When you think of Sesame Street, the first thoughts that come to mind are probably of Big Bird, Elmo, and Cookie Monster. But think about the human characters like Gordon and Susan, two of the Black characters the show has had throughout its long tenure. Characters like Gordon and Susan have helped many Black youth feel pride in their skin tone and ethnicity, and we have a Black psychiatrist, Dr. Chester Pierce, to thank.
Pierce was the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America and expressed his concern about how racism infiltrated every part of society, including television. The group formed in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and demanded that the American Psychiatry Association look at how it perpetuated racism through its scientific study and challenged it to engage with racism as a real, systematic issue. Part of the system, Pierce knew, was television.
According to a The Daily Beast article by Harvard University’s Anne Harrington, Pierce worried extensively about the power of television because, by 1969, most American homes were furnished with a television set, which meant kids of all ethnicities were being taught certain biases through programming. Pierce drew from his background in early childhood education and his knowledge of public health to call television an important “carrier” of messages that could cause a child’s mental health to suffer, particularly when it came to the mental health of Black children. His study of the number of hurtful representations of Blackness in TV programs led to Pierce coining the term we use today, “microaggression.”
Pierce became involved in helping design a new show for preschool kids, a show originally meant to help disadvantaged kids, particularly children of color, learn at home. Pierce’s contribution was to use the show as a type of inoculation against the rampant racism on TV and help kids, particularly Black kids, retain proper mental health and self-esteem. He became the senior advisor on the show we now know as Sesame Street.
With Sesame Street‘s creators, public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and psychologist Lloyd Morrisett, Pierce helped establish one of the most beloved children’s shows in America, which featured a multi-ethnic cast in its 1969 debut, a tradition that has continued throughout the show’s longevity.
Now, when you think of Sesame Street, think of the man who helped it become a powerful tool against racism and a gamechanger in how future generations would look at race, culture and themselves.
You can read the full story at The Daily Beast.
Photo: Children’s Television Workshop