This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "How to Think Philosophically About Black Identity" with guest Tommie Shelby. Click here to listen to the episode.
Like many people of my generation, I grew up watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the show that made Will Smith a household name. In it, Will plays an African-American teen whose mother sends him across the country to live with his rich relatives, because he got into, as the song goes, “one little fight.” The show advertises itself as a fish-out-of-water, rags-to-riches story, and in all fairness, it does spend a great deal of time focusing on these themes. But this is largely subterfuge. What the show really is, is a six-year exploration of what it means to be a black male.
Many of the show’s jokes involve Will teasing Carlton, his rich cousin, for not being black enough, culminating in the famous Carlton dance, the exuberant celebration of the music of uber-white Tom Jones. But the show also features Phil Banks, Carlton’s father, a former dashiki-wearing activist turned judge who defends his own authenticity as a black man working within the system.