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B(l)ack Like It Never Left: Race, Resonance, and Reruns

  • Author(s): Johnson, Patrick
  • Advisor(s): Leonardo, Zeus
  • et al.
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Abstract

This audience research study explores how 1990s Black sitcoms such as Martin, A Different

World, Living Single, Moesha, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air serve as a form of heritage for

Black millennials. To better understand this phenomenon, I conducted semi-structured, in-depth

interviews and focus groups with 26 Black undergraduate students at a large, public, research

university in the western part of the United States. In addition to interviews and focus groups, I

performed textual analyses of sitcom episodes as well as the various popular texts produced in

response to the shows. My analysis reveals how Black millennials sample ideas about race,

gender, and class from 1990s Black sitcoms as well as how they critique the continued

circulation of the texts in Black popular culture. Identifying social mobility as a central theme in

most 1990s Black sitcoms, participants used the shows to help shape their professional, social,

and educational aspirations. Specifically, participants stated that the shows helped them imagine

themselves as college students who would go on to pursue careers with high-earning potential,

while also framing their expectations of the romantic and platonic relationships necessary to

achieve upward mobility. Participants described watching reruns of 1990s Black sitcoms as a

normative part of their childhood and thus imagined most Black millennials as having a

knowledge of and affinity for the shows. For many participants, their 1990s Black sitcom

fandom was understood as a form of familial inheritance as they credited their parents and older

siblings with introducing them to the shows. Participants drew on their affinities for 1990s Black

sitcoms as points of connection between them and other Black students. Despite participants

finding great utility in the sitcoms, they also described vexed relationships with the programs.

This was particularly true related to Martin, which was the most popular sitcom among

participants. Participants attributed their ambivalent relationship with Martin to what they

described as the show’s penchant for affirming and advancing negative stereotypes about Black

women and the show’s troubling depictions of Black heterosexual romantic relationships.

Main Content

This item is under embargo until March 29, 2023.