In Praise of Jaleesa Vinson, the Unsung Hero of A Different World

Dawnn Lewis’ character is one of the consistently underrated and underappreciated members of the ensemble cast.

Dawnn Lewis as Jaleesa Vinson, LIsa Bonet as Denise Huxtable and Marisa Tomei as Maggie Lauten
Dawnn Lewis as Jaleesa Vinson, LIsa Bonet as Denise Huxtable and Marisa Tomei as Maggie Lauten IMDb    

In an effort to distract myself from the bad news of recent days—the fate of New York-area sports teams, the latest Kanye track, my most recent bank statement—I’ve kicked off some binge-watching of A Different World.

A cursory Google search of the series will generate hundreds of thousands of words written about A Different World and its impact on everything from HBCU attendance to awareness of critical black themes of the ’80s and ’90s—many of which still apply today. Topics ranged from the serious—rape, faith, AIDS, colorism—to the more lighthearted; A Different World made fun of Hoteps decades before black Twitter saw fit to give them that name.

There have also been essays ad infinitum on the magic of the black love that was Dwayne and Whitley. While it’s significant, I’m not interested in adding another ode to their canon. Instead, I want to take a moment to give a shout-out to one of the consistently underrated members of the ensemble: Jaleesa Vinson.

It might just be a sign of the age group I am in now, but as I revisited the series, Dawnn Lewis’ character was the one I immediately gravitated to. Jaleesa was an all-around bad bitch. She was tall. She was funny. She was wise. She was stylish. She was smart. She could sing and dance.

She was damn near 30, dealing with the whims of 20-year-olds on a day-to-day basis. She was a saint for this alone! When was the last time you had to deal with 20-year-olds at length? My brother is 19 years old, and his Instagram is a walking Drake meme.

Not to mention, she was relegated to playing keeper for all of the light brights on the show: She shared living spaces with Denise, Freddie and Whitley. That’s five years of being unable to borrow beauty and hair products! How many nights do you think Freddie berated Jaleesa for hair spray damage to the ozone while flouncing around in her wash-and-go?

Jaleesa pressed reset on her life after a failed marriage and a miscarriage, and never apologized or provided qualification for who she was or how she got there. She stayed with a suitor. She had casual bedmates without concern for what people thought. She carried condoms in her purse!

This was never confirmed on the show, but I bet you that Jaleesa could bake a mean chicken thigh, too. Real recognize real.

For the first four seasons of the show,* Jaleesa served as the pragmatic voice of reason for a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds who ran around like chickens with their heads cut off—essentially, they acted their age while she acted hers. She encouraged them to revel in their youth while disabusing them of the notion that they were not responsible for their choices. She consistently challenged the gender norms that were upheld by both men and women. She was there to remind them that more often than not, it was probably not the end of the world as long as they had the chance to wake up in the morning and try again. Most important, she did it all while sporting a mean do and toned arms.

The underappreciation of Jaleesa Vinson’s role as the glue that helped hold together a bevy of dramatic young adults should be added to the list of questions about the series that will remain asked and unanswered, including these: Why in the world didn’t Dwayne date Freddie in season 2? Where were the milk cartons with Maggie Lauten’s face on them after she went to Greece, never to be seen again? Or did she go into witness protection, only to reappear as Ms. Whiteman on Empire? Did Matthew clap on the 2s and 4s? And last, but certainly not least: How on earth did Byron’s groomsmen not immediately offer Dwayne a two-piece, no fries, at the wedding?