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February 24, 2012

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This Week in Sesame Street: Gordon and African-American Fatherhood

Matt Robinson, Hal Miller, and Roscoe Orman, who have all played Sesame Street's Gordon.

Thursday was the birthday of Gordon, the beloved father figure to the children and monsters that live on Sesame Street. Over the years Gordon has been played by different men: Matt Robinson, Hal Miller and, currently, Roscoe Orman.  In addition to their warmth, kindness and strength, they’ve all had one thing in common: Matt, Hal and Roscoe are all African-American. This is hardly a coincidence. The character Gordon was conceived with the intention of presenting a more positive, dignified image of African-American masculinity than many children were exposed to at the time. In honor of Black History Month and Gordon’s birthday, we’re taking a look back at the social significance and impact of the character Gordon.

When Joan Ganz Cooney conceived of Sesame Street, she did so in the wake of 1965’s Moynihan Report, a report by Assistant Secretary of Labor and future U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The report claimed that, in the black community, a combination of out-of-wedlock births and absentee fathers were creating a cycle of poverty. If the show was going to fulfill its mission of providing early childhood education for underserved communities, it was going to have to tackle the questions surrounding the black family head on.

Gordon Robinson, who was named after photographer, filmmaker and civil rights activist Gordon Parks, and his wife Susan were the answer. As Roscoe Orman, who has played Gordon on Sesame Street since 1974, wrote in his memoirs, “what the character most significantly symbolizes, his most distinguishing and praiseworthy attribute, may lie in the simple fact that he is a man of African descent who for over three decades has been a respected and beloved father figure to young people of all races and all social classes all across America and beyond.” When the show began, many portrayals of African-American males in television, film and media were largely negative, whereas, in the words of Orman, Gordon “provided a model of patience, understanding, and civic responsibility.”

Michael Davis, the author of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, even suggested that Gordon may have served as a model for President Barack Obama when he worked as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.

Meanwhile Susan, Gordon’s wife, served as an exemplary model of African-American womanhood and together they created an enduring image of a black family that is loving and stable.

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