SWEEPIN’ THE CLOUDS AWAY
The Forgotten Tale of How Black Psychiatrists Helped Make ‘Sesame Street’
The children’s television show entranced preschoolers—and helped teach impressionable black kids.
In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, a newly formed group called the Black Psychiatrists of America began to challenge their white colleagues to think about racism in a new way. Its members had been discussing for some time the possibility of creating an organization that would address their lack of representation within the key bodies of American psychiatry. But now, as one of these men, Dr. Chester Pierce, later put it ”we anguished in our grief for a great moderate leader,” and it seemed that the time for moderation on their side was also over. In Pierce’s words: “As we listened to radio reports and called to various sections of the country for the on-the spot reports in inner cities, our moderation weakened and our alarm hardened.”
Racism had led directly to King’s assassination, and not only had white psychiatry consistently failed to take racism seriously; it had, in ways both subtle and overt, enabled it.
The decision was thus made to organize black psychiatrists into an independent body that would use tactics of the civil rights movement to force American psychiatry to acknowledge both its own racism and its professional responsibility to address the scourge of racism in the country.
On May 8, 1969, representatives from the Black Psychiatrists of America interrupted the trustees of the American Psychiatric Association while they were eating breakfast, and presented them with a list of demands. These included a significant increase in African-American representation on APA committees, task forces, and other positions of leadership; a call for the APA to commit itself to desegregating mental health facilities; and a demand that any individual member of the society who was found to be guilty of racial discrimination be barred from practicing psychiatry.
The most fundamental demand made that morning, however, was that the profession begin to think about racism differently than it had in the past. Racism did not just happen because some bad people had hateful beliefs. Unlike many of their liberal white colleagues, who were fascinated by the potential mental pathologies of individual racists, the Black Psychiatrists of America (drawing on new sociological work) insisted that racism was built into the systems and structures of American life, including psychiatry itself. For this reason, as some of them put it in 1973, “institutional change (as opposed to personality change) are needed to root out and eliminate racism.”
Chester Pierce—the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America—was most concerned about the pernicious influence of one institution in particular: television. By 1969, virtually every American family home had at least one set. As one commentator at the time observed: “American homes have more television sets than bathtubs, refrigerators or telephones; 95 percent of American homes have television sets.”
Small children of all ethnicities were growing up glued to TV screens. This worried Pierce, because he was not just a psychiatrist but also a professor of early childhood education. And from a public health standpoint, he believed, television was a prime “carrier” of demeaning messages that undermined the mental health of vulnerable young black children in particular. In fact, it was Pierce who first coined the now widely used term microaggression, in the course of a study in the 1970s that exposed the persistent presence of stigmatizing representations of black people in television commercials.
It seemed to Pierce, though, that the same technology that risked creating another generation of psychically damaged black children could also be used as a radical therapeutic intervention. As he told his colleagues within the Black Psychiatrists of America in 1970: “Many of you know that for years I have been convinced that our ultimate enemies and deliverers are the education system and the mass media.” “We must,” he continued, “without theoretical squeamishness over correctness of our expertise, offer what fractions of truth we can to make education and mass media serve rather than to oppress the black people of this country.”
Knowing how Pierce saw the matter explains why, shortly after the founding of the Black Psychiatrists of America, he became personally involved in helping to design a new kind of television show targeted at preschool children.
The show had had originally been conceived as a novel way of bringing remedial education into the homes of disadvantaged children, especially children of color. Pierce, though, saw a different kind of potential for a show like this: one that could directly counter and counteract the racist messages prevalent in the media of his time. The issues for him were even more personal than they might otherwise have been: at the time, he had a 3-year-old daughter of his own. He thus agreed to serve as a senior advisor on the show, working especially closely with the public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney, one of its two creators (the other was the psychologist Lloyd Morrisett).
In 1969, the show aired on public television stations across the country for the first time. It was called “Sesame Street.”
It was not only the most imaginative educational show for preschoolers ever designed: it was also, quite deliberately, populated with the most racially diverse cast that public television had ever seen. All the multi-ethnic characters— adults, children and puppets — lived, worked, and played together on a street in an inner-city neighborhood, similar (if in an idealized way) to the streets in which many minority children were growing up.
Each show opened with scenes of children of different races playing together. Episodes featured a strong black male role model (Gordon, a school teacher), his supportive wife, Susan (who later is offered the opportunity to develop a profession of her own), a good- hearted white storekeeper (Mr. Hooper) and more.
Within a few years, Hispanic characters moved into the neighborhood as well. As Loretta Moore Long (who played Susan) later reflected: ‘“Sesame Street’ has incorporated a hidden curriculum … that seeks to bolster the Black and minority child’s self-respect and to portray the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural world into which both majority and minority child are growing.”
The radical nature of this “hidden curriculum” did not go unnoticed. In May 1970, a state commission in Mississippi voted to not air the show on the state’s newly launched public TV network: the people of Mississippi, said some legislators, were not yet “ready” to see a show with such an interracial cast. The state commission reversed its decision after the originally secret vote made national news — though it took 22 days to decide to do so.
“Sesame Street” would go on to become the most successful children’s show of all time. Over time, though, the radical mental health agenda fueling its creation was largely forgotten. Later critics would instead increasingly suggest that the show, as a straightforward experiment in early education, benefited white middle-income children more than its primary target audience of disadvantaged minorities, and in that sense had arguably partly misfired.
Chester Pierce, however, never lost sight of the hidden curriculum that, for him, had always been at the heart of “Sesame Street.” “Early childhood specialists,” he reflected in 1972, “have a staggering responsibility … in producing planetary citizens whose geographic and intellectual provinces are as limitless as their all-embracing humanity.”
What mattered most about “Sesame Street” was not the alphabet songs, the counting games or the funny puppets. What mattered most was its vision of an integrated society where everyone was a friend and treated with respect.
The program had originally been a radical experiment in the use of mass media to give the youngest generation of Americans their first experience of what Martin Luther King Jr. had famously called the Beloved Community: one based on justice, equal opportunity and positive regard for one’s fellow human beings, regardless of race, color or creed.
Anne Harrington is the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the history of science and medicine at Harvard University, director of undergraduate studies in her department, and faculty dean of Pforzheimer House, a 400-strong undergraduate community on the Harvard campus. She is the author of four books and numerous articles.
This story is part of an Undark series in which book authors share stories that didn't make it into their books. Here, Anne Harrington shares a story that didn’t make it into her latest book “Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness,” (W. W. Norton & Company.)
This story was originally published in Undark.