10 Ways A Different World Lied to Us About HBCU Life

Image via A Different World screenshot/NBC; banner via Erendira Mancias/FMG
Image via A Different World screenshot/NBC; banner via Erendira Mancias/FMG

10. Everyone’s financial aid appeared to be straight.

If there’s one way I know that the show was a pure work of fiction, it’s that in all the seasons of A Different World, we never saw anyone having to go to the financial aid office and act a straight donkey. There are a few experiences that truly bind those of us who graduated from HBCUs, no matter if we went to Hampton, Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, FAMU, Fisk, Wilberforce or Tougaloo:

  • loyalty to freshman dorms
  • a bama in a pink suit during Orientation Week
  • financial aid fucking up, even though your money was straight, and losing a day or two of your life trying to register for classes

It happened to you or someone you know, and it’s as native to HBCUs as high-steppin’ marching bands and muhfuckas with Jheri curls serving chicken, rice and gravy in the cafeteria. Before Kanye ever muttered the phrase over a beat, the refrain on the lips of just about everyone who passed through a bursar’s office since the first FAFSA form was printed: “La, la, la, la wait till I get my money right.”

How could Hillman College exist to serve the needs of black students, and yet we couldn’t get one episode of Dwayne or Kim, or whatever Bumper Robinson’s character’s name was, on the phone just repeating, “But the money is there,” over and over for the whole show? I woulda watched that one.

9. There was no “Refund Check Day” episode.

Besides homecoming, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Founders Day, Refund Check Day is a real and official holiday at an HBCU.

We coulda used an episode where the ghosts of Refund Check Days past, present, and future came to haunt Charmaine or Lena as they contemplated not doing trifling things with their money.

8. No one became a Five Percenter. 

Yeah, there were some classic-era Hoteps floating around Hillman, but your HBCU wasn’t legit until you took it a few levels past Shazza to get to some cat whose birth name was Pernell Washington but who, after listening to the Wu-Tang Clan and talking too much with that dude at the barbershop, changed his attribute to Knowledge Born Understanding Civilized Wisdom Allah.


If you went to an HBCU, you know at least three people at various points on the Five Percenter spectrum. The first and most benign is the one who just liked to say “Peace” and greet you by calling you “God” or “Earth” but still liked to eat bacon and mess with white chicks from time to time. The second was a bit more studious and straddled the line between a fervent adherent to the Supreme Wisdom and a kid whose Episcopalian upbringing wasn’t edgy enough. But the third group, the true believers, were the Five Percenters who were an awesome phenomenon unto themselves. These were the bamas who could take any classroom subject and flip it on the professor as an example of Yacub’s grafted devils trying to fool us with tricknology.

You know the type: You’re sitting in class listening to them ramble on for 15 minutes about how they used to believe in gravity until they got knowledge of self and rejected all the white man’s laws. Hillman ain’t have none of them, and that was a glaring omission.


I’m jussayin’, it wouldn’t have killed Debbie Allen to have cast one guy called Zig-Zag Cipher Truth as the weed man in Gilbert Hall, and most of us woulda got it. Because the weed man was always a Five Percenter. And speaking of weed ...

7. Where was the weed?

I mean, me myself, I ain’t never smoked the shit. But I heard about a lotta people who did. Not saying that folks were sparkin’ up at Hillman, but I bet five good American dollars that Freddie woulda failed a piss test ... and Mr. Gaines ... and Whitley’s daddy, too, ’cause y’all might not know this but, he was literally Superfly.


6. Where was the white Sigma?

Gotta keep it real for a sec here: Every HBCU’s got a white dude named Mike who pledged Sigma last spring.


Coulda just dropped Freddie’s cousin in the mix and no one woulda batted an eye.

5. What about the gay people?

Probably the most egregious act of omission was the complete and utter disappearance of any members of the LGBT community on Hillman’s campus.


Shows like A Different World and the black identity it sought to perpetuate fueled, and continues to fuel, our inability to rationally acknowledge sexual orientation as part of the diversity of the Pan-African spectrum. Yes, there are LGBT black people, and you know them, and they’re on our campuses making them great with their presence. To erase them is to erase part of what makes us, well, us.

I know, different era, different ethos, but still ... if Terrence Taylor had come out of the closet (even with that dusty-ass ponytail), it would’ve made an interesting statement for those times.


4. What happened to Millie?

I’m guessing No. 10 or No. 7.

3. The Hillman hustle game was weak.

Never once did I see any of the following “mans” at The Pit:

  • the T-Shirt Man
  • the Mixtape Man
  • the Incense & Oils Man
  • the Bootleg Movie Man (sometimes also the Mixtape Man)
  • the Dr. York Scrolls Man
  • the Jewelry Man
  • the Hot Electronics/Beeper Man
  • the Cookie Man

2. Dwayne and Whitley were doomed.

Oh, come on. You know it’s true. Do you really think that was a relationship built to last? I’m gonna drop a hot take here and let y’all marinate on it and serve it up sometime in bougie black company like it was your own thought just for shits and giggles ...


Whitley and Ron shoulda got together.

If you’re an HBCU grad, feel free to extrapolate on the reasons why. I’ll wait.

1. Racism was the exception, not the rule.

As a guy who graduated from an HBCU who also watched every episode of A Different World, I gotta say my biggest issue was its treatment of race and racism as dynamic forces in society.


This was a show that, while presenting a positive face for and a compelling story around the purpose of HBCUs, often glanced over why these schools exist and the pernicious forces that continue to keep them relevant.

It created a false sense of parallel identity where black existence thrived without any interaction with, input from or approval by white people. A black identity where racism was an inconvenience of ignorance to be confronted individually in the parking lot of a football game, rather than a necessary systemic evil skillfully employed by rich and powerful white people who seek to mitigate our gains. Gains that are either a result of their (white people’s) benevolence or our (HBCU grads) acquiescence to the status quo.


Either way, it’s a means of marginalizing black excellence by inappropriately placing it on a 1:1 scale with an individual as an exemplar of group achievement without consideration for historical context concerning what’s being accomplished.

A Different World never prepared us for systemic racism—only a few bad attitudes from a few bad people. Its biggest lie—that one day we’d be able to move past race and embrace a new way of categorically separating—is by some arbitrary-ass standards.


That said, A Different World’s last and greatest send-off? Not reminding us that both it and the place and space it portrayed were far from real life and were a normative fantasy of how some wanted the world to be, but not of the way it was or is.

It’s a nice place to visit, but we will never live there.

Pea and Boogie's dad. Can often be found ranting at FatherlyNoir.com.



We called it a “Net check.”