Sesame Street got It right on race

by Lome Anderson, ColorLines

The first thing that came to my mind when I saw my son for the first time was: “How am I going to pay for this kid's college?” He was only a centimeter long. I don't know whether it's just me, or if it’s something shared by all fathers, but my first thoughts after that early sonogram were for his material and physical security. I wanted to make sure that there wouldn't be any barriers to his ability to get the best education, earn a living without struggling, move freely in the world, become whatever he wants to be.

As a father of color, I carry additional layers of concern. I don't just fret over protecting him from the dangers inherent in growing up as a human being on this planet, I also worry about institutions and societal structures that threaten the healthy growth of children of color. In my most cynical moments, all I see are potential landmines of schools that don't honor children of color, a prison system that makes money incarcerating a disproportionate number of young men of color and businesses that profit on convincing communities of color to engage in harmful behavior.

As scary as all of those outside forces seem at times, I’m even more concerned about his inner world. Acknowledging the limits of my ability to control external conditions, I choose to concentrate on ensuring that Joaquin grows up with a sense of self strong enough to deflect any and all negative messages about people of color. I want him to have a healthy self-esteem, not only because he will be a happier person, but also because a positive self-image will lead him to make better choices. In my opinion, better choices are the best defense that I can give him against the negative external and internal impacts of racism.

I can’t do that alone or even with the help of a wonderful, caring wife. If raising a child takes a village, I'm assembling the biggest village I can get. I’m gathering a village from as wide a pool as possible, not just family, friends and like-minded folk. I’m including Sesame Street.

As a child, I was drawn to Cookie Monster's manic love for baked goods, but my most vivid recollection of Sesame Street is Gordon. I can't remember when I first saw him, whether he was having one of his chats with Oscar about O’s grouchy outlook on life or whether he joined in a song urging us to do something good for ourselves, but I do recall his presence: warm, joyful, thoughtful and firm. Not a caricature or stereotype of a Black man, Gordon represents Sesame Street's greatest value for me as a father—a world where people of color are celebrated without being tokenized, satirized or exaggerated.

Gordon was central to Sesame Street's multicultural universe, but it wasn't his presence alone that made it that way. Just having a Black actor as part of a cast—even one that has also featured, throughout the years, Native American, Asian and Latino/a cast members—wouldn't be sufficient to create the culturally embracing tone that that I remember fondly. It’s all of Sesame Street, from the skits teaching the number 5 through doo-wop and encouraging friendship through break-dancing to guests like Patti Labelle singing the ABCs gospel-style, Tito Puente playing timbales, Ziggy Marley encouraging us to set our piggies free by going barefoot and, most recently, Michelle Obama urging us to eat healthy foods during the show’s 40th anniversary in early November.

article originally published at ColorLines.

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