Sesame Street Got It Right on Race

As the show celebrates its 40th anniversary, one father reflects on how the multiracial cast taught him his ABCs and the value of all cultures.

By Lome Aseron Nov 25, 2009

November 25, 2009

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.

As a child, Sesame Street was the perfect universe, populated by whimsical and colorful characters, filled with music, where adults were the mortar and not the bricks. Who wouldn’t want parents like the adults on Sesame Street? They would swoop down and offer words of wisdom and some guidance, but mostly they trusted us as kids. Gordon’s presence is even more important in that context—not only was he a central character, but also he was a parental figure, a positive representation of a man of color parenting children of all ethnicities, something that’s sorely missing from today’s children’s shows.
Sesame Street may not have intended to be revolutionary when it first aired in November 1969, maybe because the late ‘60s had set the bar for the definition of revolutionary so high. As I peruse the current offering of children’s shows, however, Sesame Street seems more defiant than ever. It’s incredible that Sesame Street has made it for 40 years, not only because of the sheer number of episodes that have aired during that time (more than 4,000), but also because of the multicultural world that it has maintained from the beginning.

When I throw Sesame Street into the mix of television programming for adults and kids, it stands out even more. Why is it that a multiracial society that celebrates the cultures of all people is allowed for our children, but not for adults? Where’s the Sesame Street for grown-ups?

As I plop my too-young-to-watch-TV 18-month-old son in front of YouTube to enjoy a couple of minutes of Sesame Street clips, I feel comforted that what he’s going to see represents the world I want him to live in. He’s transfixed, bopping and swaying to Ray Charles singing the ABCs. He claps when the song is over. He’s too young to tell me what he’s thinking or feeling, but it’s nice to know that his companions on his journey of childhood include a big yellow bird, a counting vampire, a garbage-can-dwelling misanthrope and a multiracial cast of human beings who value his worth as a child of color in this world. What a village.

Lome A. Aseron is a proud father, husband and writer.  He works to provide opportunities for disadvantaged small businesses in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Somehow he finds time to blog about the spiritual path of fatherhood at