Updated: Apr 23, 2020
Trigger Warning: This post discusses self-perception, therapy sessions, and the beauty and discomfort in character development/growth
"If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it."
- Toni Morrison
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love A Different World, it is quite literally the best show ever. Anyone who KNOWS ME - knows me, knows that Whitley Gilbert's character is extremely important to, however, I am not quite sure how many truly know why..
For those unfamiliar with the show, Whitley Gilbert's character first graced the television screens as a sheltered, pretentious, "high sidity," arrogant, rude, elitist product of the southern black elite. Whitley was up-tight, a virgin, inexperienced (in basically everything), skill-less, and on track to graduate with her MRS degree-- did I mention sheltered??? When I began re-watching A Different World my freshman year of College watching Whitley became a twilight experience. Very quickly I began using that activity as an opportunity to "watch" myself. I binged watched the entire series, repeatedly. Once I noticed the similarities between Whitley and I the first time around I used the other times to essentially watch myself and reflect on those problematic personality traits, characteristics, and ideologies. Realizing that I was extremely elitist (social/economic) and rude was a harsh reality to step into, but the greatest and most difficult pill to swallow was the realization that I was sheltered and a "caged bird" to say the least. I had the opportunity to watch and engage in self-reflection through A Different World for the four years of my undergraduate career. The greatest part was that every year I grew in some way shape or form, and depending on the particular season I kept on repeat, Whitley Gilbert was growing right there with me. In addition to this experience being a Twilight effect, it was also a ripple effect. What I thought was essential to Whitley (and myself) I saw shed right before my eyes. There I was, witnessing the possibilities of the varying forms and levels of growth and edification that were meant to happen for me-- and so I went after them. As Whitley became friends with men and women who were not "her kind of people," I began to mix and mingle with those who were not what I considered prototypical or quintessential men and women. We both quite literally only sought higher education to find a husband, particularly because the blessing of being a multi-generational college student takes the pressure off of utilizing higher education as a means to economic and social liberation/elevation. I used to joke and say that I wanted to double major and obtain my Business and MRS degree-- NO JOKE! As Whitley sought a job and made her attempts to become financially dependent, I too began to take the time to develop skills and seek financial independence (and of course, like her, I too am having difficulty lol). Whitley did not figure out her vocational goals until her Junior year of college, and it was in my Junior year that I discovered my calling in ministry and changed my major (finally) to Religion & Philosophy. As I watched Whitley "relax, relate, and release" in therapy, I sat in the office of Bailey Counseling Services beautifully being read for filth in the way that only a black female therapist could. As Whitley's preferences in men changed, so too did mine. We both managed to go from wanting the prototypical black excellent man, 6-figure making, highly successful professional (law-business-banking) to simply wanting a man who could encourage us and lead us towards growth, enlightenment, and someone who loved us despite our differences. So, as I watched her go from Whitley Gilbert, the princess of the south-- arrogant, pretentious, elitist, sheltered, pampered, etc.-- to Whitley Gilbert-Wayne, the most humble version of who she truly was. I watched Whitley's soul reveal its true self, shedding the callousness that her socioeconomic background, nurturing, and social environment placed upon her. Things even almost happened in chronological order, lol. Nonetheless, I realized Whitley Gilbert-Wayne was who I wanted to be, an edified and freed version of myself.
Spiritual Liberation (Season 3, Episode 11)
As a result of the kind of self-awareness skills that engendered from journeying through Whitley's character development in a way that actualized it simultaneously on my end, spiritual liberation occurred. If you actually watch the series (yes, season 1 included lol), Whitley goes from a literal stick in the mud to the freest type-A/hyper-feminine alpha female one could possibly be!! I had watched that evolution multiple times. Similar to the Bible, I could watch the entire series over and over again because each time I learned something more about myself by receiving different revelations. Each time I saw something in Whitley and each time I had the opportunity to examine that within myself. Freeing myself of the order of homogeneity and only socializing with those I considered to be "my kind,"my social habits changed. Liberating myself from the "trophy wife"/"power couple" relationship mold, my "list" changed and I began to focus on who I was, what I offered, and subsequently began seeking the substance I deserved. As Whitley's character developed she literally became freer and freer. I realized that I my spirit was trapped, imprisoned by the control my type-A, sheltered, rigid, and domineering personality. I realized I wanted more than what I thought was "quintessential" and prototypical.
The real "ah-ha" moment occurred when I watched Episode 11 of Season 3, "Under One Roof." I had watched this episode quite a few times, but watching it this past year provided me the greatest revelation of them all. Whitley put into motion, and gave words to, a frustration I had had for most of my life-- the disdain/envy of "free-spirited" girls. I was a caged bird who thought she ruled and roamed the sky, and that reality was always shattered as I got in close proximity to girls who society labels as "free spirited," "eclectic," "down to Earth," and most importantly, "the opposite of Khaleelah." I despised all things that were different from me, but I particularly despised that type of woman because she was the only one that undermined who I was. Whitley and Freddie (the free-spirited one) were invited to the Dean's House for the weekend, possibly receiving a position as a Hillman Student Ambassador. Dean Hughes was more-so like Freddie. During the weekend Freddie and Hughes seemed to be hitting it off more and Whitley felt like she was saying and doing everything wrong. *Fast forward* In a projecting rage, Whitley blows up on and verbally abuses Freddie, berating her for connecting with the Dean, being the kind of girl she is, and essentially for the juxtaposition that made Whitley look like a bad person. Later on, however, Whitley admits to Dean Hughes of her verbal attack. But when explains what happens, she confesses to Freddy how she envies her. The Dean probes, and Whitley says:
"She gets on my nerves. She's always so "guns ho"....so free. I mean, she's -- she's not afraid to make a complete fool of herself."
Dean Hughes responds:
"Let me ask you a question. Have you ever grabbed a backpack and driven across country? (Whitley: Whatever for?) Gone skinny dipping at midnight? (Whitley: Dean hughes!) Walked barefoot, in the rain?? (Whitley: *scoffs*) Have you ever worn blue jeans to class? (Whitley: I did think of doing that once) Girl, are you 20 or 80????! Loosen up! Have some fun!
The episode ends with Whitley back in her dorm in a robe that she eagerly throws off to reveal herself sporting a pair of light wash jeans and a kente-cloth vest!! She stands there, exposed in this unusual outfit with a child-like ear-to-ear grin on! After a pause, she slowly walks over to her mink coat, throws it on along with her sunglasses, and confidently walks out the door to meet Freddie for breakfast.
Needless to say, the character development, spiritual liberation, and subsequent relinquish of control in my life is thanks to Whitley Gilbert and Whitley Gilbert-Wayne. With her, I let go of control. With the encouragement of God, the sustenance of therapy, and the character development witness on A Different World; Whitley & Me became free! So here I stand today, free and my truest self. One that has reached equilibrium and one that, not in her mind "roams and rules the sky," but one that surrendered to the air and is riding it.
Khaleelah I. L. Harris
Khaleelah Harris is the founder of the Her Health Club Blog. She is a dual degree Master of Divinity/Master of Social Work student at Yale University and is self-proclaimed Black Southern Belle. She is a lover of W. E. B. Du Bois and countless other things that have zero correlation.