Franklin bashed: Whatever happened to the first black Muppet?
If you answered “Roosevelt Franklin,” you know your vintage Sesame Street. More specifically, the pic shows a Roosevelt Franklin hand puppet that was marketed and sold at retail in the early 1970s. And therein hangs our lesson for today.
A few weeks ago, I was engaging in one of my favorite pastimes: scouring the Web for pop-culture detritus while convincing myself I’m working. On this particular day, I came across a picture of the aforementioned hand puppet, and I felt deeply disoriented. As far as I could recall, Roosevelt Franklin hadn’t been merchandised like the other Sesame Street characters. In my memory, he was just an underappreciated also-ran – an even more obscure cousin to Charles Schulz’s similarly monikered Franklin.
Clicking further, I learned just how wrong I had been. According to Muppet Wiki, Roosevelt Franklin had initially been considered one of the show’s main characters. As such, he had been present and accounted for on store shelves, right alongside the Cookie Monster and Ernie and Bert. In fact, his 1971 record album, the wonderfully named The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, was the first Sesame Street LP devoted entirely to a single character.
Yet within a few seasons, he would be gone from the show. What happened? As it turns out, Roosevelt Franklin was just too black. Or too white. Or something. Nobody could seem to decide – and to some degree, maybe they still can’t.
Some parents’ groups, it’s said, were put off by the character’s supposedly unruly behavior. Certainly, Roosevelt Franklin was an energetic little guy, prone to busting into joyous rhymes and physical contortions while imparting one of his impassioned life lessons. The Muppet Wiki lists his pet issues as including “family, pride, respect, geography and not drinking poison.” (Right on!) But how do those qualities make him any different from, say, Grover?
The idea of Roosevelt Franklin as a negative influence strikes me as bizarre; from what I remember, I was pretty much in awe of the stature he enjoyed and the authority he conveyed. As a scrawny white kid who was a head shorter and a year younger than most of my classmates, I was usually petrified to go to school. Meanwhile, Roosevelt had his own school that was named after him (“Roosevelt Franklin … El-e-MEN-tary School,” went its lilting alma mater), and where he even got to teach classes. When off campus, he was sometimes accompanied by a pair of background singers to buttress his points — thus making him a kind of pint-sized James Brown, albeit with more lifelike hair.
Accusations that Sesame Street abetted kids’ anarchic impulses weren’t uncommon in those days. Early on, the educational establishment fretted that the show’s reliance on fast-paced sights and sounds segregated into bite-sized chunks was helping to winnow kids’ attention spans. (Watch those early episodes now, three decades past the heyday of MTV, and the pacing seems positively somnambulistic.) But again, why was the show proper able to weather those brickbats while Roosevelt Franklin was not?
Maybe because the poor kid was gettin’ it from all sides. While some viewers were worried that he and his entourage of inner-city acolytes were making hyperactivity fashionable, some members of the African-American intelligentsia had a completely different qualm. To be blunt, they tagged him an Uncle Tom. In a 1973 issue of Black World, Chicago schoolteacher turned doctoral candidate Barbara H. Stewart decried a supposed lack of authenticity in the portrayal of Roosevelt Franklin. The character and his mother “do not employ Black Language,” Stewart wrote, uttering instead a “stage Negro dialect” that struck her as the white man’s bastardization of the real thing. In particular, she noted, the Franklins were prone to use “she says” instead of “she say,” and “who was” instead of “who be.”
“[I]it is unreasonable to assume that any educational program devised by the oppressor can do anything other than serve his interests,” Stewart summed up. “The only effective educational program for the majority of Black children in this country must be one devised and controlled by Blacks who, although having acquired certain technical skills, continue to identify with the interests of the Black masses rather than with European interests.” Right, but what about that rat poison under the sink?
Modern-day progressives of all colors will be amused to learn that, yes, some of us used to talk this way. It didn’t seem to sway Stewart that Roosevelt Franklin and his mother were voiced by two African-American actors, Matt Robinson and Loretta Long — the show’s first Gordon and Susan. (God knows what Stewart would have made of The Cleveland Show.) But at the risk of sounding all Cosby-ish, the goal of Sesame Street was not to reinforce whatever language system its viewers might or might not be hearing at home, but rather to teach them the one they would encounter at school. The one they would need to know to at least get a leg up on that terrible European society.
Code-switching is one of the most effective tactics in American speech, yet to this day, it’s also one of the least appreciated. Look at the way some news outlets “correct” President Obama’s words in print after he has dropped a “g” for a very deliberate purpose. Bur for Stewart, helping kids to navigate two worlds at once was apparently not of interest. There was only one code they needed to know to maintain their ethnic purity, and it wasn’t the one Roosevelt Franklin was trading in at least 50 percent of the time. (Hey, some liberal critics complained that the show’s soundstage set wasn’t dingy enough, so there’s no accounting for some people’s ideas of empowerment.)
At his best, though, Roosevelt Franklin didn’t just teach kids to speak out of both sides of their mouth. He also taught them the virtues of tone and approach. In one sketch, he leads the students at Roosevelt Franklin Elementary in a highly illuminating call-and-response. “Everybody talk LOUD!” he directs, whereupon the class responds, “WE’RE ALL TALKIN’ LOUD!” “Everybody talk soft,” he then whispers, inspiring a hushed chorus of “We’re all talkin’ soft.” The takeaway isn’t a mere lesson in amplitude; the subtext is that aggression and stealth are valuable tools that one can use to get what one wants. No wonder some “European” parents felt threatened.
It’s funny to think that anyone could see such a sketch and pronounce Roosevelt Franklin a sellout. Watch it today, and it’s simply exhilarating in its, well, blackness. Even by the standards of a Jay-Z –dominated culture, the sheer, celebratory soul of that bit (and others in the RF oeuvre) is enough to make Bill O’Reilly break out in a nervous sweat. Ditto the witty triumphalism of the name Roosevelt Franklin itself, which simultaneously pays tribute to a progressive icon and literally reverses the nomenclature of white power.
So maybe it’s time for this little brother to make a comeback. Four decades on, there’s plenty he could still teach us about language, identity and livin’ the dream. The mere fact that we recognize such lessons as necessary is in part his doing. Whether we witnessed his legacy unfold in real time or merely inherited it unknowingly, we are all Roosevelt Franklin.
Days without a response from the publication that plagiarized from me and won’t come clean: 58.
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