Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Roosevelt Franklin, Lily, Alex and Sesame Street's Trending Ways

I fondly remember Sesame Street from my younger years. I remember when they introduced a Muppet in the early 1970's named Roosevelt Franklin; a purple Muppet with black hair that stood on end to resemble and Afro. I also remember that (unlike Cleveland Brown of "Family Guy") they used an actual Black actor (Matthew Robinson) to be the voice of the Muppet. Some folks question his ethnicity, but as added proof, his elementary school was located on Jerome Avenue in the South Bronx, long after white flight and can still be seen from the 4 Train.

Roosevelt was a hip and cool Black kid, who in many early episodes would have wonderful, learning-moment conversations with his mother and subsequently, would teach class in his elementary school when the teacher wasn't around. Roosevelt was part of a wave in the post- MLK era when PBS thought is was cool to have Black people on television; and that Black people watched BET. A lesson learned from the landmark broadcast of James Brown's Boston concert, by WGBH on the night after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; in a successful effort to keep Black people home instead of rioting in the streets. Suddenly, WGBH introduced "Say, Brother" and other PBS affiliates throughout the country were scrambling to put Black shows on their roster. The already ahead-of-the-curb Children's Television Workshop, with Black characters/ actors and children regularly on Sesame Street and the Electric Company, stepped things up with the introduction of Roosevelt Franklin.

Then, between 1975 and 1977 when Black was no longer the toast and taste of Madison Avenue, and even Eastern Europeans and Mediterraneans stopped straightening their hair in favor of Afros; the Electric Company and Roosevelt Franklin were yanked from the line-up. Franklin in particular was deemed "racist" and "stereotypical", despite that fact that he was created, developed and performed by Black writers and actors. In addition, I remember episodes where he challenged such things as racist misconceptions about the African continent; the need for self-esteem; nutrition and exercise; and how to navigate traffic safely when crossing the street.

I guess this was the introduction of conservative influence into PBS; whereby it was logical that it would be less racist to eliminate a Black character from the Muppet. The same logic that tries to reason that it would have been racist to hire a real NDN to play Tonto in the Disney "Lone Ranger" than it is was to hire Johnny Depp. But I digress...

In 2011, when the seemingly racially biased "Occupy Movement" (or so it would seem when you consider their blatant unwillingness to support and share resources with "Idle No More" and "Occupy The Hood"... I guess Black folks and Native/ First Nation folks aren't part of the 99%) became the new flavor, Sesame Street introduced an impoverished Muppet named "Lily".  I suppose she was an effort to counter-balance Oscar the Grouch who (inadvertently) led several generations of children to believe that people lived in garbage cans and dumpster because they liked it.

When you consider that it's been known pretty commonly in the US that we have, per capita, more private citizens incarcerated than any other country in the world; it is of little surprise that almost 4%
of children in the US have a parent in prison. With this knowledge, Sesame Street does it again by introducing Alex, a Muppet who's dad is currently a guest of the state. However, as we are a nation of sweeping things under the rug, this important issue is not part of the main-stream, television broadcast of Sesame Street, but instead part of the on-line 'not-ready-for-tv' offerings called "Little People, Big Challenges". While I'm almost afraid to venture a guess  at the Sesame Street songs that these episodes will generate, the CTW get's a loud golf clap for their efforts.

While it's very nice that Sesame Street has and continues to address trending topics, it's unfortunate that they are treated as trends. With a new anti-Black backlash, similar to the re-construction era that brought about Jim Crow; Roosevelt Franklin is just as relevant now (if not more) as he was in the 1970's. Poverty and the impoverished are nothing new, nor disappearing as evidenced by the tent cities popping up throughout the US and Canada out of necessity as opposed to 'making a statement'. With the introduction and popularity of privately owned prison complexes, which can under-bid most firms for construction and menial labor contracts since they don't have to follow the same safety regulations and can pay (literal) slave wages to their forces; combined with law enforcements efforts to step up the enforcement of technicality laws; it's safe to say that the numbers of kids with incarcerated parents will stay the same if not increase.

We need to recognize that education is not a trend, it's a sustained effort and the tools of education need to be likewise. Also, Sesame Street needs to bring back the old bass-line to their theme song.

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