On New Year’s Day, many older fans of television were saddened to learn of the passing of James Avery. The African American actor was best known for his role as Philip Banks in the hit 1990s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. With his passing, people all over the internet began to talk about their love for the television show, which became a vehicle for Will Smith in his pursuit of greater fame. However, many zeroed in on their respect and admiration for the character that Avery played in the series. Philip Banks was a tough, no-nonsense judge in California who, married to Vivian Banks and raising several children, was an example of an African American man who lived out his own version of the American Dream. What I’d like to do in this short post is think about the ways in which The Fresh Prince portrayed the Banks family and their relationship to larger trends about Black politics and Black intellectual thought in the early 1990s.
An emphasis of the show was the fact that the Banks family (or at the very least Philip Banks and his son, Carlton) were Republicans. Looking back on the series, it was often Carlton who was the more partisan of the two, often emphasizing the importance of free market economics as an example of his conservative credentials. Philip Banks, on the other hand, only occasionally referred to himself as a Republican. When confronted with the issue of race early in the series (Will and Carlton are arrested for, essentially, driving a nice car) Philip Banks has to show his power as a judge to get the two out of jail. More importantly, however, the episode becomes a moment where Carlton is forced to confront the issue of race and the law in a visceral way.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air also fed into a larger television narrative of the early 1990s: the popular culture creation of memory of the 1960s. Shows like Family Ties already took on this narrative, with the political division in the Keaton family providing a place to showcase the national move from 60s liberalism to 80s conservatism. In one particular episode of Family Ties, the patriarch of the family Steven Keaton is confronted by an old friend of his who, unlike Keaton, is still living the 60s radical lifestyle. Likewise, Philip Banks is confronted by an old friend who is still a 60s-era Black radical activist (and, it’s revealed in the episode, still on the run from the FBI). The episode, titled “Those Were the Days”, highlights Philip and Vivian Banks own 1960s era activism. But, where their friends remain “in the struggle”, Philip and Vivian have pursued their own path in making a difference for the fellow citizens.
The climax of the episode was a meditation on where African American activism and participation in the public sphere evolved after the end of the Civil Rights Movement and the collapse of Black Power radicalism. Philip told his friend that he was still the same Philip Banks, but pursuing equality for African Americans through the system, as opposed to trying to overturn it. In light of considerations of how national memory can be constructed via mass media, it’s important to note this particular episode and the narrative it provided about the 1960s and Black America. Where once activism meant marching in the streets, and being “Black and proud” meant certain hairstyles and fashions, The Fresh Prince reminded viewers that many of those same activists, like their counterparts in the anti-war movement or amongst hippies, came to pursue “regular” lives safely within the mainstream.
Lastly, it’s important to note that, while Philip identified as a Republican during the show, he ran as a Democrat in the one Superior Court judge race he participated in. Running against his mentor (portrayed by The Jeffersons star Sherman Hemsley), his choice to run as a Democrat is nothing more than political necessity. Still, the portrayal of an African American family, wealthy and well-off, as Republican in designation was an interesting commentary on discussions of race in America in the early 1990s. With Black conservatives such as Clarence Thomas and Shelby Steele coming to the fore during this era, the importance of having such an ideology portrayed on television was important. While the ideology was sometimes used more for comic relief (especially when it came to Carlton Banks), the continued importance of “up by your bootstraps” Black conservatism was an element in the makeup of the patriarch of the Banks family. Also, thinking about sitcoms in the early 1990s is an important window to how the intellectual debates about race, gender, and American memory were playing themselves out in the public sphere of television and comedy. There were a variety of television shows (Cosby Show, A Different World come to mind) portraying African Americans in a variety of situations. While A Different World was far more explicitly political than The Cosby Show, they along with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are all interesting to think about in researching debates about Blackness and American intellectual thought during that era.
 It’s important to note, by the way, that Vivian herself was a college professor. In many ways this couple was reminiscent of The Cosby Show in their portrayal of an upstanding, well-to-do African American family.