Sesame Street started out as a very Black show. The brownstone at 123 Sesame Street was owned by a young Black couple, Gordon and Susan Robinson, and the pair functioned as the heart of the series (while also “serving as surrogate parents” for the children watching at home). The cast was carefully selected so children from urban centers across the country, particularly Black children, would see themselves in the faces on the screen. This was the same reason that in 1970 the show introduced a Muppet who was Black, a character named Roosevelt Franklin.
And yet, in the space of only a few years, Roosevelt Franklin would become “too Black for Sesame Street” and was phased out of the show.
Roosevelt was originally created, scripted and voiced by Matt Robinson, the actor who played Gordon. Years later, his ex-wife Dolores Robinson recalled, “Matt’s pride in his race and his anger with racism all came out in Roosevelt. That’s what those people heard and objected to. He was too Black for them.” His daughter, actress Holly Robinson-Peete, added, “Roosevelt basically was the essence of my father. Everything about him — the songs, the voice, the way he moved — that was my dad.”
Robinson wasn’t the only cast member who was motivated by the calls of Black power and the idea that “Black is beautiful.” Loretta Long, who played Susan Robinson, had been the co-host of the New York public television program Soul!. She was also an educator who was focused on the show’s premise to show Black children and other children of color that they mattered, too. She even enlisted her husband Peter, who worked at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, to help. He led the show’s 16-person youth music group Listen My Brother, who performed in brightly-patterned African-style dashikis and included a young Luther Vandross.
Nonetheless, Sesame Street received early criticisms that it wasn’t Black enough. And so, in Season Two, Roosevelt Franklin was given a larger stand-alone role in his own segments to “address criticisms from some in the Black community that the program lacked ‘soul,’ and that it should feature Black vernacular language and humor more prominently.”
In one particular scene, Roosevelt asks his friend Hard Head Henry Harris to give him a beat. He starts to beatbox — or as close to it as the 1970s would get (it’s more like a street-corner doo-wop group, or the backbeat of a Nuyorican poetry reading). Eventually, Roosevelt leads all the other kids in a call-and-response with refrains like, “All alone in the doghouse.” It’s canine-focused because he’s telling the story of two dogs who cooperate to liberate a big ol’ bone from the doghouse. The moral being not to take something that doesn’t belong to you. Or as he puts it, “That’s just another number one golden rule, from the Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School.”
The vibe is unmistakably Black, such as when Roosevelt leaves the classroom to go eat his lunch — “a whole pot of black-eye peas, waiting for me.”
The most (in)famous Roosevelt Franklin joint, however, was the rap he did for a segment called “Morty Moot Mope.” While Roosevelt drops his fun lil’ rhyme, some of the other kids come off sounding like they’re doing an impression of “inner-city Black youth.” For instance, one character asks, “Roosevelt Franklin, are you gonna make us rhyme some more ol’ dumb words?”
This was a major source of criticism from Black parents and Black executives such as Lutrelle Horne and Evelyn Davis at the Children’s Television Workshop. To their eyes and ears, the language and behavior shown in the Roosevelt Franklin segments “perpetuated racist stereotypes.”
But it was Black academic Barbara H. Stewart who landed the most devastating blows when, in 1973, she published an article in the literary digest Black World with the shots-fired title, “Sesame Street: A Linguistic Detour for Black-Language Speakers.”
In her piece, Stewart tore the stuffing out of Roosevelt, saying that he spoke with a “stage Negro dialect.” She claimed that Sesame Street believed in the “fallacious assumption that poor Black children are verbally destitute.” She then accused the show’s producers of attempting to fix that deficit by “subjecting their audience to large doses of middle-class verbiage.” In particular, she pointed to a segment from the show where Roosevelt and his mother sang a song about the alphabet, arguing that “Matt Robinson and Loretta Long do not employ Black Language in portraying Roosevelt and his mama.”
Stewart parses what she means by Black Language, writing that, “Usages such as ‘she says’ (versus ‘she say’), ‘who was to blame’ (versus ‘who be to blame’ and ‘an L’ (versus ‘a L’) make it apparent that the producers of Sesame Street confuse Black Language with what William Stewart describes as a ‘stage Negro dialect,’ which ‘is little more than standard English with a slightly ethnicized or southernized pronunciation, reinforced by insertion of such general nonstandardisms as ain’t and the double negative, and perhaps a sprinkling of southern or inner-city Negro lexical usages like honeychild or man.’”
“It becomes apparent that it is unreasonable to assume that any educational program devised by the oppressor can do anything other than serve his interests,” she concludes in a heated tone.
The very next year, Roosevelt Franklin was phased out of the show. A co-founder of the Children’s Television Workshop, Joan Cooney (who was white), recalled in the book Street Gang how the decision was made, “There was an argument about whether or not he should speak Black English, or not, whether children should be taught the King’s English. I loved Roosevelt Franklin, but I understood the protests; I understood both sides. If Matt said it was okay, and the community said it was okay, and white people said it was okay, then it was okay with me. I wasn’t wholly comfortable, but I was amused. You couldn’t help but laugh at him. We knew that it was going to be a bit controversial, and it seemed to go away for a while, but then we heard from the Evelyn Davises, from the upper middle class Black community.” Despite “vigorous opposition” from the show’s Black performers, “the conservative faction prevailed, and Roosevelt Franklin bit the dust.”
Despite having not appeared on Sesame Street in almost 50 years, many people still fondly remember Roosevelt Franklin. His relevance also got a shot in the arm from Arrested Development, during which Gob Bluth introduced a ventriloquist dummy into his act named Franklin Delano Bluth — the gags for this Franklin are primarily based on him cursing, calling white people ethnic slurs and generally acting wildly stereotypical, as imagined by a rich white man. Meanwhile, over at the Museum of Uncut Funk, you can read recollections of the original Roosevelt Franklin, and find a love that runs especially warm-hearted. A prime example: “One of my all-time favorite characters on Sesame Street was Roosevelt Franklin. I remember the theme song from these segments like it was yesterday. What I also remember is that Roosevelt was sooo much cooler than the other Muppets.”
How can you not love a character who tells stories about people named Same Sound Brown and Morty Moot Mope? What small kid wouldn’t respond to a character who mostly speaks in rhymes and raps over a jazzy-ass drum while other kids perform a call and response? To say nothing of how this same Muppet low-key teaches lessons in the allegory style that’s common in the cultures of West Africa. Along those lines, playing the fool is a Black oral tradition; it’s part of the Trickster stories of our African ancestors.
Yet, because he was simultaneously “too Black” and “not Black enough,” Roosevelt Franklin lost his job. It seems even if you’re made of felt, it can be hard to be Black in America.