20 Aug That ’90s Type of Fine Was Black Art on Full Display
This post was originally written and posted on ZORA. See the original here.
It’s impossible for me to think about the dope vibe of the ’90s and the way it shaped my future without connecting it to Black shows of that era. That era was a blend of Black talent still shining above brokenness. Iconic Black art streaming from our TVs while a broken criminal justice system was ravaging our communities. Yet somehow, the seeds for something larger were planted.
It took most of my adulthood to realize that the seeds for my 2020 #BlackGirlMagic are influenced by TV shows produced in the ’90s. Shows that introduced me to new possibilities coupled with the power of having art that reflected an audience often ignored. I was too young to realize it at the time, but the vibe of the ’90s — or rather that ‘90s type of fine — was on full display, nightly, around “8/7 Central.” From Moesha to New York Undercover to A Different World, the imagery was magnificent. And for this first-generation graduate without a point of reference for college life, no other show had a larger impact on me than A Different World.
Like most appointment TV of the last decades, A Different World created a fictional world at Hillman College that managed to capture the very real essence of ’90s kind of fine. A type of fine that was a celebration of all the beautiful diversity within Black culture. It was an open acknowledgment that not only are we not a monolith, but the beauty of our culture is magnified through the various expressions of Blackness. From the affluent Southern bell, to the dashiki-clad brother with locks, and all the artistic and carefree Black girls in between. The richness of our culture was on full display. You saw this in episodes centering Black art and scenes in classrooms where Black female professors introduced students to womanism. The subject matter and overall celebration of the various expressions of Blackness was a stark contrast to my experience in Yonkers’ public schools, which made the show literally feel like a different world.
Created as a spin-off of The Cosby Show, A Different World was one of my favorite shows back then. It introduced me to HBCUs, Black Greek letter organizations, and the concept of having nothing but Black teachers that pushed and valued you. It was peak ’90s kind of fine — an entire college community uplifting Black people where very few mirrored each other in thought, looks, or background. I was hooked. I saw a version of my future self that my soul must have intuitively recognized and connected with. I wasn’t nearly as smart as Kimberly Reese, the brilliant and beautiful character who was determined to become a doctor. But she felt like home — familiar and safe. In my early teenage years, I would have never considered rocking natural hair like Freddie Brooks, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her when she entered a room. Whitley Gilbert had far too much money to feel relatable to this young teen from the ‘hood, but I loved how she always seemed unwilling to compromise her personal standards. So by the time Whitley famously left a man standing at the altar to run off with the love of her life, I already knew I would be attending an HBCU.
While my tiny Southern alma mater certainly paled in comparison to what I imagined about college, I successfully tapped into that ’90s kind of fine A Different World depicted. I created a circle of friends whose expression of Blackness was as varied as our complexions. Our convos could go from soul ties and Juanita Bynum to Outkast and The Roots with the pass of a blunt. My Black professors pushed, challenged, and shaped me into a better version of myself. By the time I crossed the stage during graduation, I was fearlessly focused on my academics while rocking a curly ’fro and refusing to compromise my standards. This was the result of my hard work and growth — and also the power and influence of Black art.
“One day, I will write a love letter to Khadijah James, the thick Black woman who kept a fine man (hello, ageless Morris Chestnut and Grant Hill) and maintained a Black-owned hip-hop media company.”
While my definition of ’90s fine is very personal, there’s also universality and undeniability to this type of fine across Black American culture. When Netflix’s Strong Black Lead team gifted us with many of our favorite shows to stream on the platform recently, it reminded me that there was once a time when I was never without a favorite show that centered Black characters who embodied that ’90s kind of fine. That era is unmistakably dead, but deeply missed. A different vibe. It was a successful merger with the golden ages of hip-hop and TV. Moesha embodies this effortlessly. We had a lead actress rocking the box braids that were burned at the ends and dating some of the hottest rappers.
We spotted ’90s kind of fine on New York Undercover. Unlike your grandmother’s cop show, New York Undercover starred a Black and a Latino detective who looked like regular degular dudes from the ‘hood. They rocked baggy jeans, Timberland boots, gold chains, and walked with a little bit of a “I just did six months in Rikers” type of vibe. Now that I think about it, this might be where my dating standard was born. Every guy I’ve ever loved has been really smart with an unshakable three tablespoons of ‘hood in them. Okay, maybe I can’t really attribute that to New York Undercover, but my attraction to TV shows that actually look like my world certainly started there. Each week the hottest hip hop artists were featured. This means that when my older brothers were arguing about whether Sticky Fingaz aka Fredro Starr, who was also featured on Moesha, was the hardest member of the group Onyx, I was busy watching them perform on New York Undercover trying to decide who was the finest. Spoiler alert: it was Fredro.
With more than a share of fine men to adore, Living Single is another classic example of ’90s type of fine. Thanks to Hulu, the show lives on in syndication and a new generation of young Black women will fall in love with characters that were unapologetically Black before it was “trendy.” One day, I will write a love letter to Khadijah James, the thick Black woman who kept a fine man (hello, ageless Morris Chestnut and Grant Hill) and maintained a Black-owned hip-hop media company while being the glue that kept her friendship circle together.
Khadijah was not only the epitome of ’90s kinda fine, she’s also 2020 goals — she was a boss chick before hashtags became a thing, and unapologetically Black and sex-positive before it was cool. And in order for me to make it out of this year intact, I’m going to have to lean on some of that ’90s magic. The magic that helps me remember that I come from a legacy of people that can plant seeds using the power of Black art despite the ugliness that dwells in the underbelly of this country