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  • Writer's pictureT. Brookshire

Sesame Street: Empowering Black Children Through Positive Representation

Deeply rooted in black culture, Sesame Street has bolstered the self-worth of black children through its positive representation. Making its debut in 1969, the beloved children’s television show was created to educate and empower Black children as the design of "Sesame Street" was based on rows of brownstones found in Harlem and the Bronx.

The New York City neighborhoods played such an outsized role in the development of the program—from set design to casting and marketing— and even the opening song “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street” has a nice jazz rhythm to it.

When it premiered in 1969, the kids' TV show Sesame Street was part of a larger movement to increase the literacy rate of African American kids.

“Sesame Street” arose from the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s Great Society agenda, a series of federal programs that carried the ambitious goal of eliminating poverty and racial injustice. As part of these aspirations, President Johnson, created Head Start in 1965, seeking to disrupt the multi-generational cycle of poverty through early education programs for disadvantaged, lower-income, inner-city preschool children.

Sesame Street was the creation of Joan Ganz Cooney, (an ally), a journalist and former documentary producer for public television, who produced a 1966 documentary about a Harlem pre-school program (that would eventually become a Head Start location itself). She became increasingly involved in the widening educational deficit that plagued impoverished kids and children of color. She believed television was a great way to provide early childhood education regardless of economic factors to disadvantaged children to give them the skills they need to prepare for school. After two years of research, the Children's Television Workshop received a combined grant of $8 million from the Carnegie Corporation and the U.S. federal government to create and produce Sesame Street along with other educational programming.

A diverse field of experts was brought aboard as well to advise Cooney and her team. Among them was Chester Pierce, an African-American psychiatrist and Harvard professor. The founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America, Pierce was concerned about institutional racism, which he feared television could negatively influence the mental health of young Black children. Pierce ultimately believed that television could counteract the racist messages prevalent in the media at the time, he worked as a senior advisor on the show with producers Cooney and Morrisett.

In an effort to add representation for Black kids in the Muppet-sphere, a Black puppet was added to the cast in its second year. Roosevelt Franklin was an intelligent boy who often spoke in rhyme or scat. In many ways, Roosevelt was a precursor to Elmo in terms of popularity. He had his own segment called Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School where he'd teach his class and he even had his own album. Roosevelt dances into his elementary-school classroom where he was recognized as the streetwise student teacher of a boisterous class. He employed the call-and-response of a black preacher when teaching his apparently black peers, prompting one student, Hardhead Henry Harris, to declare after one lesson, “My man, sure can teach!”

Although very popular, many viewers and African-American parents took exception and his character became the source of contention. They believed that the Roosevelt character reinforced negative stereotypes of black children. Middle class black parents put up the strongest objections while complaining about his “Black English”. Creators rebutted that it was necessary to “reach their target audience”. Many Black parents weren’t feeling that and Roosevelt Franklin was eventually cut from the show.

Notable Black celebrities and figures guest-starred in the early days of Sesame Street. A young James Earl Jones recited the alphabet in the pilot, Jackie Robinson, and Shirley Chisholm, the first Black U.S. congresswoman, also made appearances. Singer Nina Simone beautifully sang "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black" in front of four Black children on a stoop.

While the main goal of “Sesame Street,” as it was for the Head Start program, was to level the early-education playing field for disadvantaged, inner-city children, the show has endured because it has been wildly successful at educating preschoolers of all backgrounds.

Sesame Street actively promoted a message of racial harmony and integration. Each episode opened with a scene of children of different races playing together. The audience had strong adult role models in Gordan Robinson, a Black school teacher, and his wife Susan, who would later become a nurse who ran her own immunization clinic in the neighborhood. The cast of Sesame Street along with the energetic Jim Henson Muppets taught children not only their numbers and the alphabet but the value of cooperation.

The South wasn’t ready to play along however. Mississippi voted to ban the show from its state-run ETV citing that it wasn’t “ready for it” because it showed Black and White kids playing together. Other southern states were thinking the same thing. However, the backlash was swift and brutal. The Mississippi commission then scrambled to lift the ban, 21 days later, after being embarrassed by the negative national attention and exposed for their own dismal education levels. Other southern states decided to back off as well.

As part of a 14-city national tour, the cast of “Sesame Street” stopped by Jackson, MS for a free live show that was presented in cooperation with the same Mississippi commission that blackballed it. Susan, Gordan (both black characters) and Big Bird sang and joked with audience members as part of the show … but left Mississippi without receiving a formal apology.

Sesame Street premiered on Nov. 10, 1969, on PBS. It aired there until it moved to HBO on Jan. 16, 2016 with replays on PBS.

Other Resources

Smithsonian Magazine | The Unmistakable Black Roots of ‘Sesame Street’ |

USA Today | How creators of 'Sesame Street' designed the show to celebrate Black communities | 

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