When James Avery died on New Year's Day, he had not only amassed an enviable career of television and stage appearances, including a performance as the legendary Howard University Law Professor Charles Hamilton Houston in a 1993 PBS dramatization of the Brown vs. the Board of Education case. His lasting legacy though is as one on the most endearing black father figures in American television history. Twenty-three years after Avery introduced audiences to Judge Phillip Banks, the character still resonates as a counter to the myths of the absentee and irresponsible black father.
Debuting in January of 1990, the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" revolved around a working class cousin Will (Will Smith), who was being taken in by his wealthy kin. The series, which ran six seasons, was based on the real life experience of producer Benny Medina. Avery quickly established himself as the typical television patriarch, but as the character developed many folk began to think of "Uncle Phil," as Avery will forever be remembered, along the lines of classic father figures such as James Evans Sr. (John Amos), Heathcliffe Huxtable (Bill Cosby). And indeed, as the traditional black family has largely disappeared from network television, Uncle Phil's characters resonates even more.
Though Uncle Phil was often uptight and overly formal – echoing Avery's own desire to see more well-spoken, middle-class black men on television – Uncle Phil's backstory was that of a 1960s-era black activist, who entered the legal profession to continue the good fight.
Uncle Phil's own story mirrored that of Avery's. After Avery hurt his knee and lost his scholarship to play football at HBCU Virginia State University, he enlisted for two tours of duty in Vietnam. Upon his return, as he told journalist Denene Miller, he began to write plays about the Black Power Movement:
"I was a cultural nationalist in my hippie days...I had a wonderful time. I was going to be a writer." (New York Daily News, June 16, 1996) It was Avery's time as writer, in his words influenced by "Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, (James) Baldwin and (Paul Lawrence) Dunbar" that led him to acting.
There were other aspects of Avery's background that influenced the work he did on the "Fresh Prince." Avery was raised by his mother; his father was largely absent in his life. When Avery began his stint on the "Fresh Prince," he actually reached out to his own dad, who he had not spoken with since his fifth birthday.
"I made a decision to find my father, and to talk to him and get to know him, because he was getting old and it was time to resolve those issues and I did," Avery admitted in 1996, also noting that "there is one thing I learned from him, though and that's how not to be a father."
The dynamic between Avery and his own dad was played out in a moving episode of "The Fresh Prince" (May 1994), "Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse" about Cousin Will's absentee father Lou, portrayed by the legendary stage actor Ben Vereen, who briefly re-enters Will's life only to reject him once again.
In the episode's closing segment, an emotional Will embraces Uncle Phil as he cries "why don't he want me." Yet the episode was a reminder of the kinship relations that have been the bulwark of black families; Will's father might have left, but Uncle Phil more than fulfilled the role of his father-figure.
As a husband and step-dad in real life, Avery told the San Jose Mercury in 1996, "I think black men get a bad rap sometimes that we either can't nurture children or choose not to...I like depicting African-American fathers who are caring and supportive – men who take care of their responsibilities."
Avery's own role as a father figure was reinforced by Alfonse Ribeiro, who portrayed his sitcom son, Carlton, who tweeted, "He was a second father to me. I will miss him greatly."
As the father of two daughters, who were adopted at birth, Uncle Phil's commitment to claim children, beyond those of his own, was a powerful example to me of what fatherhood could look like. James Avery, I'm sure, will be remembered for making sure we all know what black fatherhood looks like.
(Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and the author of several books including the recent "Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities" (NYU Press, 2013).