Bridging the gaps? Sesame Street, ‘race’ and educational disadvantage

Sesame Street is the longest-running children’s television show of all time: it has become almost a sacred institution, which is guaranteed to generate a warm, nostalgic glow. Yet fifty years on, it’s important to recall some of the controversy that surrounded its early days. In this essay, drawing on original archival research, I go back to the origins of Sesame Street and the Children’s Television Workshop, the non-profit organization that created it. The programme was targeted at preschool children in general, but particularly at disadvantaged, inner-city children – and, at least initially, at African-American children specifically. It did this in two main ways: firstly, through its representation of inner-city life, and of racial diversity; and secondly, through attempting to raise the educational achievement of black children in particular. In exploring these two issues, I show that this was a difficult – and at times, quite confused and contradictory – endeavour.

You can download the whole essay (without illustrations) by clicking here or if you want to read the illustrated version, click on the subheadings to read the different sections:

  1. Introduction: Sesame Street fifty years on
  2. Sesame Street in context
  3. Defining problems and solutions
  4. Representation on and behind the screen
  5. Muppets and the dilemmas of multiculturalism
  6. Narrowing the gaps?
  7. Measuring and debating effectiveness
  8. Reaching out
  9. Going forward; conclusion
  10. Sources and references