Cultural Amnesia at Sesame Street


Up at Lincoln Center, the Library of Performing Arts has just mounted a fresh new retrospective exhibit about Sesame Street (“Somebody Come and Play: 45 Years of Sesame Street,” September 18, 2014 — January 31, 2015). That once-controversial kiddie show is now older than than most of the mothers who are crowding in with their toddlers and strollers and prams and double-barreled breeder-bully buggies.

I dived in the other day and was hit with a massive blast of cultural amnesia.

Sesame Street, it seems, was always about Big Bird, fluffy puppets, and silly songs. Never about urban slums, racial conflict, or any of those other “relevant” social themes of the late 60s that the newspapers always talked about when reviewing the program. Looking at this exhibit, you wouldn’t have a clue that the show’s “target child” was a “4-year-old inner-city black youngster” (according to the NY Times) or that the original opening sequence showed clips of black kids in a gritty playground, with Harlem “projects” towering behind.


On a lighter note, the show’s first big Muppet star, and crooner of that 1970 hymn to racial self-acceptance, “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” is now a non-person. Kermit the Frog has been plunked down the memory hole. No photos of Kermit in the installation, no mention of him in the exhibit brochure. He’s been airbrushed out of history as surely as any ex-Politburo member from a May Day photo at the Kremlin. (All right, it’s true that Kermit departed Sesame Street after Year One, and had a rich and rewarding career afterwards; but must he be excised entirely?)

When first broadcast in late 1969, Sesame Street‘s most striking innovation was its “inner-city” studio set. Many people just assumed it was meant to be Harlem. There were brick tenements with fire escapes, laundry hanging on clotheslines, garbage cans on the sidewalk; as well as an old brownstone inhabited by a colored couple who wore afros. A kiddie show set in the “slums” (as the NY Times put it) seemed like a hip and edgy idea.

But hip, edgy ideas get old quickly, and for the last twenty or thirty years the show’s producers have been in denial about the whole Harlem thing. They tell us the neighborhood was actually inspired by the lively and upscale Upper West Side of Manhattan: “The brownstone building of 123 Sesame Street, where Sesame Street residents Susan, Gordon, Bert and Ernie live, was designed to look like the typical middle-income brownstone homes on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Hold on a bit! The set was designed in the late 1960s, when those neighborhoods along Amsterdam and Columbus were not “middle-income,” but slums. In fact until the 1980s they were “transitional” at best.

The exhibition continually assures us that Sesame Street was an extraordinary “cultural, educational, and media phenomenon” but it shies away from telling us why. It suggests that this was the first popular “educational” program aimed at pre-schoolers. But of course it wasn’t. The 50s and 60s had Ding Dong SchoolCaptain KangarooMisterogers, and others. They were tremendously popular, wholesome, and entertaining.

Thing was, though, poor black kids didn’t watch Captain Kangaroo. And in the era of Head Start, Vista, and The Inner City Mother Goose, this was imagined to be one of the key reasons why they didn’t do well in school. From the very beginning, therefore, a primary objective of Sesame Street founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett was to come up with something that black kids would watch, particularly that four-year-old welfare kid in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

This is the essential fact about the origin of Sesame Street, yet the curators of this exhibit won’t talk about it. I don’t think it’s hard to understand why. It would be like an explanation of how sausage is made: distracting, disturbing and more than a little ugly.


Author: Penny Pringlebury

Penny Pringlebury is the mother of two grown children, both of them twins.