Everybody’s Uncle: Representing For The Black Extended Family

fresh-prince-of-belair

Before there was Dr. Phil, everyone “knew” Uncle Phil. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was a top rated family sit-com for six seasons, especially among African-American audiences for its ability to stylistically merge the Hip Hop and Civil Rights generations, highlighting differences in age and economic class in a comedic way. The show takes place in Bel Air, a neighborhood not unlike Beverly Hills. As a native of Los Angeles, I’d visited Bel Air, which looked quite similar to the home featured in the  show’s intro. Though I lived on the east side of town, worlds apart from the opulence of the Banks family, in some way-like the Cosbys, they were real to me. Uncle Phil was real to me.

The character of Philip Banks’ is truly worth some analysis as it stood out as a unique voice for manhood and fatherhood during 90’s television and beyond. He started out a respected attorney, and through the duration of the show became a judge.  James Avery played a sharp attorney in a tailored suit that owned a mansion with a lawn the size of a football field. This image stood in stark contrast to the casual shirts, baggy pants, baseball caps, and designer shoes worn by the show’s leading character played by a young Will Smith.

However, the power of Avery’s character was his role as a family man. A provider and tough, yet loving relative, Uncle Phil character, alongside Aunt Viv, showcased communal parenting and the value of the extended family.

Unlike shows featuring Black youth who were adopted by strangers, such as Different Stokes and Webster, Fresh Prince displayed a family extending kinship to a relative in trouble. Remember the words to the intro theme:

“When a couple of guys, they were up to no good; started making trouble in my neighborhood. I got in one little fight, and my mom got scared…”

I trust you know the rest. While an extremely catchy lyric, the song reflects the heightened distress that mothers of urban youth, especially Black males,  were experiencing all across the country in major cities during a rise in gun violence and the popularity of color-based street gangs. Absentee fathers, overwhelmed mothers, and societal conditions in Black communities make extended family practices in the U.S. commonplace. It is essential to survival.

Rather than the narrow limitations of the nuclear family, the extended family approach wholeheartedly embraces the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Uncle Phil became synonymous with that village in so many homes for years.  In turn, we welcomed him and the Banks family into our homes, making them part of our extended family, so to speak.

James Avery passed away on New Year’s Eve. It is true that death happens every day, yet it feels intensely punctuated when a well-known person goes home on a holiday.  Shortly after interviewing Mr. Avery in 2005, my paternal uncle passed away on New Years Eve. In a twist on taking care of extended family, Uncle Tony moved in with my sisters and parents after he had a close brush with death living on the streets. My mother helped nurse him back to health. He went on to live about 5 years longer than any doctor ever expected. I thought of him a great deal today, just as I thought of Uncle Phil.

James Avery will be greatly missed by all those who enjoyed him years ago, as well as those who got a quick thrill out of seeing him on crime dramas like CSI: Miami and Grey’s Anatomy. He played a role, an unmistakable character that broadened notions of fatherhood and family. As much as we will miss him, let us not forget to keep his family, grieving in a way that is far from the fiction of a script, lifted in prayer, just like a true extended family would.

alexAlexandra Barabin is a writer, public speaker, and cultural facilitator. She is the Founder of Sun Up Business Management and www.YesSheIsMe.com, a community dedicated to women and girls. She can be contacted at SunUpSays@gmail.com.

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8 thoughts on “Everybody’s Uncle: Representing For The Black Extended Family

  1. So often people focus on the negative of Black families, its refreshing to see a take on positive family traditions like the extended family. RIP James Avery aka Uncle Phil

  2. I grew up watching Fresh Prince and I didn’t think about the extended family tradition until Alex so thoughtfully pointed it out. This is something that has sustained African Americans for hundreds of years. The extended family is a stronghold in our survival. Avery’s character was a powerful representation of that.

  3. Very well put. There wasn’t a day that would miss an episode of Fresh Prince and I still watch the reruns. I think we all had a kin folk some where that had to be taken in via it be uncle, aunt, siblings, etc. My mother, God rest her soul, took in her brother who was put out on the street by his own family. This was the most awesome time in his and out family’s life. Loved him dearly and his comical ways. He also passed a few years later and it has left a sadness on our family that seems will never heal and shortly after, we lost our mother. Your article has so much life and it is up to us as an African American people to try take care of our own and help those that we know are in need and heading in the wrong direction. Thank you for this article and prayfully, more will read it and be affected just as I am.

    • Ernestine, thank you for sharing your story. The love of family and the ability to help them when they’re in need is a blessing. One of the African American community’s greatest strengths is our ability to cherish the extended family…It has been one of our longstanding survival mechanisms.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story! When extended family is in the mix, these are the moments that we create. My uncle Tony passed on NYE just like Uncle Phil and that’s what made me think about this perspective of James Avery. The time my uncle spent with us was hard because of his health. But I have so many beautiful memories from that time. We watched movies, celebrated birthdays, listened to new music, etc. When we embrace the extended family idea, we become better people because of it. Sending love and light.

  4. The Uncle Phil character James Avery played was an unique model for its time. I appreciated that there finally was a sit-com that could portray an intact functioning family with responsibility and integrity in opposition to the baffoonery of an Ercle, or J.J. of Good Times.

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