We’ve seen the “quirky” Black girl in different forms on television over the years. By “quirky,” it usually meant the character had an interesting fashion sense, a bubbly personality (or just a weird one), and was the less conservative of the bunch. There was, for instance, Denise on The Cosby Show, Freddie Brooks on A Different World, Lynn Searcy on Girlfriends, Spirit on One on One, Mona on Half and Half, and so on and so forth.
And then there was the “daft” representation of Black women here and there for a short time, which wasn’t detrimental, but rather, funny. By “daft” I mean, they were laughable, mostly because the character wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer in sharp contrast to their friends and family. Think Hillary Banks on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or Kim on The Parkers. You might actually be able to fit Lovita Alizé Jenkins in there too from The Steve Harvey Show…
But if you ask me, it wasn’t until we were met Synclaire James on Living Single that we truly got to meet the woman in the middle — the awkward Black girl. She wasn’t foolish, but she had a habit of saying things that were out of the box. Her sense of style wasn’t all over the place, but she loved her unique microbraids, velvet, flowing tops and bottoms, and ornate Christmas sweaters. She was in her own category because she was the good-natured character who didn’t seem to fit in, but was actually the perfect fit for her group of girlfriends.
August 22 was the anniversary of the premiere of Living Single, which made its debut on Fox 25 years ago. And while there is so much to unpack and think about when it comes to the legacy of this show and the women on it, watching old episodes and clips recently, my mind was on Synclaire. Played by Kim Coles, she wasn’t my favorite roommate on the show (that honor would go to Maxine Shaw, who was both a neighbor and an unofficial roommate because she was always around), but I could appreciate her misunderstood spirit.
She was the quintessential awkward chick: She had an interesting affinity for troll dolls; She could come off very naive, and even scatterbrained at times; She found love and marriage with Overton Wakefield Jones, the upstairs neighbor who was just as colorful and good-hearted; Her drink of choice was a double ginger ale; She literally said goodbye to makeup she wore from day to day; A good night in included using a pumice on her feet or waxing them, and the girl didn’t play about having Christmas spirit.
Every thought she had, Synclaire shared, and a lot of the time, it would leave you confused.
Not to mention, she had the normal awkward black girl occupational struggle. She was a creative with dreams of being an actress who moved from Minnesota to New York to make her dreams come true. But in the meantime, she had to work as an often under-appreciated receptionist for her cousin Khadijah to make ends meet.
But honestly, as awkward as sis was, she provided balance to her group and to the show. She taught a stressed Khadijah some patience. She had the approachable personality that was the complete opposite of strong-willed Maxine. And while Regine was out here pushing her to date men with money, Synclaire was more of the type to like a man who, aside from just being kind, was good to plants and animals.
Calm, cool and collected, when they freaked out and fell out, she “woo woo wooed” them back to a happy place. She could get her girls out of tough spots (who knew she was a secret pool shark?). And when they were self-centered, which was often, she consistently looked out for them (displayed heavily in the gifts she bestowed upon her friends in Season 1’s “Living Kringle” episode). Despite her lovable kookiness, which could be an annoyance to her circle at times, she was definitely an asset.
Coles’s portrayal of the warm and inexperienced roommate helped to usher in future complex representations of Black women on TV. We could be quirky, daft, awkward, businesswomen and everything in between because as all the ladies on Living Single and other shows during the golden age of Black TV in the ’90s proved, we aren’t a monolith.
Synclaire was part of the glue that held the ladies together and kept things interesting, which was probably why things took a dip in quality and viewership when she and Overton moved out of the brownstone and new roommates had to be introduced. Out of all of the women on the show, she may not have received the most love, had the career every young girl wanted or the style we coveted, but she had the heart. Where would Living Single have been without her?
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