The PBS educational children’s TV series Sesame Street has never been one to shy away from tackling some serious topics during its more than 50 years on the air. From coping with grief to homelessness to HIV, some of the issues that Sesame Street has addressed have been complex and important and always handled in an age-appropriate way that kids could understand.
Adding his voice and talent as a puppeteer to Sesame Street is Afro-Latino Bradley Freeman Jr., who has recently joined the cast to give life to new puppet character Wesley Walker, a five-year-old Black Muppet who teams up with his father, Elijah, to discuss race and racism and what it means to be Black in America.
The idea to introduce characters like Wesley and Elijah Walker to Sesame Street started last summer with the racial unrest that took place after the murder of George Floyd, this according to Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop.
“We collectively as an organization decided that the only way that we could go about dismantling racism was by being bold and explicit,” Stallings told Time magazine. “If not Sesame, who’s going to address this? It felt like everyone had the same [idea]–‘Yes, we’ve got to do something about it, and the first way to address it is that we need to define racism for 3 year olds.’”
One of Wesley and Elijah’s first introductions is on a video that is part of a series called the ABCs of Racial Literacy. In the video, “Explaining What is Race?” father and son sit together on a park bench when Sesame Street favorite Elmo walks by for a chat.
After Elmo notices that some of the falling leaves in the park are red like his fur and brown like Wesley’s skin, he wonders why that is.
“Elmo wants to know why Wes’ skin is brown,” Elmo says.
Wesley replies: “I know why, Elmo. My mom and dad told me. It’s because of melanin.”
The three then start a conversation about what melanin is and how it gives everyone their skin, eye and hair color. They also talk about diversity and being part of the “human race.”
“The work to dismantle racism begins by helping children understand what racism is and how it hurts and impacts people,” Stallings says.