Representation on and behind the screen

We feel emphatically that there is a great and growing need for minority-group representation on the air and in the studios and offices of the TV industry, developing material that will be useful to this and coming generations of youngsters – and grown-ups – of all races. Minority-group citizens can no longer settle for a tap dancer or a bandit as a representative of their race and culture on television. TV programs that reflect minority-group interests, programs that they believe in and take pride from, are the kind that the television industry must provide and provide as soon as possible.

Joan Ganz Cooney, testimony to Senate Committee, 1970.[i]

Despite some later disclaimers, Sesame Street was undoubtedly setting out to reach and engage African-American children in particular – and it was certainly perceived in this way by the wider public. Yet, not to put too fine a point on it, all the key founders of the Children’s Television Workshop, and almost all of those who went on to devise and produce Sesame Street, were white. As such, ‘race’ was bound to be a complex and sensitive issue from the outset.

Sesame Street emerged at a time when there was growing pressure to increase and improve the representation of African-Americans within the television industry, both on screen and behind the scenes. Organisations like New York’s Community Film Workshop Council, directed by Cliff Frazier, conducted high-profile campaigns on these issues, involving black celebrities like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, alongside liberal whites like Shirley MacLaine and Sidney Lumet. In addition to training and providing networking opportunities for young black film-makers, it also sought to challenge negative stereotypes in mainstream media; and from a fairly early stage, African-Americans made common cause on these issues with Hispanics, Native Americans and the rural poor (for example, in Appalachia).

Cooney and Morrisett were liberal integrationists – Cooney later described the civil rights movement as ‘the great passion of those years for me’[ii] – and they knew they would have to address this issue at an early stage. Several African Americans were engaged in key staff positions. Matt Robinson, who eventually assumed a central on-screen role, was originally one of several associate producers; others like Jane O’Connor, an early curriculum co-ordinator, were also involved behind the scenes; and the ‘utilization’ department, which sought to promote the programme in inner-city communities, was led by Evelyn Payne Davis, who was recruited from a role in the National Urban League. These appointments received considerable positive coverage from African-American newspapers like New York’s Amsterdam News as well as upmarket magazines like Essence and Ebony.

Blacks were also invited to join the CTW Board of Advisers: Dr. Chester M. Pierce, of the Black Psychiatrists of America, was one prominent member, who later enjoyed CTW’s support in directing his own film project on black identity. CTW engaged a black public relations consultant, Jimmy Booker, to manage its relations with the African-American community: he was instrumental in engaging black and Hispanic members of the Board, and in liaising with organizations like the NAACP, but he also played a key role in ‘catching the flak’ from potentially awkward critics such as the Center for Urban Education and the National Association of Black Media Producers. As such, African-Americans were involved in several capacities at CTW, although this should not be overstated: Sesame Street may have targeted black communities in particular, but very few of those involved in creating it actually came from such communities.

According to the cognitivists who shaped its curriculum, much of the educational content of Sesame Street was culture-free: it could and should be transmitted to children irrespective of their social background. Nevertheless, several other aspects of the show were clearly intended to be much more socially and culturally specific. For example, in an early report to Carnegie, it was argued that the programme would feature ‘more material reflecting black cultural life and language styles’. The inclusion of ‘some spoken dialect and considerably informal “street” language’ was intended ‘to enhance the target viewer’s sense of identification with the show, to contribute to the child’s self-concept development by implicitly assuring him that his speech pattern was acceptable, and to promote acceptance of speech forms different from his own’.[iii] This argument strongly suggests that CTW was offering an alternative to ‘deficit models’, which regarded the ‘restricted’ language of African-American children as both a symptom and a cause of their educational underachievement. (A similar rationale was later used for the inclusion of Hispanic cultural and linguistic elements.)

Likewise, the street scenes in particular were clearly directed towards ‘urban’ (that is, black) children. The human on-screen cast was integrated, with Loretta Long and Matt Robinson taking the two key roles of Susan and Gordon alongside two white performers; and black guest stars (Belafonte, Bill Cosby, B.B. King, James Earl Jones) were included from the outset, not least in order to attract adult viewers. The Street itself was intended to represent an impoverished urban area; and many of the documentary film sequences also routinely featured non-white children in urban settings.

Early statements by key personnel – for example in the quote from Cooney at the start of this section – show that this was an overt and deliberate strategy, intended to target disadvantaged non-white children in particular. As Evelyn Davis put it, ‘that called for an urban setting, because the large urban areas seemed to be where the greatest crises existed. Consequently, the set was designed to reflect a typical, recognizable inner-city block, and the cast was to be representative of an urban community. The idea was to provide self-identity for inner-city children.’[iv]

As Cooney later acknowledged[v], some commentators found this ‘shocking’: previously, at least in US television, ‘children’s shows were always placed in magic rooms, or in suburbs, or in somewhere not urban’. ‘It was probably the only realistic setting that any children’s show had ever been set in,’ she asserted[vi] – although, after early test screenings, the distinctly unrealistic Muppets were brought in to give the street scenes some additional appeal. On the other hand, some critics felt that the urban setting was unduly sanitized; while others argued that Sesame Street – and the Muppets in particular – still reproduced negative stereotypes. Within CTW itself, there were some who argued that ethnic differences and cultural styles should be explicitly referenced, and indeed celebrated; while others argued that the programme should adopt a ‘colour-blind’ approach, in order to teach children that such differences did not matter – a view epitomized in Kermit’s well-known song ‘It’s not easy bein’ green’.[vii] While representation behind the screen, in production and advisory roles, might have appeared relatively straightforward, representation on screen remained much more problematic and contentious.


The ideal and the real

In some respects, Sesame Street was trapped in a familiar dilemma here. In seeking to counteract or avoid negative stereotypes, it ran the risk of creating an artificially rosy view. The imperative of realism – to show the world accurately, as it really is – ran up against the wish to present ‘positive images’ that were assumed to nurture disadvantaged children’s sense of pride and self-esteem, as well as promoting tolerance and empathy among children in general. On both sides, these arguments are premised on assumptions about the effects of media, which take on a particular force when it comes to children: positive images (or ‘role models’) are deemed to have positive effects, especially on impressionable minds, and the opposite is true for ‘negative’ ones.

Perhaps unfortunately, it’s never quite as easy as that. Some early critics and supporters of Sesame Street acknowledged its good intentions, but worried that it was artificially sugar-coating the difficult realities of inner-city, ghetto life. At an early meeting of the CTW Advisory Board, the child psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg expressed concern that the show was ‘unrelated to the problems that confront the inner-city child’, and suggested the producers should write scenes in which the children ‘participate in a rent strike’.[viii] The noted psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, reviewing the programme in Psychology Today, was generally positive, but also accused the programme of providing a ‘bland’ image of inner-city life, without conflicts or difficulties. The children, he noted, were all ‘charming, soft-spoken, co-operative, clean and well-behaved’ – with the exception of the ‘crash-bang’ action of some of the Muppets. Linda Francke, in the New York Times magazine, went further, reporting on her interviews with child-care workers and parents in the city’s black communities. According to them, Sesame Street was quite unreal. ‘As far as Sesame Street is concerned,’ said one, ‘there are no drunks, there are no dope addicts. It doesn’t make half sense.’ Another accused it being ‘bland, plastic programming for white, middle-class America’. ‘They should take the damn cameras into those neighborhoods,’ he said, ‘and show it like it is and equip the children to cope with the realities as they are.’[ix]

Contemporary writers have (quite correctly) emphasized the wider historical context in this respect. Jennifer Mandel argues that Sesame Street’s image of the inner city exemplifies Martin Luther King’s vision of the multicultural ‘beloved community’, with its central emphasis on racial integration and harmonious co-existence. Rather than the images of conflict and deprivation that dominated news media, it showed the urban neighbourhood as vibrant, upbeat and thriving. The adults were happy, caring and mutually supportive, and constantly reinforced moral lessons about tolerance and humanitarianism.

More recently, Benjamin Looker has located Sesame Street in the context of a broader upsurge in ‘optimistic and even exuberant renderings of urban neighborhood life’ that began to appear in the late 1960s and 1970s. As he argues, such representations contrasted with considerable evidence that such neighbourhoods were spiraling towards collapse. They also offered a counterbalance to the charges of racism that were increasingly coming from black nationalist movements. Such images offered a kind of ‘liberal utopia’, an imagined community in which good-neigbourliness and tolerance would transcend poverty and hatred: ‘the local city neighborhood became a screen upon which radical liberals could project anxious hopes for a tolerant, pluralistic society’. Looker argues that, like other representations of the period, Sesame Street combined this projection into a utopian future with an almost nostalgic rendering of a more stable, comforting urban past: against the contemporary context of rampant unemployment, the show’s characters were shown not just as residents but as workers (trash collectors, postal workers, shopkeepers, but also teachers and doctors).

There was certainly debate about these issues among the staff of CTW as the series’ early seasons were developed, and some pushed for a less sugar-coated approach. Matt Robinson (who played ‘Gordon’, one of the black co-stars) argued that the ‘diluted’ approach would not work with disadvantaged children: ‘these kids need less fantasy and … more realism in black-oriented problems.’[x] A ‘writers’ notebook’ from 1970-71 proposed storylines featuring ‘community problems’ such as inadequate heating, demolished buildings, vermin, garbage and pollution. It was proposed that the programme should focus on conflict, injustice and difference, rather than just co-operation and mutual empathy.[xi] The following year, one programme featured several protest songs performed by an African-American preacher and civil rights activist, Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick – ‘River Song’ was about the responsibility of the rich for urban pollution, ‘The Ballad of Harriet Tubman’ covered her escape from slavery, while ‘The Ballad of Martin Luther King’ focused on his assassination – although this attracted some letters of criticism.[xii]

Gerald Lesser was ambivalent about the educational value of this approach. ‘If a child lives in a city ghetto,’ he asked, ‘what do we gain in using television to depict its harsh realities?’[xiii] As Cooney herself acknowledged at the time, her own perspective was ‘more Westchester than Watts’ – that is, more white and middle-class than drawn from the urban ghetto.[xiv] Given her background, one could hardly have expected it to be otherwise. Ultimately, a degree of realism was necessary, but it should not go too far: here, as in its wider educational mission, CTW needed to have its cake and eat it.


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[i] Reproduced in Sesame Street Newsletter, August 1970.

[ii] Cooney, TV Academy interview, 1998.

[iii] Samuel Gibbon and Edward Palmer ‘’Pre-reading on Sesame Street’, report to Carnegie Corporation, December 1970, Columbia archive, box 33: 1.

[iv] Interview in Essence magazine, March 1971.

[v] Interview in the film The World According to Sesame Street (2006).

[vi] TV Academy interview, 1998.

[vii] Notes from an early ‘goals meeting’ (23rd/24th September, 1968) suggested that ‘negroes’ and whites should be presented ‘in roles as everyday people, to show indirectly that color didn’t matter’: UM/CTW archive box 33: 2.

[viii] Cited in Morrow, 98.

[ix] Francke, 28, 29.

[x] Ebony magazine, XXV(3), January 1970.

[xi] Writers’ notebook, UM/CTW archive, box 33: 20.

[xii] Summaries of episode 362, aired 1972: UM/CTW archive, box 33: 26.

[xiii] Lesser, Children and Television, 94.

[xiv] Cited in Morrow, 153.