by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Deesha Philyaw
Like a lot of Gen-Xers, I lived and breathed Sesame Street back in the day. By first grade, I’d been identified by my school as “a smart kid,” and adult friends of the family regularly asked me, probably rhetorically, “How’d you get so smart?” I had a proud answer for them: “I used to watch Sesame Street every day!”
This answer never failed to get a laugh, but it was true. My earliest TV memories are of Big Bird, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, Gordon, Susan, and David (and Saturday morning NWA Florida fake wrestling–but that’s a different story for a different time.). I learned my alphabet and numbers, and could read by age 3, thanks in large part to Sesame Street.
With The Electric Company and Mr. Rogers (who I felt was talking directly to me and no one else) coming a close 2nd and 3rd, Sesame Street was my favorite TV show. I loved “C is for Cookie”; Ernie and Bert; the psychedelic counting segments; Guy Smiley (he of the flip-top head); the ode to exits belted out by a blue-faced, spaghetti-haired pianist; and John-John*, my secret crush, the lucky, sweet-cheeked boy about my age who got to count with Grover and the other Muppets.
So, color me giddy with nostalgia when I read about the release of Sesame Street: Old School, Volumes 1 and 2, featuring episodes from 1969-1979, including the pitch/pilot episode (which never aired). By 1979, I was eight-years-old and had outgrown Sesame Street, but eighty percent of the nation’s two-to-five-year-olds reportedly watched the show, and it remains popular today.
Neither of my children are big fans of Sesame Street, though not for lack of my trying, with my nine-year-old daughter, at least. At three, she would tune in for the “Elmo’s World” segment at the end of each show, but couldn’t be bothered with anything that preceded it. Based on her indifference, I hadn’t even bothered to introduce my four-year-old daughter to any part of the show. As with other cultural touchstones–such as my seemingly innate appreciation for soul food and R&B–I’ve learned that I cannot spoon-feed my children my childhood.
And yet, I couldn’t wait to show them Sesame Street: Old School. We ripped open the packaging, popped in the DVD and started watching. First up, we watched the opening segment to the pilot episode in which a Muppet roundtable representing the country’s “top education advisors, researchers, and producers” struggles to give this revolutionary new TV show for kids a name. They toss out a few duds, and then one Muppet says, “This show is for kids who can’t read right?”
“So let’s call it, ‘Hey, stupid!”
My kids cracked up, and so did I, despite myself.
Kermit the Frog, the voice of reason, asked the roundtable guys, “You really think you’re going to get this show on the air?” And of course we all know the answer to that.
Given this intro, I should not have been surprised then when the following disclaimer prefaced Episode #1: “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”
Right then, my social-political-cultural radar went a little crazy. Had I somehow missed Maria giving Bob a lap dance back in the day? According to my subsequent research, courtesy of The New York Times, it turns out that as a kid, I was the “target child” for Sesame Street: a “4-year-old inner-city black youngster.” I wondered just what was suitable for me as a kid back then but possibly not for my preschooler now.
After watching a few of the old school episodes, here are some of the things that apparently met the needs of a kid like me from the “slums” (as The Times so elegantly put it in its first review of Sesame Street) in the ’70s, but perhaps not those of today’s preschool child:
- “The Man from Alphabet”, a god-awful live-action segment in which an incredibly unfunny guy in a trench coat nabs bad guy-newspaper thieves hell-bent on stopping folks from reading
- A diverse slate of guest stars including Lena Horne; José Feliciano; Arthur Ashe; Richie Havens; Helen Reddy; Bill Cosby; Lou Rawls; Carol Burnett; Jackie Robinson; James Earl Jones; Buffy Sainte-Marie; Madeline Kahn; Ray Charles; Lily Tomlin; and Johnny Cash telling Oscar to have a rotten day.
- The First of Three Gordons and some kids watching a young raccoon trying in vain to eat kibble floating in a bowl of water. “Don’t get too close to animals when they’re eating, kids.” How about: “Stay away from WILD animals, period, kids”?
- A live-action comedy routine about hanging a picture, from a bumbling, low-rent Abbott and Costello–Somebody and Jim, I forget the other name, but it really doesn’t matter because their schtick would fall flat with today’s preschooler and totally tax today’s inner-city black adult’s nerves.
- Gordon, again. Hey, kids. This is Gordon. And I’m going to keep telling you how important it is to learn—yes, in this voice completing lacking in affect. Because we know that inner-city black youngsters need to be spoken to in monotones or else they won’t get it. The only alternative is to present the alphabet sung by…
- …a dozen or so soul singers dressed in bright colors. This group also performs a ham-fisted Gospel Lite number: “You Got To Learn Something (To Get Where You Want to Be)”. Perhaps some parents of today’s preschoolers would be scandalized by a black man in mutton chops exhorting their kids to achieve. (Don’t get me wrong: I loved Sesame Street‘s multi-culti-ness back in the day, and I love it even more now that I understand that it wasn’t incidental.)
- Richard Pryor, looking very much like he’s on that stuff. Some alphabet, according to Richard: “Ain’t nobody care about D…” and “Y was mean!” Trivia: How many drug addicts appeared on Sesame Street in those early years? There’s Pryor, at least one of the Pointer Sisters, and cast-member David (truly, a tragic story). I can’t imagine today’s parents being okay with Courtney Love crooning in a Prairie Dawn Production, or Lindsay Lohan tallying her days in rehab with The Count.
- Mr. Hooper going apeshit when Bob and the gang bought the store’s last newspaper—unaware that the last newspaper always belonged to Mr. Hooper. Always. His tirade occurs right after he snipes at Bob for loitering outside of his store.
- Live-action segments shot in rural areas and/or featuring animals. Lots and lots of these because poor black youngsters need to know there is life beyond the big, mean city. They need to see farms; the construction of a log cabin sans power tools; a day-old fawn nursing and learning to walk; and a septuagenarian postal worker delivering mail on horseback to families in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. (These segments left my urban four-year-old bored and confused, asking “Where did Sesame Street go?”)
One such segment featured nervous, fearful (presumably “inner city”) children at a petting zoo. As they reluctantly petted the animals (or cried), a soothing male voiceover sang, “Don’t be scared, don’t be shy when something beautiful catches your eye. Don’t think too much about how you feel…you might never have the chance again, and you’ll have to remember when you were afraid to feel something warm, and rich, and real.” In other words: Suck it up and pet that goat, Jamal, or you’re gonna regret it when you’re back pounding the pavement in the ‘hood.
And yet…”today’s children” are not being told to suck it up. Snuffleupagus was outed in 1985, perhaps because until then, Big Bird was not being taken seriously when he spoke of his imaginary friend, and Snuffy was constantly being ignored. The horror. Gee…today’s kids wouldn’t be able to relate to either of those experiences.
Here’s what else I learned from Sesame Street: Old School
1. Back in the day, it was not presumed that kids had the attention span of gnats. Some segments are super short, but others are long (painfully so, in the case of “The Man from Alphabet”)
2. Back in the day, it was perfectly safe for two children under the age of 11 to walk up to a complete stranger and ask for directions to Sesame Street.
3. I’m officially old. My oldest daughter, seeing the animated typewriter guy, yelled, “Mommy, wow, look, it’s a typewriter!” Like, “Mommy, wow, look, it’s a stegosaurus!’
4. Today’s preschoolers need:
- sanitized, saccharin characters like Elmo and Telly
5. Today’s preschoolers have to be protected from the following:
- images of urban blight
- adults committing the cardinal sin of looking homely on TV
- words like “dumb”, “dingaling”, and “fool”
- Jesse Jackson leading them in a recitation of his poem, “I am Somebody”:
I may be poor,
But I am
I may be young,
But I am
I may be on welfare,
But I am
I may be small,
But I am
I may have made mistakes,
But I am
My clothes are different,
My face is different,
My hair is different,
But I am
I am black,
Brown, or white.
I speak a different language
But I must be respected,
Maybe the Sesame Street people were worried that today’s kids might be traumatized by all this. But my kids were more annoyed than traumatized. My nine-year-old snark-in-training rolled her eyes at the repetition of the letter “D” segment (three times, back to back). I explained that children learn through repetition. “Yeah,” she said, “but that many repetitions? Oh, that’s right: They think kids are stupid.”
Maybe the Sesame Street people thought today’s parents might be offended by some of the old school stuff. I can see that. One recurring segment features Muppet kids at Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School. The segment opens with the students singing the schools “alma mama.” Afterwards, as the kids settle down for class, one student says, “I’m-a learn me somethin’!” The teacher asks if anyone knows what Africa looks like. One student thinks Africa is one big jungle (“‘Cause I saw it on Tarzan!”), but the teacher uses a map to describe the continent’s diverse geography and resources.
In another Roosevelt Franklin segment, the topic is “Talking Loud.” I cringe. Because we all know inner-city black youngsters are loud. But it turns out that the segment was a lesson in the difference between loud and soft.
My reaction to the Roosevelt Franklin segments captured my reaction to the DVD as a whole: Yea! Here’s something affirming. Oh, wait, cringe–there’s something stereotypical. Affirming. Cringing. Affirming. Cringing…
Maybe the Sesame people’s primary concern really is children’s well-being, hence the warning to parents to use their discretion. Maybe. But by not placing the warning about the content on the outside of the packaging where a parent could read it before purchase–and therefore opt not to purchase–the good people on Sesame Street are seeking to maximize their return on the nostalgia of Gen-Xers like me. They’ll take our dollars, but caveat the whole thing by telling us that our little progeny are too precious to witness litter, poverty, impatience, large groups of black people, name-calling, and actors with bad teeth.
Could it be that “today’s preschool child” is a euphemism for “today’s suburban, typically white, child whose parents have a lot of disposable income and are willing to blow $500 during Christmas for a Hypnotize Me Elmo (why stop at tickling?)”?
The late cultural critic and media theorist, Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, once observed that the main thing Sesame Street taught kids was how to watch TV. Postman complained that TV answered questions children haven’t asked. This makes sense to me, but at the same time, I don’t feel any worse for wear for having watched the show religiously.
Generally, I’m wary of the “…and we turned out okay” defense, which is used to pooh-pooh everything from scoreless kid soccer leagues to breastfeeding. I prefer to judge on a case-by-case basis, and with regard to Sesame Street, whatever its shortcomings and growing pains over those early years, I really don’t believe the show created a generation of insensitive cranks. (Though it is true that ZOOM created a generation of freakish Ubbi-Dubbi acolytes.)
But I will say this: If I never see that guy fall down the steps with the chocolate cream pies again, it won’t be too soon.
*According to Wikipedia, John-John joined the military when he grew up, now lives in San Antonio, and occasionally performs as a Tejano singer.
Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer who has written for Essence Magazine, Wondertime Magazine (a Disney publication), and The Washington Post. Deesha holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in teaching. In her pre-mommy, pre-writing life, she was a management consultant, briefly, and then an elementary school teacher. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters.