In an effort to distract myself from the bad news of recent days — the fate of NY area sports teams, the latest Kanye track, my most recent bank statement — I’ve kicked off a binge of A Different World.
A cursory Google search of the series will generate hundreds of thousands of words written about A Different World and its impact on everything from HBCU attendance to awareness on critical Black themes of the 80s and 90s — many of which still apply today. Topics ranged from the serious — rape, faith, AIDS, colorism — to the more lighthearted; A Different World made fun of hoteps decades before Black Twitter saw fit to give them that name.
There have also been essays ad infinitum on the magic of the Black love that was Dwayne and Whitley. While significant, I’m not interested in adding another ode to their canon. Instead, I want to take a moment to shout out one of the consistently underrated members of the ensemble cast: Jaleesa Vinson.
It might just be a sign of the age group I am in now, but in revisiting the series, Dawnn Lewis’ character is the one who I immediately gravitated to. Jaleesa was an all-around bad bitch. She was tall. She was funny. She was wise. She was stylish. She was smart. She could sing and dance.
She was damn near 30 dealing with the whims of 20 year olds on a day to day basis. She was a saint for this alone! When was the last time you had to deal with 20 year olds at length? My brother is 19 years old and his Instagram is a walking Drake meme. Not to mention she was relegated to playing keeper for all of the light brights on the show. She shared living spaces with Denise, Freddie, AND Whitley. That’s five years of being unable to borrow beauty and hair products! How many nights do you think Freddie berated Jaleesa for hairspray usage in the o-zone while flouncing around in her wash and go?
Jaleesa pressed reset on her life after a failed marriage and a miscarriage and never apologized or provided qualification for who she was or how she got there. She stayed with a suitor. She had casual bedmates without concern for what people thought. She carried condoms in her purse!
This was never confirmed on the show but I bet you Jaleesa could bake a mean chicken thigh too. Real recognize real.
For the first four seasons of the show*, Jaleesa served as the pragmatic voice of reason for a bunch of 18-22 year olds who ran around like chickens with their heads cut off. Essentially, they acted their age while she acted hers. She encouraged them to revel in their youth while disavowing them of the notion that they were not responsible for their choices. She consistently challenged the gender norms that were upheld by both men and women. She was there to remind them that more often than not, it was probably not the end of the world, as long as they had the chance to wake up in the morning and try again. Most importantly, she did it all while sporting a mean ‘do and toned arms.
The under-appreciation of Jaleesa Vinson’s role as the glue that helped hold a bevy of dramatic young adults together should be added to the list of questions that will remain asked and unanswered on the series, such as: why in the world didn’t Dwayne date Freddie in season two? Where were the milk cartons with Maggie Lauten’s face on them after she went to Greece never to be seen again? Or did she go under witness protection only to reappear as Ms. Whiteman in Empire? Did Matthew clap on the twos and fours? And last, but certainly not least: how on earth did Byron’s groomsmen not immediately offer Dwayne a two piece, no fries, at the wedding?
*I know she was on the show for five, but Jaleesa Vinson becoming Jaleesa Vinson Taylor is something I’ve chosen to forget ever happened.