40 years of diversity makes Sesame Street a unique destination

OPINION - There are valuable lessons for children watching Sesame Street for the first time, as much as it is for those of us who have lived around...

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I’m not a morning person, but my 1-year-old is. But then again so is his mother, which fortunately means I don’t have to abruptly rouse myself out of bed as soon as I hear “da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da” coming out of the baby monitor perched atop the window on my side of the bed at 6:30am.

At some point a little person appears beside me. My bed, his booster seat, and I slowly drift towards consciousness. My morning haze isn’t crowded with thoughts about what the day will bring – not the mountain of work I have to do, the numerous errands I have to run, nor the never-ending list of emails I should force myself to return. Instead, I find myself silently rapping about some guy named Murray and his little lamb, while visions of a purple puppet and two noodles dance around on my eyelids. “It’s November, right?” I ask myself, puzzled by why I find myself talking to someone about Cinco de Mayo parade decorations.

I finally come to, look up at the bright TV screen and then over to my son whose eyes are fixated on it. In that waking moment I find myself glad that, like children 40 years before him, someone has shown my son how to get to Sesame Street.

Media critics, sociologists and educators will all tell you something different about why Sesame Street has and continues to define children’s television. For some, it is because kids can watch and learn how to count, build their vocabulary, bone up on their geography or merely take pleasure in laughing at any and all of the furry creatures with funny voices. Others will say that Sesame Street remains successful because its creative team has learned to change with the times, adapting from the days when there was one dominating children’s show, three television channels and nothing better to do in the morning or afternoon when the show aired. But for me, it is the enduring image of its ever-expanding diversity that makes Sesame Street most distinctive.

For 40 years, Sesame Street has engaged the world of difference with child-like realism. I remember watching Sesame Street as a kid, and I remember recognizing color. Gordon looked like my dad, which is to say, he was black. Oscar was green and Bert was yellow. Maria looked like 90 percent of the kids at my west side San Antonio, Texas elementary school and my favorite character – Grover – was Blue. Mr. Hooper was white like some of my mom’s military friends.

Like all young kids, I was not colorblind. I could see that people looked different. Sesame Street was so much fun to watch because everybody was so different. But like all young kids I didn’t associate color with character. Oscar was a grouch, but not because he was green. When I was really small, The Count scared the hell out of me, but not because he was pink. Everyone looked different and each had his or her own peculiar personality. And while some grew on me more than others there was no distinguishing mark about them that gave me the hint that I should like some and not others.

TODAY Report: Sesame Street celebrates 40 years

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Beyond being in sync with the racial realities of young children who have not yet been corrupted by their parents’ color-bound politics, Sesame Street modeled the kind of racial idealism we should continually strive for. In Sesame Street’s diverse neighborhood, characters always asked questions about why someone looked or acted differently than they did. Their questions were never returned with a north-directed middle finger or someone screaming, “ignorant!” The character was glad to answer the question and tell others about him or herself. I remember Oscar frequently being asked why he was green. Not complaining any more than usual, he was happy to point out that he’s not really green, but that he once took a dip in a muddy marsh and hadn’t taken a bath since.

Sesame Street wasn’t just some idyllic land where no one ever disagreed and everyone steered clear of conflict. It was a place where everyone always talked and continued talking. Disagreements were highlighted, motives were exposed, misunderstandings were clarified and problems were solved. And for all its virtues, what is perhaps most important is that no matter how strange one may be, everyone and anyone was and is always welcome on Sesame Street. Everyone belongs and even the Yip-yip aliens are “one of us.”

As well as learning about diversity, Sesame Street also makes kids aware of other issues. Kicking off Sesame Street’s anniversary season, First Lady Michelle Obama will appear on the show talking about healthy food and encouraging kids to plant gardens.

These are all as valuable lessons for children like my son watching Sesame Street for the first time in his short life, as much as it is for those of us who have lived around Sesame Street for the past 40 years.