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HBCU Life

Students love the diversity, truth, fun and the feel of ‘grown-ish’

Screening of a season two episode brings out the Morehouse, Clark Atlanta and Spelman crowd

Grown-ish has become a popular show among millennials by giving an honest depiction of what college is like today.

Main characters Jazz Forster (Chloe Bailey) and Sky Forster (Halle Bailey) and executive producer Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry visited Morehouse College recently, screening the first episode of season two for Atlanta University Center (AUC) students.

The Bailey sisters are from Atlanta, and they felt welcomed back by the AUC.

“It’s something about HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities], seeing people who look like me and the culture and everything that has to do with it, it’s so exciting,” said Chloe Bailey. “We’re actually so happy to be here at Morehouse and, you know, with Spelman being here. Our very first performance was at the Spelman summer camp.”

“I was obsessed with grown-ish. I watched the first episode over and over before the second one even came out.”

The three women shared their excitement about the upcoming season, which premieres Jan. 2 on Freeform. The second season will span 20 episodes and spotlight new issues that black students face on campuses. That’s great for fans who enjoyed watching main character Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) deal with social media trolling, dating and colorism during the 13 episodes in season one.

“In the second half of the season, we’re exploring mental health. … We want to explore what that means for a young black student, especially because of our culture, and what goes along with it,” Rice-Genzuk Henry said.

The 30-minute sitcom portrays the diverse millennial college student experience, from drug use to LGBTQ identities to relationships and family issues. College sports have also dominated storylines and highlighted how schools make millions off student-athletes. Chloe and Bailey play sisters who are attending the university on track scholarships and sell school merchandise despite NCAA rules.

The sophomore season will highlight the transition of the show’s characters from freshmen to sophomores. Zoey moves to an on-campus apartment, and her budding relationship with Luca Hall (Luka Sabbat) continues.

The jampacked crowd in Bank of America Auditorium at Morehouse was here for it all. Audience members laughed, ooh-ed, ah-ed and had plenty of side conversations.

Shala Murray, a junior studying English and journalism at Spelman College, was a big fan of season one.

“I was obsessed with grown-ish. I watched the first episode over and over before the second one even came out,” Murray said. The Detroit native was pleasantly surprised by how much she connected with the content. “Because it’s not an HBCU, I didn’t think it would be relatable, but the experiences were extremely relatable. I really appreciate the conversations, the content that was being told, and I know one of the producers is a Clark alum.”

Grown-ish takes place at the California University of Liberal Arts, a fictional predominantly white institution (PWI). The Netflix hit Dear White People is also based at a PWI, but it focuses on multiple characters and makes racial issues a focal point. Grown-ish, on the other hand, centers on Zoey’s college experience and occasionally touches on race and racism. Some students said it sugarcoated racial issues that Dear White People faces head-on. It’s difficult to say whether the lack of emphasis on race and discrimination in the lives of Zoey and her friends is a reflection of the way some black college students view their lives, or the way they want their lives to be.

“Race doesn’t necessarily drive our stories, but it informs our stories,” Rice-Genzuk Henry said. “I was on black-ish for three seasons. It was always at the forefront. With this show, we try to let whatever is most organic for these characters flow, and then relate how race affects them because of those experiences.”

The black-ish spinoff has drawn many comparisons to A Different World, a revolutionary sitcom detailing college life at a fictional HBCU, Hillman College. The show, which ran from 1987 to 1993, was a spinoff of The Cosby Show. Zoey Johnson has been compared to Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet), the crossover Cosby Show character who left home to attend Hillman, her parents’ alma mater.

In contrast, Zoey enrolls at a PWI despite the fact that her father’s character on black-ish, Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), attended Howard University and encouraged her to look into the historically black institution.

“I think it’s a really huge accomplishment to even be compared to a show that paved the way for grown-ish in that light, so I’m really happy to even pay homage to that show, in that way, and to be a part of something that people are calling the current A Different World,” said Chloe Bailey.

Alexander Cherry, a junior business administration major from Woodbridge, Virginia, likes that grown-ish still feels connected with the black-ish storyline.

“I don’t mind it being at a PWI. Black-ish bases Zoey’s family [the Johnsons] in the suburbs with many black experiences happening in white spaces, so it seemed fitting for Zoey to go to school at a larger university like Cal U,” said Cherry. “I like the diversity of the characters in grown-ish, with one of my favorites being Vivek [Jordan Buhat]. The show would not have appealed to the large audience Kenya Barris was trying to reach had it been based at an HBCU.”

Since A Different World went off the air, several sitcoms depicting the lives of black college students have aired: BET’s The Quad (2017-18), College Hill (2004-09) and College Hill: Atlanta (2008- ) and, of course, Netflix’s Dear White People (2017- ). The Quad was set at an imaginary HBCU (Georgia A&M University) where the students and administration dealt with financial aid legal issues and hazing. The College Hill series was basically Real World meets HBCU student. The original series followed students at the University of the Virgin Islands. College Hill: Atlanta shares the lives of eight students from Clark Atlanta, Morehouse College, University of West Georgia and Georgia State University who live in a mansion in Buckhead. Except for Dear White People, those shows enjoyed modest popularity and endured critiques of their over-the-top drama.

Perhaps the drama on grown-ish is more palatable and entertaining. The racial diversity of the cast might also be part of its success. Several students said they found it refreshing.

If the show maintains its popularity, it will continue to add to an evolving and eclectic narrative about the contemporary black college student.

Tucker Toole is a junior cinema-television and emerging media studies major and journalism. This Chicago native serves as sports editor for the “Maroon Tiger” and is a die-hard Chicago sports fan.