My vision for my life was changed when I discovered Susan Fales Hill’s popular 80s-90s sitcom, A Different World. Never had I seen any entertainment content that made me so happy and proud to be black. For the first time, I saw young black people my age living, loving, and laughing in a context that I could relate to. I was also an undergraduate at the time, at predominantly white institution, which lacked the inherent camaraderie that the characters at the fictional historically black Hillman college had. But still, in that show, I saw a world I wanted to be part of—in a context in which I would be surrounded by people who looked like me but were still so different and multi-faceted.

The importance of shows like these, unfortunately relegated only to the 80s and 90s decades as of now, has been discussed frequently, but not thoroughly. As we celebrate the emergence of quality young adult black programming from superstars like Donald Glover and Issa Rae, just to name a few, writers have often mentioned the influences that shows like Living Single, Martin, Moesha, The Fresh Prince, and others had on the new wave of black shows we are getting now. For many black people who are old enough to have experienced these shows as they aired in real time, or the early 90s babies who are familiar with them through syndication, these shows helped formulate a self image with which to aspire to. To be sure, not all shows in which we can see ourselves have to have predominantly or all black characters; on the contrary, the whole point of storytelling is that the characters appeal to the human experience overall, even if your life is nothing like theirs. That being said, there something that is both sentimentally and psychologically imperative about being able to see relatable images in which the people share your skin tone, and your aspirations for friendship and life.

That point brings me back to The Cosby Show spin-off, A Different World, of which BET just this past MLK Day ran many episodes to celebrate the show’s influence on black students who chose HBCUs for college. With the show’s (former) availability to stream on Netflix, many younger people had the opportunity to see the show and fall in love with the characters, inspiring a whole new wave of young people who were too young to have seen the show when it came on television. Something that has a such a large and important impact, the ability to access this kind of programming, is often ignored and shoved to the side. In mid-2017, Netflix pulled the show from streaming, disappointing thousands of people who watched the show (a ballpark amount I conjectured based on the online petitions to bring back the show, and the vast disappointment expressed via Twitter at the news). I was lucky enough that I had made it all the way through the series to the end and had started over again by the time the show was being taken down, but I would no longer have access to the show that had literally changed the way I saw blackness in the public sphere, and even affected personal decisions I would make in life and friendship going forward.

Despite the outcry, A Different World has never been available on DVD in the form of the entire series—the most that has ever been on the market is the first few seasons, of which there are six total. This is just one example of how black comedic programming, once in abundance, has been vastly ignored and relegated to the side. With the exception of the networks hat recognize black sitcoms’ ability to pull viewers on late nights or early mornings, these shows spend most of their time under lock and key, rarely available via streaming or even DVD. While older programming in general is often forgotten about as time goes on, as is expected, the specific cultural importance of black lifestyle sitcoms should be a contributing factor to its having wider circulation. Consider something like the Clark Doll Test, in which children saw white dolls as prettier or smarter—because of images they’d been exposed to that teach them this value. I would argue here that the lack of light hearted lifestyle programming available for non-white people encourages further toxic beliefs which the Clark Doll Test exposes.

While it would be more fitting to have new black programming, and that wave seems to be on the horizon, for now we have networks with vaults full of black characters that already exist and have an aspirational tone to their fictional existence. Aspiration is key here, because there are a handful of black drama shows which expose the underbelly of urban life. These are also important; if nothing else, they show give people of the same backgrounds a chance to have their real life experiences be reflected on television, and for sheltered people to see what the other side is like. However, there is a very specific function that shows like The Parkers, The Wayans Brothers,One on One, and others provide—images of young black people (and sometimes their white friends) enjoying their lives and dealing with less life altering issues than characters on more dramatic shows.

In light of all this, imagine the elation that erupted on Twitter and other platforms with the news that cult sitcoms Living Single would be available to stream on Hulu. The show hasn’t been available on any other streaming service before now, and neither have any of its counterparts in time and content. Hulu is tapping into a space that many people of color are aching to have filled in this sudden over saturation of choices of things to watch. We want to see the characters we loved as kids and modeled our lives after, the characters that were once inescapable on networks like UPN(now defunct) but are now nowhere to be found in contemporary television. These statements are not meant to overshadow the emergence of Black-ish, the only show of its type on TV today—instead what I hope I’ve brought attention to is the unavailability of programming that has cultural and even historical relevance to the black TV viewer experience. Why have these shows been left to gather dust, when there is such a consensus that it wants to be seen? Don’t networks want our money for the programming they made to grab us years ago? Why, now, some decades later, do we have to fight to see them? It shouldn’t be SO shocking that Living Single is coming to Hulu. Friends has been on Netflix for over a year—just sayin’.

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