‘A Different World’ Taught Me About Womanhood & How To Love (Essay)

Words by Mya Abraham. Art by Sam Liacos

I binge-watched the entire A Different World series towards the end of our relationship. The day I was finally fed up with sacrificing, compromising, and settling, I was up to the episode where Whitley and Dwayne contemplated why their relationship ended the night before her wedding to Byron. Justin* and I had an explosive argument that led to him telling me to have a nice life and me essentially telling him to fuck off. He was childish and I was pissed. While watching the episode, this dialogue struck a chord with me:

Dwayne: When we were together, we made a lot of mistakes, but I never meant to hurt you.
Whitley: It seems despite all our good intentions, we keep hurting each other over and over. I didn’t realize I was putting so much pressure on you.
Dwayne: Well as mush I hate to admit it, it was exactly what I needed to get my act together. You know you set a standard and I couldn’t hang or I wasn’t quite ready… The woman I couldn’t stand became my best friend, my girl, my lover, even though you challenged me every step of the way, babe.
Whitley: You know me, all or nothing. I thought I would always be dependent on a man. I just thought that’s just the way it’s gon be, but you taught me to depend on myself.
Dwayne: You taught me how to love, Whitley.
Whitley: You taught me how to love.
Dwayne: If we were all that to each other, why didn’t our relationship work?

It was a conversation I needed to hear, knowing I’ve never hear it from Justin himself. We had a similar talk several months prior to the end. We quoted the love letter he wrote me when we first began our tumultuous journey. I was his Mya and he wanted to be the one to “handle my huge heart with hands of care.” However, Justin would never be my Dwayne. Instead, I realized that I was complete without him. Without Dwayne, Whitley was still an independent, intelligent, self-sufficient woman who chose herself first before ever choosing anyone else.

When A Different World premiered in September 1987, it was a spin-off of The Cosby Show intended to follow the quirky, enigmatic, and soft-spoken Denise Huxtable during her years at Hillman College. By its second season, Denise was gone and Whitley Gilbert became the show’s center. Whitley was naive, sheltered, assertive, upper class, high maintenance and demanding. She was spoiled rotten, and sought out handouts and attention. She never was in an environment where nobody noticed her, both visually and vocally. Throughout the show’s six-season run, Whitley evolved into an alert, humble, down-to-earth, aware, loving, and still demanding woman.

Whitley taught me how to love myself, appreciate my friends who accept me at my worst and my best, allow lovers to understand that with me it’s all or nothing, accept nothing less than what I deserve, and trust my talent as well as my path.

As a college student, being a Hillman student was something I craved. The cast made college look neither easy or nor glamorous. They showcased all of their struggles and their accomplishments, both personally and professionally. Both Whitley and her friend, Ron, took five years to graduate. Whitley majored in Art History with aspirations to become a professional art buyer, but became a substitute teacher when her company folded. Dwayne had dreams of becoming an engineer, but settled on being a math professor until he invented a game to teach grammar to children. Whitley dealt with her parents’ divorce and her dad getting remarried to a younger woman. Initially, she depended heavily on her father, but when he cut off her resources she had to figure out how to “adult” and be independent. The cast even reflected problems of the world beyond the TV screen, shedding light on the AIDS epidemic, racial tension, the L.A. riots post Rodney King, date rape, and other issues college students and black people dealt (and still deal) with.

I’ll admit that I’ve had my fair share of naive and sheltered moments. I don’t like confrontation, so if something wasn’t directly affecting me, I flew under the radar. I related to Whitley in the sense that with the help of close friends, we became “woke.” My friends balanced me out as a person and for what it’s worth, Justin was a part of that.

Dwayne and Whitley were friends for years, but when Dwayne grew out of his childish ways and into the innovative engineer we knew he’d be, Whitley wanted him badly. They spent most of Season 3 exploring the depths of the friendship and transforming those feelings into a relationship that became the show’s core. Their relationship, not only changed my life, but it fed the show’s core dynamic. Whitley was tired of being a pretentious brat and grew into a hardworking woman who wanted to be as independent as possible. While treading on the bridge between friends and lovers, Dwayne and Whitley had this memorable conversation.

Dwayne: What kind of husband do you want?
Whitley: What do you think?
Dwayne: Rich.
Whitley: I thought you knew me better than that. I would like a man who’s educated, enterprising and ambitious.
Dwayne: So you wouldn’t mind if he was poor?
Whitley: That kind of man is never poor.

Much like Whitley, the state of denial was my home. I can’t just spew out emotions and be vulnerable. It’s uncomfortable and that’s how it was for Justin and I, in the beginning. What A Different World showed me was if a man loves you without contest and wants you, he will show you. It also showed me that a woman’s determination works wonders. Whitley taught me that it’s possible to have it all—meaning you can be an educated, independent woman who works, falls in love with her best friend without losing her own self in him, and has people in her life who accept her wholeheartedly. A Different World is my standard: all or nothing.

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