“The Black Teacher” is one of those episodes of The Wonder Years where I fundamentally question what the writers had in mind when creating this show in the first place. The premise of this episode is pretty simple. The teacher that Dean and his friends usually have exits the classroom on maternity leave. In that teacher’s place is an intellectual African American teacher, Mr. Brady (Gaius Charles). Dean’s caucasian classmates think that because the new teacher is African American, Dean and his friends will get special treatment.
Soon enough, the new teacher encourages Dean and his friends to join the school knowledge team. Dean’s parents and friends are excited by the new teacher because they’re hoping Mr. Brady will shake things up at Dean’s school and now for more opportunities for their children. During a critical point in a knowledge bowl, Dean cannot decide who to trust for answers.
As a result of this deep conflict within himself, he has continual moments where he doesn’t answer the question asked. This causes his school to be on the verge of losing that particular competition. Mr. Brady talks to Dean and learns that he has anxiety about things he shouldn’t be trying to control and substitutes him with his white classmate, making his crush, Keisa, the captain. The team wins the knowledge bowl, but Dean is disappointed that he didn’t get the opportunity to get his team the win.
The reason I dislike this episode is that it plays on a trope. The trope is that Black students get special teacher treatment because of being of the same skin color. If that’s what some people were hoping for, that’s not exactly what happened. Mr. Brady points out multiple times that he’s there to inspire all students. Despite his effort, the white parents of other students are upset because they feel their children were passed over for the knowledge bowl team in favor of the Black students.
This episode is a classic case of the idea that sometimes organizations aren’t ready for positive change. While it’s unique that Dean realizes this toward the end of the episode, it barely adds any growth to the character overall. Gaius Charles, It’s fantastic as Mr. Brady. He works very hard to remind students, no matter the color of their skin, their level of importance in the world. I’m not sure Dean and his friends understand the foundational importance of what their teacher is doing.
The cast isn’t allowed to do too much in this episode, and for me, that’s a significant loss because I love everyone else in the Dean’s family. Every character is so distinct that it feels more complete when they interact with the rest of the story. The only way to make this episode better is to have Dean find different ways to honor Mr. Brady throughout future episodes. Still, I think Dean is too young to understand the value of the lessons being taught even though he mimics something Mr. Brady did earlier in his presentation about African culture.
For The Wonder Years to work as a series, Dean needs to hold on to the lessons he’s had to learn throughout the entire year and use them in specific, more complex circumstances, and the showrunners just aren’t interested in that. I’m beginning to think that this boy will grow into an underdeveloped man.