HBR had the opportunity to speak with the co-creator of the hit BET drama The Quad, Felicia D. Henderson, who has been dubbed as “TV-writing-and-producing royalty.” Upon being asked what she thinks of that title, she says only that she is happy she’s blessed enough to do exactly what she wants to do.  This level of humility has lead Henderson to become one of the most prolific and influential television writers of our time.

The Quad focuses on the glamorous yet complicated life of Dr. Eva Fletcher (Anika Noni Rose), the fabulously dressed president of the fictional HBCU Georgia A&M. The series beautifully blends the inner-workings of college life, hierarchies in academia, HBCU bands, marriage, divorce, dating, racial tension, achieving your dreams, and a myriad of other issues relevant to contemporary [black] life, and centers on intelligent, multi-dimensional black people as they navigate the college experience–and life experience.  Henderson talks with HBR about how The Quad creatively tackles these topics to ensure that the art continues to serve as a reflection of the times.

Henderson shares how the Black Lives Matter Movement has greatly influenced the storyline of the series.  “We wanted to do our part to keep Black Lives Matter alive,” she says, “We want to be relevant and consider contemporary issues without doing it in a way that feels false. It’s not enough for us to just have activists jump out and yell. We wanted to be thoughtful about how that issue looks in an academic environment.” One way that the writers accomplish this is by thinking about how the movement of Black Lives Matter has expanded to the idea that Black Culture Matters, Black Creatives Matter, or Black Education Matters.  “We explore that in season two, as the students and faculty grapple with the prospect of having to merge with a predominantly white institution in order to keep its doors open. The characters consider the question, ‘Why do we have to give up our place as a historically black institution in order to exist?’”  These are the kinds of complex questions that The Quad deals with.

The upcoming episode features Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr. Eric Garner, the 43-year-old Staten Island man killed by choke-hold at the hands of NYPD officers, sparked national protests in 2014.

“I love when real life intersects with the show. Some writers said we should take a look at driving while black, and I thought: How can we do that in an entertaining way? [To both ends], we reached out to some of the mothers of the movement, all the while thinking, my first job is to be entertaining, and if I can include something real without being preachy, then that’s perfect. So I met [Gwen Carr] and found her so inspiring. I had her on our aftershow series “Office Hours,” where we do interviews on BET.com. And our usual four to seven minute template for that became much longer, because she had so many beautiful things to say. The interview was so powerful that I wanted to include her in an episode.”

The powerful conversation between Henderson and Carr also sparked a protest anthem, entitled “Rise Together,” to be released as a single.  Carr is featured at both the beginning and end of the track. “We do something similar in the upcoming episode,” Henderson says.

In addition to The Quad, Henderson is known for writing some of the 90’s classics such as Sister, Sister, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, and Moesha.  She is responsible for the hit Showtime series Soul Food, and has recently written for series such as Single Ladies, Gossip Girl, Everybody Hates Chris, and more.  With this level of accomplishment, Henderson graciously shared some advice for aspiring writers.  “Go back and read Shakespeare plays! In every writer’s room I’ve ever been in, Shakespeare always comes up,” because a lot of the times we are retelling these stories in contemporary form. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” she says.

“Read everything in film or TV that you like and want to write. Read what’s bad too, so that you know what yours sounds like when it’s bad. And lastly–Write! Young people say to me, ‘I’m an aspiring writer,’ and I ask them what they’ve written and they haven’t even started. If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. And if you are writing, you are a writer–not an ‘aspiring’ writer. I tell my students, the only difference between me and you is that I’m older and I’ve had some success. You also have to work hard. If your job as a PA is to bring someone coffee or walk their dog, do it well! Eventually someone’s going to ask you, ‘so what do you want to do?’”

Henderson also shared her experience on what it was like writing episodes for some of the best shows of the 90’s –and then what it was like to see them all disappear all at once from television.

“It was a perfect storm of events [that enabled so many black family sitcoms]. Fox was beginning, and there was UPN, The WB which became CW, and others. Black shows were something they used to get the networks going. But what that ended up doing was ghetto-izing black sitcoms. Once the networks found their footing, they thought, now we can branch out. So you’re basically kicked off of television. Suddenly you’re out of work, and all of your talented writer friends are also out of work. So we try to merge with the white shows, and for a black writer, having all your credits be black shows didn’t really bode well. However, this wasn’t the case for white writers with the same kind of credits. I also try to think, how did I participate? And I think what some black writers did was write so specifically to us that it felt like it wasn’t for the general population. It’s niche. So we had a smaller audience, unlike something like The Cosby’s.

Henderson hopes that the uptick in black shows on contemporary television is more than a trend, but a sign of continued presence–and that it also extends to behind-the-scenes crews.  She also hopes to inspire people through The Quad the way that she was inspired. “Learning that A Different World (the Cosby show spin-off) had an impact on HBCU enrollment was a really beautiful thing. No bigger service can be done for students of color than that. If someone were to say to me, ‘I want to go to college or an HBCU because of the The Quad,’ I would feel like I could die and go to heaven.”

That’s how beautiful representation truly is.

Get your fill of the feels by tuning in to the The Quad’s new episode tonight at 10 p.m. EST on BET!



About The Author

Eboni Boykin is an opinion and cultural analysis writer from the southern United States. She combines her extensive knowledge of genre films with her critical thinking training from the English BA program at Columbia University in the City of New York.

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