This is what the children need!
Two new Black muppets are coming to Sesame Street to talk about race, Time reports.
Since Sesame Street’s inception in 1969, the show has tackled challenging issues related to the day’s social climate in an age-appropriate way. In 1982, they debuted their episode on grief following the death of actor Will Lee who played Mr. Hooper to Kami. Then on Takalani Sesame, the South African version of Sesame Street, a 5-year-old HIV-positive. orphaned Muppet was introduced named Kami in 1995. Now, the show is looking to address race and racism head-on as a part of their new “ABCs of Racial Literacy” initiative.
The two new puppets, Wesley Walker and his father Elijah, voiced by Bradley Freeman Jr., will focus on their experience of being Black in America and speak out against systemic inequality and racism. In a more recent town hall Sesame Street did in partnership with CNN, Elmo’s dad Louie explained the protests to Elmo.
“On Sesame Street, we all love and respect one another. Across the country, people of color, especially in the Black community, are being treated unfairly because of how they look, their culture, race, and who they are. What we are seeing is people saying enough is enough. They want to end racism,” Louie says.
The introduction of Wes and Elijah is intentional. Not only are the muppets given a racial identity, but they also have human features and a family backstory that helps them to address genuine issues. Elijah is a 35-year-old meteorologist who loves running, being outdoors, watching movies, and cooking. Wes is 5-years-old and enjoys going to school, and playing pretend with his friends. There are also plans to develop Naomi, Wes’s mom.
Kay Wilson Stallings who is the executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, the parent company of the children’s series, spoke about the decision to introduce the two new muppets.
“After last summer with the racial unrest that happened and the murder of George Floyd, we collectively as an organization decided that the only way that we could go about dismantling racism was by being bold and explicit,”Wilson Stallings said. “People are working remotely. People were feeling a lot of emotions, and it was almost like everyone had the same realization. If not Sesame, who’s going to address this? It felt like everyone had the same, ‘Yes, we’ve got to do something about it, and the first way to address it is that we need to define racism for 3-year-olds.”
The result was the “Coming Together” initiative developed by the company, complete with an educational framework and curriculum. The CNN special was an extension of that, as is The “ABCs of Racial Literacy,” which focuses on providing language and tools for children, parents, and educators to help discuss race and racism. There are online resources as well as songs that celebrate differences to help children value their identities.
Calvin Gidney, associate professor of child development at Tufts University, spoke about Sesame’s efforts, saying, “We’re at quite a cultural moment, and I’m glad that Sesame Street has chosen which side of that particular cultural war it wants to come down on.
He added, “If it were just Black, Indigenous, and people of color who have these discussions, then it would still perpetuate the idea that whiteness is not a racial category. It can sort of make whiteness absent in the conversation, whereas I think whiteness is at the center of the conversation. I think it’s super important that white families also learn how to model talking about race with their kids.”
Sesame has reported in their studies that only 26% of white parents say they are likely to discuss race and ethnicity with their children compared to 61% of Black parents. As a result, the company has plans to expand the conversation of race by including other characters alongside Elijah and Wes, some old and some new.
“There are different approaches and different needs and different ways of bringing in the audience, whether you’re BIPOC or whether you’re not BIPOC,” Wilson Stallings said. She added that the company is choosing to focus on Black and brown communities first “because those are the folks that are most impacted with systemic racism.”
The two new muppets will join Sesame Street as a part of Season 52 in late 2021.
Photo Courtesy of Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop