Lately I’ve been seeking comfort in Black sitcoms from the 1990s. These shows have been made available on a number of streaming services, and watching them gives me a much-needed break from reality. What makes these sitcoms so powerful is simple: they’re about Black people living just like anyone else. Our lives are simple, complex, and most importantly, more than just about battling bigotry.
Take Living Single, which first aired in 1993. The show features the trials and tribulations of Black women living together in Brooklyn. Queen Latifah stars as Khadijah, a highly successful editor-in-chief and publisher of an independent magazine. A major theme of the show is the character’s difficulties dating. At the end of season one, things are going great for her and teacher Alonzo. While their relationship is growing, things come to a halt when her old flame Scooter shows up out of the blue. He and Khadijah still have very strong feelings for each other. So, Alonzo decides to leave and eventually Khadijah tries to make a long distance relationship work with Scooter.
The show centered Black feminism, and also allowed us to see the multiple sides of its characters. In season three, Khadijah watches over her little sister Stephanie, a talented runner. Throughout the episode we learn that even though Khadijah is a talented and aspirational woman, she isn’t exactly a good sister. Another character, Maxine Shaw, was an attorney whose principles sometimes came into conflict with her profession. In season one, while working on the best interests for a client, she convinces her to get a prenuptial agreement. This resulted in her client’s marriage engagement being cancelled and Maxine being suspended. Maxine ultimately helped her client avoid being married to a bad man. Her integrity and dedication to women is never called into question.
Black sitcoms also recognized the importance of addressing intra-community issues. The classic The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, now streaming on HBO Max, comes to mind. Focusing as it did on an affluent Black family and the fish-out-of-water Will, The Fresh Prince posed questions about class, success, and parenting that are still relevant.
In one of the most powerful episodes of the series, despite protagonist Will’s best efforts, he gets his heart broken by his father. That entire episode reminds us all that no matter who we are and what our accomplishments may be, family can let you down. Our relationships with blood relatives can be fraught and that isn’t our fault. It’s something that happens in life.
The show wasn’t afraid to get into the details of identity and community conflict, either. In one episode, Will and his cousin Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) visit a frat party to see if they can be recruited. A frat recruiter questions how authentic Carlton is based on his class status. Triumphantly, Carlton is able to defend himself. “I’m running the same race and jumping the same hurdles you are,” he insists, “So why are you tripping me up?” Throughout the series all members of the family, including Geoffrey the butler, have moments where they cement their unapologetic Blackness. Fresh Prince reminds us that it doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer, activist, or wealthy, we will always have battles intersecting class, gender, capitalism, and even our personal dedication to the community at large.
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The most powerful aspect of many Black sitcoms is the joy that they radiate. Kenan & Kel, for instance, is at its core perpetually joyful. The two titular friends come up with get-rich-quick schemes that often fail because of Kel and his aloof nature. But really, it’s about the friendship of two young Black men. You couldn’t help but feel jovial watching them try and fail while bumbling along the way. For example, the episode where Kenan mistakenly cures Kel’s cold with a home remedy he made spontaneously. Or the episode when Kenan wants to get his driver’s license. In both instances we see that if all else fails, they still have each other at the end of the day.
Black sitcoms have become my proverbial safety blanket. The shows I mentioned are but a few that allow us to see the different lives that Black people live. Unlike many modern shows, these series were specifically made for Black audiences. They weren’t necessarily made to be diverse or be relatable to non-Black audiences, even if they found success among them. They are the products of Black creatives that wanted to show our lives unapologetically. Our lives are complicated, funny, filled with struggles and successes like all other human beings. Twenty years later, these sitcoms are a reminder that racism isn’t the end all be all for my life or any other Black lives. I don’t just want to see us enjoying life, I need to see it.