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.
Alexandra 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.