Nkechi Okoro Carroll grew up using VHS tape to record the lives of Whitley Gilbert and Ron Johnson with no idea their storylines on A Different World reflected real people and experiences.
“I don’t even think I realized that HBCUs were a thing,” the All American: Homecoming showrunner told ESSENCE. “I was born in New York, but my family is Nigerian and we moved back to Nigeria when I was five. Most of what I knew about American culture, even though I was born here, was what I saw on TV.
“I just loved that it was Black characters of all shades and types, and backgrounds that were all at this higher learning institution,” she added. “They were all smart, even though their personalities were so different.”
Carroll’s bringing that same diversity to the spinoff of The CW’s sports drama All American. “We’re seeing across the spectrum of our characters, people that come from every single one of those groups,” she said.
Carroll studied at the University of Pennsylvania when, she said, “all 522 Black students,” stood out. “I don’t even know what the number is today, but that’s about what it was when I was there. So we always used to joke about like, you know, the head nod, everyone gives each other on campus.
“I come from a very traditional Nigerian family. So it’s like, if you’re not going to the Ivy league something’s wrong with you,” she added. “Creating All American: Homecoming was truthfully very selfishly about giving myself an opportunity to enroll in the HBCU I always wanted to go to.”
Visiting HBCUs inspired her. “My best friend went to school in DC and I was spending a lot of time with her there. And I was all sudden like, wait, what are these other magical institutions where there’s so many people that look like us,” she said.
She found community in a quad Black students frequented. “You go over that bridge at Penn and it’s a whole ‘nother world,” she said. “The divine nine are hanging out. It’s where the Black dorm was. It’s where the cafeteria that most of the Black students ate was.” She hung “at the Kappa house or the Alpha house which were both just off campus, but they threw epic parties,” she added. A scene in the All American: Homecoming pilot paid tribute to experiences she had there. “Inevitably, if you were a member of the Black student body, you always found yourself at one of those events,” she explained.
“Our Black student union threw what is arguably one of the most iconic fashion shows every year which was actually what I recreated in our backdoor pilot for All American: Homecoming. It was very much inspired by my girlfriend, Luam Keflezgy who used to choreograph the Black student union fashion shows at Penn.”
Carroll’s finance education proved to be useful in Hollywood. “Truthfully, the thing that I believe prepared me the most for being a showrunner were the years I spent in corporate America.”
When aspiring creatives ask what classes they should take she quickly replies “business class” because “there is no amount of writer’s room experience in the world that can prepare you for that.”
She described transitioning from working in a writer’s room to becoming chief of a set. “Now all of a sudden you’re not just a writer, you’re a CEO of a corporation, you’re a manager, you’ve got a 250 person staff, crew, cast, everything that now essentially reports to you or looks to you for guidance,” she said.
Leading in college prepared Carroll to be culturally inclusive. “I was president of the African Students Association. So even within the Black student community, we had our Caribbean Student Association, we had our African Students Association. We had our Black Student Union, but we would all hold events together so that we were celebrating each other’s cultures. We thought it was so important to unite the diaspora and that is also something that we want to represent on Homecoming.”
The show highlights pressures faced by HBCU students and systems in place to uplift them. “It’s the time where we’re making the most mistakes where we’re figuring stuff out,” she said. Its protagonist is given the kind of support you can only get from your community. “We loved the idea of taking Simone on this journey of people expecting greatness from you, but not in a way where it’s applying pressure, but in a way where it’s like achieving that greatness is walking this path of making mistakes and really finding yourself and shaping who you wanna be. And that entire journey is supported.”
It acknowledges that they are seen as representing more than themselves. When other college students get painted as “kids,” downing White Claws and rocking pajama pants HBCU students are dressed to the nines and pursuing Black excellence before dawn.
“There are other groups where you don’t necessarily know that person identifies as that just by looking at them. There’s no mistaking, a Black person. They don’t get to sort of not be Black for a couple days. And so, and I think by nature of that, it means that black students just tend to be more aware of how their movements aren’t just shaping and affecting them, but involve a family, a community, a culture,” she said. “I was hoping to create with this universe something that continues to carry the essence and heart of our community and our culture.”
She wants to present that heart on screen. “It’s a celebration of Black culture and Black excellence across all fronts.”
All American: Homecoming premieres on the CW on Monday, Feb. 21, at 9 p.m. EST.