The Unmistakable Black Roots of ‘Sesame Street’

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the beloved children’s television show was shaped by the African-American communities in Harlem and beyond

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The design of "Sesame Street" was based on rows of brownstones found in Manhattan's Harlem and Upper West Side and the Bronx. (Bill Pierce / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM | Nov. 7, 2019, 7 a.m.

Forty years ago, upon the tenth anniversary of the debut of “Sesame Street,” the New York Times offered an appraisal of the revolutionary children’s television program, reminding readers that the show with universal appeal initially declared its target audience, “the four-year old inner-city black youngster.” This year, as the show commemorates its 50th anniversary and is broadcast in more than 150 countries, it’s worthwhile to take a look back at how since its inception, “Sesame Street” has been rooted in African-American culture, more specifically the historically black community of Harlem. The New York City neighborhood played such an outsized role in the development of the program—from set design to casting and marketing—the answer to the question from the “Sesame Street” opening song, “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street,” ought to be Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train.”

“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, Johnson, who had taught poor Mexican-American children while a student in college, created Head Start in 1965, seeking to disrupt the multi-generational cycle of poverty through early education programs for disadvantaged preschool children.

Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of “Sesame Street,” said in a 1998 interview that a documentary she produced on the Harlem pre-school program that would become Head Start led her to “become absolutely involved intellectually and spiritually with the Civil Rights Movement and with the educational deficit that poverty created.” Soon thereafter, she teamed up with her friend Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist and Carnegie Corporation executive, who was looking to back a pre-school education model that could reach a great number of inner-city children. Morrisett secured additional private sector and federal government support, and the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), the entity that would produce “Sesame Street” among other beloved educational programming, was born.

The CTW, which was renamed Sesame Workshop in 2000, was not simply a production company of writers, directors and producers. A board of experts from the diverse fields of education, child development, psychology, medicine, the social sciences, the arts, and advertising advised Cooney and her team on its work, which placed a premium on the inclusion of black perspectives. A January 1970 Ebony profile of “Sesame Street” included a photo of Cooney flanked by a team of African-American women, including the head of Seattle Head Start and the headmistress of a New York preschool. Chester Pierce, an African-American psychiatrist and Harvard professor, helped design what he called the show’s “hidden curriculum” to build up the self-worth of black children through the presentation of positive black images. Pierce also insisted the show present an integrated, harmonious community to challenge the marginalization of African-Americans that children routinely saw on television and elsewhere in society.

Sesame Street Cast
"Sesame Street" was intentional in making its cast racially diverse and its fictional neighborhood integrated. (Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

“Sesame Street” cast member Loretta Long, who played Susan from the show’s first episode through today, devoted a full chapter of her doctoral dissertation to Pierce’s curriculum, which included “locating the show in an inner city neighborhood with old brownstones and lots of trashcans.” Such a setting, the producers concluded, would help “the inner city child relate more to us [cast members] as his neighbors.”

Bird Bird and cast
Sesame Street characters, including Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, Susan, Gordon and Bob pictured on set in 1970, when the educational program's second season aired. (Bettmann via Getty Images)
Loretta Long
Loretta Long, in character as Susan, chats with Big Bird. (Bill Pierce / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)

Producer Jon Stone said the show’s set design was inspired by a 1968 public-service announcement campaign calling on New York City residents to “Give a Damn” about children living in blighted areas of Harlem. In an interview for journalist Michael Davis’ definitive book on the history of the show, Street Gang, Stone said, “For a preschool child in Harlem, the street is where the action is…Our set had to be an inner-city street, and more particularly it had to be a brownstone so the cast and kids could ‘stoop’ in the age-old New York tradition...”

Stone enlisted set designer Charles Rosen to scout locations in Harlem, the Upper West Side and the Bronx as models for the brownstone that would become 123 Sesame Street. Sonia Manzano, a Puerto Rican Bronx native who joined the show in 1971 as the character Maria, recalled that when she first saw the program on television as a college student, she said, “‘Hey! That’s my street!” That urban sensibility inspired her to join the show.

Just as advertisers appeal to people’s identification with celebrities to sell products, Sesame Street enlisted African-American guest stars to help teach the alphabet and numbers. A bald, thin James Earl Jones, just off his Tony-Award-winning performance on Broadway in The Great White Hope, taped a segment for the “Sesame Street” pilot, where he slowly and authoritatively recited the alphabet. Just before Christmas 1969, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson appeared on the program and led children in a singalong of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand.”

That same month, a host of notables recorded promotional spots, including baseball player Jackie Robinson, Shirley Chisholm (the first black U.S. congresswoman), and Ethel Kennedy, human rights activist and widow of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, whose 1968 campaign for president centered around civil rights. If the roster of celebrity support these early months and years sent too subtle a message, Nina Simone made the show’s “hidden curriculum” explicit, when she joined four black children on the stoop in 1972 and sang, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”

While the cast of Sesame Street today is diverse in almost every respect (even by 1971, “Sesame Street” took steps to hire more Hispanic performers and talent and later would cast actors with physical disabilities), the on-air talent for the pilot episode was overwhelmingly black, including the principal hosts, Gordon and Susan. Most of the African-American cast and crew came up through the interconnected black entertainment world of New York in the late 1960s. Long had been the co-host of “Soul!”, an unapologetic Black Power showcase of politics and culture on New York public television, and heard about “Sesame Street” from Rosen, the set designer, who was also on the crew for “Soul!” Rosen knew Long was a teacher and told her, according to Street Gang, “This show is going to be about teaching preschoolers. You need to know about it.”

Gordon and child
A child watches a conversation between Oscar the Grouch and Gordon Robinson during the taping of a "Sesame Street" episode in 1970. (David Attie / Getty Images)

Susan’s husband, Peter, who worked at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, provided the musical talent, a 16-member youth ensemble named Listen My Brother, for the “Sesame Street” pilot. Fronting the group, which would make appearances throughout the first season, were three vocalists who would each achieve a measure of fame: Luther Vandross, who would go on to win eight Grammys; Robin Clark, who would sing with David Bowie and Simple Minds; and Fonzi Thornton, who would form Chic with Nile Rodgers (a later member of Sesame Street’s touring band). On guitar was Clark’s future husband, Carlos Alomar, a Puerto Rican native of Harlem who would write “Fame” with David Bowie and John Lennon and collaborate with Bowie for decades. Jazz legend Nat Adderley, Jr., played piano. In that first episode, the musicians wore African dashikis, the Black Power fashion of the time, popularized by the Harlem fashion boutique, New Breed.

In light of the show’s racially conscious casting, one cannot be faulted for wondering whether any of Jim Henson’s Muppet creations, more specifically the human-ish Ernie and Bert, have racial identities. No fewer than three interracial pairs appear in the first six minutes of the pilot, just before the two Muppets appear, and as tempting as one might be to believe “Sesame Street” is presenting children with another interracial pair, Henson once remarked, “The only kids who can identify along racial lines with the Muppets have to be either green or orange.”

Yet, in its second year, “Sesame Street” did introduce a Muppet, named Roosevelt Franklin, whom the producers openly acknowledged as black. Created and voiced by Matt Robinson, the actor who played Gordon, Roosevelt speaks “Black English,” which Loretta Long outlined in her dissertation as a way to make him “much more believable to the target audience.” Roosevelt dances into his elementary-school classroom where he is recognized as the streetwise student teacher of a boisterous class. He employs 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!”

Many viewers and African-Americans at CTW believed that the Muppet reinforced negative stereotypes of black children. In a 1970 Newsweek interview, “Sesame Street” executive producer Dave Connell defended the portrayal, saying, “We do black humor, just like Irish humor and Jewish humor.” Cooney said in Street Gang, “I loved Roosevelt Franklin, but I understood the protests…I wasn’t wholly comfortable, but I was amused. You couldn’t help but laugh at him.”

In her dissertation, Long stressed, “The most important thing about Roosevelt is that he always knows the correct answer, whether he talks in standard or nonstandard English.” African-American CTW executives and others Cooney describes as “upper-middle class” blacks put up the strongest objections, and Roosevelt Franklin was cut from the show.

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. More than a thousand research papers into the educational value of “Sesame Street” have been published; a 2015 study published in the American Economic Journal “quantifies just how big a difference the show made, comparing the educational and professional achievements of children who had access to the show compared to those who didn’t.” According to the study, “Sesame Street” cost $5 per child per year, in today’s dollars, versus the estimated $7,600 per child per year that Head Start costs taxpayers. For its impact on education and television, the word educators and cultural critics most commonly use to describe “Sesame Street” is revolutionary.

Mrs. Bird and children
Children in a Head Start program in Denver greet the character of Big Bird in 1970. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

After decades of congressional budget hearings where Big Bird was cited as the paragon of the virtuous entertainment that only taxpayer-supported public television could provide, the Sesame Workshop moved the show to HBO in 2015. The DVD market that had long sustained the show evaporated, and PBS could no longer afford “Sesame Street”’s real estate. While the show’s move to cable suggests, to some, a diminished commitment to public television as the great equalizer in America society, it also demonstrates the show’s capacity to remain viable amidst dramatic changes in the media landscape. Remaining true to the show’s founding principles, the HBO deal provided for all episodes to be rerun later on PBS.

Back when the show was less entrenched in popular culture, “Sesame Street” had its critics. A Boston Globe columnist took a swipe at the show in 1970 for striving not only to teach literacy but “to inculcate the Golden Rule, the Beatitudes and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the television screen.” That same year, Mississippi public television concluded that its viewers were not ready for the portrayal of multiracial harmony on city streets and wouldn’t air “Sesame Street.” Parents successfully petitioned the station to bring it back and invited the show’s cast to visit Jackson, Mississippi. When the show came to town, the local police showed up in riot gear. Describing the visit in a 1988 interview, Loretta Long recalled, “Little white kids would reach out to kiss me or ‘Gordon,’ the other black character, and you could see their mothers were uneasy. But they’d loosen up, because how can you hate someone who makes your child so happy?”

When Gil Scott-Heron recorded his Black Power anthem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” in Harlem in 1970, he viewed it as a wake-up call to Americans who had been anesthetized by television. Sardonically, he warned, “The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox,” “The revolution will not go better with Coke,” “The revolution will not be televised.” Scott-Heron’s prediction came several months too late. The revolution was broadcast November 10, 1969, on public television. It was brought to you by letters W, S, and E, and the numbers 2 and 3.

About the Author: Bryan Greene lives in Washington, D.C. and has written about music, history, and race and society for Poverty & Race. Read more articles from Bryan Greene

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