⚠️ Spoilers ahead! Watch the series on Peacock.
Peacock’s Bel-Air not only united the original Ashley Banks with the new Ashley Banks, but the reboot drama united them in a storyline highlighting the near erasure of Black literature in the classroom.
The show is a serious portrayal of the 1990s NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that brought rapper Will Smith to the silver screen. The new version stars Jabari Banks, who has an uncanny resemblance to Will and holds the fictional last name of the TV family in real life. It’s still the same story of a Black teen boy from West Philadelphia who must move to the upscale Los Angeles enclave of Bel-Air with his aunt and her immediate family to stay out of trouble.
Tatyana Ali, who played Ashley in the sitcom, made a guest appearance in the second season of Bel-Air by playing teacher Ms. Hughes to the reimagined version of her former character Ashley, played by Akira Akbar.
At the elite Bel-Air Academy, Ms. Hughes gives Ashley a book, The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, by Robyn C. Spencer, in the premiere episode “A Fresh Start.” Ms. Hughes asks for a two-page summary, which is an extra credit assignment since the book is outside of the curriculum.
In the second episode “Speaking Truth,” Ms. Hughes hands Ashley another book after class. This time, it’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. A White classmate glares at their exchange in the background. The look of disgust on the classmate’s face shows the concern that Ms. Hughes is showing Ashley more preference because they’re both Black. Soon, we learn a complaint has been filed against Ms. Hughes. And it’s not the first.
When Ashley later bumps into Ms. Hughes in the hallway with a box of her effects inside, she asks why the teacher is leaving. Ms. Hughes gives Ashley words of encouragement, but Ashley is obviously devastated that her favorite teacher, one of the very few Black teachers in the school, is gone.
Ashley tells her parents Vivian, played by Cassandra Freeman, and Phil, played by Adrian Holmes, about Ms. Hughes’ firing. They discover that Ms. Hughes was let go over providing books outside of the approved curriculum at a parent advisory committee meeting. Vivian even lists the authors Ashley is now exposed to because of Ms. Hughes’ influence, such as James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, and Paula Giddings.
Will, Ashley’s cousin, and Carlton, Ashley’s brother played by Olly Sholotan, get involved by bringing the issue to the high school’s Black Student Union in an effort to keep Carlton elected as class president by maintaining the Black student vote. A protest comes up as the best response to Ms. Hughes’ firing. Except Carlton has a chance to win the school’s highest student award and be the first Black student to win the award. The BSU adviser, who is Black, dissuades Carlton to plan the protest; it’s not worth sacrificing the award over a fired teacher who wasn’t following the rules.
The third episode “Compromise” shows the BSU dealing with the administration’s threat to suspend them all if members and allies walk out during classes. Then Carlton and BSU president strike a deal with the administration: Students can walk out but can’t make speeches or hold signs. The middle school students like Ashley are already barred from participating in the walkout.
On the day of the walkout at 11 a.m., Carlton leads participating students to the quad in protest of not only Ms. Hughes being fired but also in support for a more inclusive curriculum. The pressure to go against the compromise made with the administration revs up Carlton’s anxiety. Will says he has Carlton’s back as he takes a large sign and runs up staircases to end up on the roof. He unrolls a sign that reads “Black Teachers Matter.” With a raised fist, he starts the chant “Black Teachers Matter.” Students below join in the chant.
According to Tatyana’s Instagram post, this episode is her last appearance, so the Ms. Hughes storyline may end there. But how students are walking out in protest over demanding inclusive curricula is an example of art imitating life.
Students in Virginia walked out last fall due to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s transgender student policies. Last month, students across Florida walked out to protest Governor Ron DeSantis’ plans to defund diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at colleges and universities.
At the root of the issue in Bel-Air is that a Black female teacher mentored a Black female student by giving her books that would never be read in the classroom or approved for a syllabus at a predominantly White upper-crust school. But the mentorship was severed by complaints from other classmates not getting the same attention.
To be fair, unfairness should be reported in situations like classroom settings where teacher favoritism could affect your grades, but that part of the conversation is not discussed. The repercussions of firing a Black teacher over providing Black stories go deeper with dismantling a literary mentorship that had already opened a student’s mind.
One in five Black or African American private school teachers worked at schools with less than 25% enrollment of students of color, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That shows how rare a relationship is between a Black teacher and a Black student at a predominantly White private school.
Out of 3,420 children’s books in 2021, 36% were “books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color,” per data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. As books by authors of color seem to see higher rates of bans and attempts at bans, students of all backgrounds may not know about those books if they’re not available to them at school or the public library. Hence, Ms. Hughes giving Ashley books on the side to read that explore the experiences and identities of people of African descent is viewed as an act of defiance.
Although the storyline is rooted in students demanding a more inclusive curriculum, the issue of approved literature impacts many educators who are currently witnessing conflicts with some of their local and state regulators restricting what is taught in classrooms.