Learning about my Blackness began at home — in my living room, seated in front of the television. During primetime, I’d sit with my dad and watch UPN, or as my dad called it, “You People’s Network,” where I’d fall in love with the characters on Eve, Moesha, The Parkers and Girlfriends. Growing up in an urban-suburb, I’d always daydreamed about life in the big city, and watching the characters on these shows transported me there for a few hours each night.
The television of this time — the 1990s and early 2000s — was ripe with Black lives and localities. Shows like A Different World, Girlfriends, Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Sister, Sister had complex characters who each presented their own universes. Anyone who tuned into these shows could be exposed to the many different ways of being Black. In one evening, viewers could travel from Detroit to Bel-Air with the click of a remote control, which was critical in the years following the L.A. riots and the media blitz of the O.J. Simpson trial. In sitcoms, unlike in the news, we could see the power and diversity of the Black family unit and see that Black success was possible.
Thirty-seven-year-old Insecure director Melina Matsoukas came of age during the height of the Black primetime sitcom. Over the course of an hour-long call for this story, we spoke about the shows that impacted us as women of color, and for Matsoukas, how these shows influence her work today in modern television and entertainment. “Having black casts and having black stories,” she says, “[is] a way to educate and bring about understanding, hopefully to begin to end the ignorance that infiltrates this country so deeply.”
One way Matsoukas paints these stories is through style. She notes that “fashion is really another character.” For Matsoukas, clothes play a pivotal role in moving along a plot and exposing a narrative. Clothes can tell the audience a great deal about who the characters are, where they’re from or where they’re headed. We also discuss how fashion challenges viewers to understand that Blackness is not monolithic. In the Black sitcom specifically, styling, location and music all played a vital role in casting a positive light on Black life.
In one of my favorite episodes of ’90s sitcom Martin, the character Sheneneh and her friend Laquita compete with Gina and Pam for inclusion in a Detroit social club. Pam and Gina step outside their usual wardrobe realm of trendy 1990s silhouettes in an attempt to dress like the elder members of Detroit’s social elite (think coral and pearls). They go shopping and play dress-up while trying to find outfits that make them look more affluent. When Pam and Gina arrive at the club in their muted outfits, Gina squeals in excitement and Pam reminds her that “this is where we belong.”
Much to their surprise, Sheneneh and her friend Laquita arrive dressed in an amplified version of their standard “ghetto fabulous” attire: Sheneneh wears a leather motorcycle jacket, sneakers and a plaid skirt, while Laquita looks like she’s just stepped out of Lil’ Kim’s 1996 “Crush on You” music video. In the end, Sheneneh’s authenticity and charisma show Pam and Gina that they don’t have to change who they are to fit into the club. By juxtaposing Pam and Gina’s more toned-down looks with Sheneneh and Laquita’s homage to hip-hop royalty, the styling of the episode articulated class difference and generational divides and taught the viewers a great deal more about the women portrayed on screen than the script alone.
When stylist Shiona Turini pitched a fashion-centric celebration of iconic black ’90s sitcoms — the work of which you see throughout this piece — I began to think differently about fictional wardrobes of characters like Sheneneh, for whom style was everything. These clothes weren’t just clothes; they were portals. For Shiona, these shows, with their casts and their clothes, were also gateways into how she viewed the world. “As a young girl in Bermuda, I was culturally nurtured off of them,” she told me. “I dreamed of a life outside of my tiny island that could be even a fraction as fabulous as the lives I saw on Fresh Prince, Girlfriends or A Different World.”
And now, as a grown woman? “They serve as foundational references for my every day.”
In revisiting my nostalgia for these shows, I was also reminded of the stumbles some of their legacies have taken. I was reminded, for instance, that Tisha Campbell-Martin (who played Gina on Martin) sued — and won — a sexual harassment case against her co-star Martin Lawrence. The two appear to have since made amends, and Campbell-Martin has even signed on for a reboot. That this happened, however, is now embedded within my fond memories of the show.
Let’s also not forget the elephant in the room: Do you know how hard it is to talk about television in the 1990s and not talk about The Cosby Show? In my chat with Matsoukas, we found ourselves fumbling over how to articulate our fondness for A Different World, a collegiate-centered spinoff of The Cosby Show, as well as the excellence of Debbie Allen (who directed both) without mentioning the nuclear connection between the two.
In all honesty, you’d have a hard time finding a young Black person who had access to a television who wasn’t in some way influenced by The Cosby Show, but we can’t totally separate the goodness of the show without dealing with some of the concrete realities of Bill Cosby’s legacy. I know I haven’t been able to parse this out yet. In Cosby’s case, as with Lawrence’s — as with any of the men in entertainment who’ve been accused of sexual harassment and/or abuse — celebrating the positive impacts of their associated shows, casts, crew, fashion (the works) means reconciling with the fact that these men have cast shadows across otherwise historically celebrated moments in television.
But wait: Are they unilaterally celebrated? When I spoke with Mara Brock Akil, the writer and producer who’s known for Girlfriends and, most recently, BET’S scripted drama Being Mary Jane, she reflected back on the ’90s and said, “It was a time in which corporate America decided to monetize our culture. It [happened] rapidly and wildly in the areas of music, fashion, and television.” She explained that networks were so pressed to squeeze together these three areas that “in some cases, you couldn’t get a show green-lit without a black musician [acting in it].” This conversation challenged me to evacuate the comfort of nostalgia and get real.
As my chat with Akil shifted from phone call to text messages, she said she didn’t get a chance to talk about “any of the fun stuff.” Over text, she explained how, on Girlfriends, the characters Maya and Toni “contributed to the acceptance and celebration of weaves” and how Lynn “gave permission for black women to not have it all together but still [be] intelligent and deserving of love.”
She ended our exchange by bringing it back to the transformative power of fashion: “Tracee Ellis Ross influenced a lot of Joan’s style, but it took fighting for a black woman costume designer to allow these characters to take flight.” With each layer of new information, I grew more thankful for the shows of this era, complexities and all.
One of the great powers of Girlfriends, Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World and Sister, Sister was that they granted Black people the chance to defy how we traditionally understood love and self-determination, too. The shows, casting, storytelling and scoring gave us a chance to walk in pride as we shattered the limitations of stereotypes. Likewise, the fashion that brought these characters to life presented a multitude of Black identities that had not been previously showcased in mass media. And beyond fashion, as Akil shared, “[Black sitcoms] gave an entry point for the artists of the day. … [T]he artists [who] were growing up … are better storytellers as a result.”
For a generation of creatives, these entry points granted us permission to see sisterhood, find humor and learn that while there certainly might be complexities and adversity, there aren’t any realities too harsh to unfold with the power of courageous storytelling. These shows taught us how to style ourselves, tell our own stories and be heard — whether on or off the TV.
Creative Director and Stylist: Shiona Turini, Co-Stylist: Nicole Chapoteau, Photographer: Naima Green, Stylist Assistants: Mayer Campbell, Melanie Wainwright and Annisah Medinah, Hair: Yusef at Factory Downtown, Michael Warren and Kendall Dorsey, Makeup: Bob Scott for Dior Makeup at The Wall Group and Frank Lombardi, Manicure: Gracie J at Editorial Nail, Prop Stylist: Jannah Handy and Kiyanna Stewart of BLK MKT Vintage, Models: Afiya Bennett, Michelle Bessiake, Sable Boykin, Sasha Boykin, Mayer Campbell, Kendall Dorsey, MaryBeth DuPain, Tirzah Evora, Samia Hampstead and Justin Segar
Special thanks to The Freehand New York Hotel, where this shoot was photographed.