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.
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’. 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.” 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.
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. 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.
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?
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. 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.”
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. 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. 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.
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” 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. 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.”
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.