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  • - So, from Mexico, came back,

  • ended up at Howard University.

  • - Oh yeah, many years later, Howard University was amazing.

  • That was amazing.

  • - What is your favorite Howard memory or experience?

  • - Well, you know, our anthem was,

  • "say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud."

  • - Hey now.

  • - That was it, you know, I'm gonna write a movie about it.

  • I really am because it was such an explosive time,

  • coming into Howard University

  • and just being seeped in your culture

  • and your cultural identity

  • and then to be in the middle of the chaos

  • with the assassination of Martin Luther King.

  • That was all in my freshman year.

  • It was a lot of growing up,

  • it was a lot of, you know, coming into age very quickly.

  • - I'm trying to think of a gentle way

  • to breach this next subject because...

  • - Why?

  • Why do you have to be gentle?

  • - I don't know.

  • - Okay.

  • I think I'm just socialized to try and be that way.

  • - Just became a therapy session.

  • Now I'm just like, oh my God,

  • why am I so gentle, oh no.

  • - I'm gonna start questioning you.

  • - Oh no, okay, all right.

  • I'll ask the questions here, madam.

  • Are you aware that there is a conversation

  • on the internet about whether or not

  • you pledged any sorority and if so,

  • whether it was Delta or AKA?

  • Is something that you're conscious of?

  • - I'm not aware of the conversation

  • but I'm aware of it every time I'm in the company

  • of multiple Black women

  • who go "oh wee" or "skee wee" and they talk to me.

  • So I was at Howard University,

  • my sister Phylicia Rashad,

  • who's footsteps I was following everywhere,

  • pledged AKA.

  • So I was gonna pledge AKA

  • and I went and I made line and they,

  • oh my interview, I just remember it,

  • I was just so sharp, they thought I was schooled

  • or I don't know what but they were gunnin' for me,

  • they were gonna really let me have it

  • but my mother, Vivian Ayers, said to me,

  • "if you pledge a sorority,

  • "then I'm gonna take all the money that I have saved

  • "to send you to dance school in the summer

  • "and I'm gonna buy a car because your consciousness

  • "is not in the right place."

  • - Oh my.

  • - "Your focus is off."

  • And I'm like, "no mom, no, okay."

  • So I dropped out of line and so I never did pledge

  • and I went to the New London Dance Festival

  • where I met Alvin Ailey,

  • where I met the protégé of Katherine Dunham,

  • I met Twyla Tharp, I met Martha Graham,

  • I met the greatest icons in the dance world

  • and mama was right.

  • - Yeah, so worth it?

  • - Yeah, see that's what she did.

  • She used, those were her tricks.

  • - How do you think the trajectory of your life

  • and career would have been different

  • had you not gone to an HBCU?

  • - Wow, well you know, I tried to go to a school

  • of the arts that rejected me,

  • that was not predominantly Black.

  • I think things happen in your life for a reason

  • and you might not always understand it,

  • you can't accept it but sometimes,

  • it's the best thing for you.

  • - Mm hmm.

  • - I mean, I grew up in Houston, Texas

  • in an all Black environment

  • because everything was segregated.

  • Our elementary, junior and senior high schools,

  • movie theaters, everything, everything was segregated

  • until, I want to say '65,

  • somewhere around there things start to really change.

  • When they started to make us play the songs

  • the other band was playin', we're like, "oh, hell no.

  • "Don't play that horrible march.

  • "We want some..."

  • - We want some..

  • - "Some soul, chile," anyway.

  • - Put some sauce on it as the kids say.

  • - So I think Howard, was the right place for me.

  • It defined me in a way that I had no idea it could,

  • to be not only at Howard but to be in Washington D.C.,

  • the center of this, the capital of this country,

  • which is a predominantly Black city

  • and to just be in a place where you were

  • never the minority, you were always the majority

  • and your opinion mattered.

  • - Wow.

  • - And it counted for something and so

  • we came out of Howard knowing we were gettin' ready

  • to roll and rule the world

  • and so my mother had already convinced us of that

  • but Howard, you know, validated it.

  • It just did, you know, those professors, those teachers.

  • - Yeah.

  • - You know, when I did the movie, Amistad,

  • Howard University is how I came to that story,

  • going to the bookstore.

  • I picked up a book called

  • "Amistad," a collection of essays

  • by Black academicians and philosophers

  • and in the front of it was a preface that talked

  • about what Amistad was, this slave ship

  • upon which there was a mutiny

  • and I just, I was like whoa,

  • Howard University has been a,

  • it fueled me when I did A Different World,

  • when I did that movie, all of my teachers

  • were my best advisors,

  • Howard University is a big part of my DNA.

  • - I cannot leave your home

  • until I talk to you about A Different World

  • because it's the reason why I feel like

  • we grew up together. - Mmm.

  • - You know?

  • Even though I did not see you physically on

  • the screen in every episode.

  • Once I'd learned and found out

  • that you were the one behind the camera

  • I was like, oh of course.

  • Of course this is Debbie Allen, of course.

  • (laughs)

  • I am very very taken with your entry to the show,

  • which you joined second season, correct?

  • - My coming in to this show was certainly somewhere between

  • my sister who was, you know Denise's mother,

  • and had visited the campus of Hillman on the show.

  • And seeing what was happening behind the scenes.

  • We need you to get out your broom

  • It was not a happy place

  • at A Different World behind the scenes.

  • They didn't quite have the right

  • producing director there.

  • Phylicia went back and talked to Bill

  • and the next thing I know

  • I was getting a phone call from him saying,

  • We need you to get out your broom

  • and dust it off over there.

  • Go and clean house.

  • I said all right.

  • So then I met with Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner

  • and Caryn Mandabach,

  • and I said okay, give me every episode.

  • They said, you wanna watch every episode?

  • I said absolutely, so I know

  • how I'm gonna fix this and what we're going to do.

  • And so then it was about breaking down

  • in the writer's room, to let them open up to new ideas.

  • And Denise, yes she was pregnant

  • and we were gonna do such great stories

  • about a girl who was a Black girl from

  • a upper-middle class family, pregnant,

  • and not married for a change.

  • You know how it's usually portrayed.

  • And then finally Bill.

  • I took her to meet Bill to tell him,

  • and he saw us coming.

  • It was the funniest meeting, oh my God.

  • Anyway, he said, "no Debbie,

  • Lisa Bonet is pregnant, not Denise Huxtable.

  • No, you can't have it."

  • "I'm like, okay."

  • 'Cause it was gonna be great. - Yeah.

  • - We wanted to use that but it was

  • a little early for him to let go.

  • But we made the show so relevant.

  • Jasmine Guy I had brought to Los Angeles,

  • she was one of my Fame dancers.

  • - That is so great.

  • - And then, Kadeem Hardison, I had known him as a kid.

  • His mother Beth Hardison was one of

  • the baddest models in New York, and we were friends.

  • And I remember him coming over as a little kid

  • jumping on my water bed.

  • And he said, I'm your Kadeem.

  • I'm like huh?

  • (laughs)

  • I'm like oh my God it's you!

  • So we took that show apart and put it back together.

  • Susan Fales was amazing as the lead writer on that show.

  • We developed that show and made it so relevant

  • and made everybody wanna go to college.

  • We tripled the enrollment.

  • - Really?

  • - Of historically Black colleges, yes.

  • We made all kids, Black and white,

  • everybody want to go to college,

  • because they felt that there was something there

  • that they connected to, that they loved,

  • that they wanted to have that experience.

  • Having come from Howard University,

  • I knew what to do with the show.

  • I had lived it and breathed it.

  • So I knew the stories that they needed to be telling.

  • - What were those stories?

  • - Well they didn't need to be walking around

  • talking about a egg.

  • They needed to be doing stories about voter registration

  • or date rape, their cultural identity.

  • You know, who is Whitley Gilbert?

  • Who is the boy in this cast that she needs to be with?

  • And I was hands down, it's Dwayne.

  • - Yeah, yes. - And they were like, no no.

  • I said "It's Dwayne."

  • I said "Don't tell me about some pretty boy,

  • that's not, no."

  • She's gonna go with whoever's more intelligent than she is.

  • Can make her laugh and give her shit.

  • - And earned her.

  • - Yasss honey.

  • - Absolutely.

  • - Yeah, claimed his woman.

  • - I wonder if you had a lot of push back

  • with the changes that you were trying to make.

  • Like what do you think the impact

  • of having Denise on the show, pregnant,

  • upper-middle class but still at school,

  • like what impact do you think that would've had on viewers?

  • - It would've been a huge impact

  • because already, The Cosby Show was changing

  • the way people were looking at Black people.

  • For what reason, it took a television show

  • for them to realize that we're middle class

  • just like everybody else, upper-middle class.

  • This was something that people just weren't ready for it.

  • I don't know why. - Yeah.

  • - We wanted it but we did many other things

  • they weren't ready for.

  • I was always being called in to

  • what I call the principal's office.

  • (laughs)

  • For doing shows that were, you know really about something.

  • We did an episode once called "Mammy Dearest"

  • where we reclaimed the image of Aunt Jemima.