham, “The Cosby Show: Representing Race,” How to Watch Television, ed. Ethan Thompson and Jason Mitchell (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 103-111.

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid

[20] Darnell M. Hunt, “Making Sense of Blackness on Television.” Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1.

[21] Frederick C. Harris, “The Rise of Respectability Politics,” Black Politics in the Obama Era.

[22] At its most literal level, Ebonics simply means ‘black speech’ (a blend of the words ebony ‘black’ and phonics ‘sounds’). The term was created in 1973 by a group of black scholars who disliked the negative connotations of terms like ‘Nonstandard Negro English’ that had been coined in the 1960s when the first modern large-scale linguistic studies of African American speech-communities began. John R. Rickford, “Linguistic Society of America,” What Is Ebonics (African American English)? (Accessed March 09, 2016).

[23] In season’s 4 through 6 Nicky, the last born boy of the family, is introduced to the Bank’s family.

[24] Natalie Finn, “A History of Will Smith & Janet Hubert’s Fresh Prince Feud.” E! Online (January 19, 2016.) (Accessed March 09, 2016).

[25] Robin R. Means Coleman, “Blackface+Blackvoice=Black Situation Comedy,” African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy, Situating Racial Humor. (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998), 163-198.

[26] Ashley is the one character that has an opportunity to define her blackness of her own accord. Will’s arrival to the Banks’ residence reveals to Ashley a new identity, one which she finds more lively and free, unlike the strict and heavily guided lifestyle her parents have forced onto her. At the same time, however, she doesn’t want to become like Will, she simply wants to discover what she wants without outside influences.

[27] To learn more about Humor in dealing with racism. Brandon Barnes, Ingrid Palmary, and Kevin Durrheim, “The Denial of Racism: The Role of Humor, Personal Experience, and Self-Censorship,” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 20 (2001), 321-38.

[28] This is simply one example of a current event that gets examined in the series. The family is so struck by the chaos occurring in Los Angeles that they each head down to aid in the aftermath. “Black-ish Takes on Police Brutality in a ‘very Special Episode,’” The Guardian. 2016, (Accessed March 09, 2016).

[29] All referenced Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episodes have been transcribed by me.

[30] Being difficult unnecessarily, especially implying violence or actually threatening violence. Such an attitude usually starts a conflict. Refusing to chill or back down. Overreacting to minor slights. “Act Hard.” Urban Dictionary. Hard. (Accessed March 09, 2016).

[31] Kristal Brent Zook, “Blood Is Thicker than Mud: C-note Goes to Compton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Color by Fox the Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 19.

[32] To learn more about Racial Profiling: David A. Harris, “Driving While Black: Racial Profiling On Our Nation’s Highways.” (American Civil Liberties Union. June 1999), (Accessed March 09, 2016).

[33] Kristal Brent Zook, “Blood Is Thicker than Mud: C-note Goes to Compton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Color by Fox the Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 19.

[34] A young acquaintance from one’s own town or neighborhood, or from the same social background. (Especially among urban black people) a member of a peer group or gang. Google definition.

[35] Kristal Brent Zook, “Blood Is Thicker than Mud: C-note Goes to Compton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Color by Fox the Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 20.

[36] It appears that Carlton needs saving, and Aunt Viv’s move is a critique on how upper-class blacks view their relationships with inner-city blackness. They fear they’re children may become as corrupted and lost as inner-city youths.

[37]“Aunt Vivian’s arrival also avoids what could have been a rare exploration of acculturation and black femaleness.” Kristal Brent Zook, “Blood Is Thicker than Mud: C-note Goes to Compton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Color by Fox the Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 20-21.

[38] Ibid, 23.

[39] Preppyness refers to Top-Dog’s rant about Carlton attending a prep school in high school.

[40] Tim Brooks and Marsh Earle, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-present. 9th ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007), 503-504.

[41] Kristal Brent Zook, “Blood Is Thicker than Mud: C-note Goes to Compton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Color by Fox the Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 24.

[42] Ibid

[43] Michael Ausiello, “Fresh Prince ‘Reboot’ in Development, Will Smith on Board as Producer.” (Accessed October 12, 2015).