Can we talk about Ghostwriter?

A group of kids sit together in a living room, in a screenshot of an episode of Ghostwriter, Over a Barrel. Lenni Frazier has dark brown hair, and is wearing an oversized mint green sweater and black leggings. She is wearing a lanyard with a black felt-tip pen hooked onto it. Behind her, Alex Fernandez is standing next to the chair. He has dark brown hair, wearing a black vest and a blue shirt, carrying a bookbag. Next to Alex is his cousin Hector, who's wearing a yellow shirt, has dark brown hair, and carrying a bookbag. Jamal Jenkins is directly behind the chair. He is wearing a red and black Cross Colours baseball cap, a white shirt, green jean shorts, a lanyard with a black felt-tip pen hooked to it, and carrying a bookbag. Sally Lewis, a community leader, has her hand on Jamal's shoulder, and she has long blonde hair. She is wearing a pink ruffle tunic over black leggings, and carrying a large straw bag.

Last week, we talked about PBS, and how I watched a lot of it as a kid. I also mentioned how one of my favorites was Ghostwriter. In honor of Black History Month, let’s talk about it.

Ghostwriter took place in the present day, in the early to mid-1990s, in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. The series starts out with Jamal and his dad Reginald cleaning out the basement at his grandma’s house, and this old book falls off the shelf. Out comes this purple ball of light, and it starts reading things. It puts a message on Jamal’s computer screen while he’s working, saying “Help, help, where are the children? Are they ok?”

Jamal isn’t sure what’s going on, and eventually, what they all come to know as Ghostwriter starts sending messages from the words around them to Lenni, Alex, Gaby, Tina, and later on Rob, Hector, and Jamal’s little cousin Casey.

The show dealt with some pretty serious issues, and did it in a way that made it accessible to us kids. For instance, there was the story where Alex gets caught up with Kevin, a basketball teammate who uses illegal drugs. Throughout the story, he tries to get Alex to try them, and resorts to some pretty cringy peer pressure. At one point, he even sneaks over and accidentally leaves some of it behind on the way out. Alex stood his ground and said no every time. It even gets to the point where he gets in trouble with his dealer, even after he sold off things that belonged to late relatives to pay them off.

Then there was the story where the kids are all working on a community garden that used to be a neighborhood dump site. Community activist Sally Lewis pushed for this change to clean up the neighborhood, provide food for the residents, and clean up the air in the environment. Gaby’s digging with the shovel, and she hits something.

Whatever it was, it made her so sick she fainted!

It turns out that a cleaning company illegally dumped their barrels of used chemicals years ago. Alex, Lenni, Tina, and Jamal do some research on the type of chemicals in those barrels, and Alex calls their doctor to tell her all about what they found out.

They try to reach out to people who could help, but they run into roadblocks every time, getting told that the process could take years.

Eventually they get in touch with a local TV personality, and come up with a way to out the person responsible for dumping those barrels and shaming him on live TV.

Ghostwriter ended its’ run in 1995, sadly due to lack of funding. It’s one of those shows that’s so valuable in promoting literacy in a fun, accessible way to us viewers. CBS went on to do a spinoff series that ended up lasting for like two minutes back in 1997.

I don’t even remember seeing the promos for it, now that I think about it.

A few years back, I found the episodes on YouTube, and I watched every single one of them. I found the pacing to be slow, but this is typical for kids’ shows. I noticed things in this show that completely went over my head during its’ original run on PBS. I noticed just how diverse it really was, especially for early to mid-90s PBS, and within the shows geared toward older kids.

I loved the Cross Colours wardrobe they all had, and btw, I’m so glad to see it’s back. I wonder if they were an unofficial sponsor of the show, now that I think about it. Some of Lenni’s outfits probably wouldn’t work today, at least not all at once, but I loved the one with the green Doc Martens.

I swear, if I ever find a pair in a size UK2/US3, I’m getting ’em, haha.

Tina’s outfits would work today for sure, and I had an outfit last summer on repeat similar in style to the one she had on in the later part of the Over a Barrel story.

Years ago, the producer Kermit Frazier revealed the tragic backstory behind Ghostwriter himself. [EDIT 12-1-2021: This link is no longer working.] According to the article, Ghostwriter was escaping slavery to the North during the Civil War. Along the way, he taught others their abusers/captors to read and write, and this is when the people coming after him caught up with him.

A church in Fort Greene was a stop on the Underground Railroad, but the show didn’t really get into how the book ended up in Jamal’s grandma’s basement.

I’m going to hazard a guess that someone who lived in the house before Jamal’s grandma did went to the Fort Greene church, brought the book home with them, and forgot about it.

But, that’s just my guess.

That cryptic message Ghostwriter put on Jamal’s computer in the pilot episode is all the more chilling and upsetting in light of his backstory. It also explained why Ghostwriter was stumped on the team’s vocabulary, especially the 90s catchphrases and descriptors. After the team would tell him what they meant, he got it.

In 2019, we got a reboot for today’s audiences. I haven’t yet seen any of the episodes, but I think I’m gonna change that since we’re getting slammed with crappy weather in my area today and the next few days.

Over to you, readers. What’s been your favorite storyline with the original Ghostwriter run? Do you remember the spinoff on CBS? If so, did you see any of it? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways, so drop ’em like they’re hot below, and let’s talk.

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