The Curious Case of Roosevelt Franklin
One of the things I love about Sesame Street is how deeply integrated it is. There’s something wonderful about multiple generations of kids growing up watching kind, confident and accomplished parental and authority figures played by African-American and Hispanic actors interact with the puppety oddballs that are the show’s main attraction.
For nearly a half century, Sesame Street has been a racial utopia where children and adults of all races, religions and cultures happily co-exist with monsters, grouches and freakishly oversized, flightless birds. The show’s commitment to multiculturalism, racial equality and combating racism and bigotry has taken on many forms and extends to the show’s many spin-offs around the world.
Actually, it would be more accurate to say that on a human level, Sesame Street is wonderfully inclusive and racially integrated. When it comes to Muppets, it’s a different, much more complicated story.
As some of y’all might know, or even remember, assuming you’re older than me, which is possible if not likely (I’m REALLY old), Sesame Street had a black Muppet in the early 1970s named Roosevelt Franklin created and voiced by cast-member Matt Robinson (the first Gordon) who took center stage in segments set at Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School, where the precociously wise and with it Roosevelt Franklin would hip his fellow students to all manner of groovy information involving counting and the ABCs and safety and Africa.
Roosevelt Franklin was clearly brought in to help integrate the show’s puppet cast so there’s something both perverse and counter-productive about segregating the character from the other Muppets and placing him in an explicitly black context like a rowdy and boisterous inner city elementary school.
As a character, Roosevelt Franklin was smart. Roosevelt Franklin was confident to the point of being cocky. Roosevelt Franklin was popular and admired by his peers and mother. Unfortunately for the character’s cultural longevity, Roosevelt Franklin was incredibly stereotypical, to an almost comic degree.
How stereotypical is Roosevelt Franklin? He’s more stereotypical than the characters in Keenan Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, who were designed as outsized caricatures of funky soul brothers and soul sisters.
Forget that jive turkey William Shakespeare. No, Roosevelt Franklin was truly the first rapper, since in the earliest days of Hip Hop, he was treating classmates and the squares at home to rhyming, rhythmic lessons delivered in an exaggerated inner city hipster patter. Roosevelt scatted. He rhymed in a way that anticipated both Hip Hop and poetry slams.
Roosevelt Franklin did not walk places like a ho-hum, ordinary human or Muppet. No, Roosevelt Franklin swaggered. Roosevelt Franklin strutted. Roosevelt Franklin glided. Roosevelt Franklin danced when he moved because he felt the rhythm deep in his soul.
Roosevelt Franklin similarly did not speak the Queen’s English, preferring instead slang designed to separate the cool cats from the squares and the with it from the hopelessly dense. Roosevelt Franklin’s classmates and colleagues were crafted along similarly stereotypical lines, which makes watching Roosevelt Franklin segments in 2018 a fascinating, deeply uncomfortable experience.
Then again, Roosevelt Franklin was obviously a fairly problematic character at the time of his introduction as well. If you Google “Roosevelt Franklin”, “Roosevelt Franklin racist” is one of the first things that pops up. Watching these segments nearly a half century later, it’s easy to see how people could look at the same sketches and see either an appalling modern-day minstrel show that depicted young black men and women as strutting, rhyming, jive-talking cool cats and funky soul sisters or a deeply empowering portrayal of African-American life that was fun and vibrant and unapologetically black.
During his early to mid 1970s heyday Roosevelt Franklin even got his own album in the form of 1971’s The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, Gordon’s Friend from Sesame Street. It’s an utterly delightful exercise in joyful, black is beautiful funk and soul that comes close to single-handedly justifying the controversial character.
In the comments section for Roosevelt’s clips on Youtube you find your usual grousing from thin-skinned white people angry that something they enjoyed as children has now been reconciled to the dustbin of history on account of being problematic, if not outright racist, but there are also a lot of affectionate reminiscences from black commenters writing about how empowering it was to see the black experience represented onscreen, even in such cartoonish form.
Is Roosevelt Franklin racist? I honestly cannot say. He was certainly created with the best intentions and performed with enormous care and enthusiasm by kind, sensitive artists out to make the world a better, more equitable place. But sometimes good intentions aren’t enough.
For better but mostly for worse, Roosevelt Franklin was a product of his time but it does not speak well of Sesame Street that in the four decades since Roosevelt Franklin more or less disappeared, the show has yet to successfully introduce a black muppet character into its ensemble, and has made surprisingly few efforts to even try.
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