A few years ago, I had the good fortune to visit the studios of “Sesame Street,” which has been a treasured part of children’s lives for nearly half a century. It is certainly entertaining, and more than a bit humbling, to meet face-to-face with those iconic puppets and realize they represent the best of what we all strive to be.
It flooded me with memories of watching the show back in my native Nigeria with my grandpa, who was a huge fan of the talking bird — Big Bird. And so as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Sesame Street,” I want to take some time to tip my hat to all those Jim Henson characters, who starred originally on “Sesame Street” as Muppets and who have made life more meaningful for millions of children, including this adult who grew up in Nigeria.
Kermit the Frog teaches us the value of friendship and originality. He challenges us to stay unique in a world that can seem to encourage conformity. Big Bird teaches us that we are all “birds of a different feather” and that life is not about how different we are, but about the difference we can make. The Count introduces us to the intrinsic value of money, but warns against the tendency to put too much value on material things. Even Oscar the Grouch consistently demonstrates the value of respect and tolerance for different ideas and different people.
“Sesame Street” shows us that the best way we can bring authenticity to ourselves is simply by being ourselves. Big Bird and his friends teach us to embrace the feelings of others and to celebrate the diversity of people and ideas that have made our country such a special place.
These days, it may often seem as if the lessons of “Sesame Street” we learned as children have been forgotten, or at least set aside for more expedient means. But these are exactly the times when we need to reconnect with our true values and with the Big Bird and Kermit within all of us. At times like these, we need to recognize that our great country was built on principles that have made us, as President Ronald Reagan so aptly and poetically put it, “that shining city on a hill.”
It is ironic that America has become a nation where immigrant families are being separated at our southern border.
Regardless of one’s politics or concerns about border security, we all cherish the values that have made our country special. As former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts once said, “America needs to be a place where all of us can feel a part of the American Dream. But this will not happen … if Americans are asked to accept what is immoral and wrong. America must put differences aside.”
Our country has always been anchored in goodness, good faith and the willingness to do whatever is required to lift each other, and ourselves, up. For five decades, “Sesame Street” has served as a mirror of the society we are striving to be. These beloved characters demonstrate our values, celebrate our strengths, and remind us that we can live together harmoniously.
Perhaps it’s time to change the channel and tune in once again to those lovable Muppets and monsters that show us how to be the best we can be. I found racial and ethnic harmony in the most unexpected place — “Sesame Street.” On this street lives a world of respectful puppets and kind friends where everyone is welcome. America as a nation continues to grapple with the power of and a reluctant appreciation for the greatest competitive advantage we possess — diversity. “Sesame Street” is an authentically colorblind community, where diversity is valued and inclusion is a natural part of daily living. It reflects the very best of America because it reveals our follies, showcases our strengths and reminds us that we all belong on the same street called humanity.
Benjamin Ola. Akande, Ph.D., is the assistant vice chancellor of International Programs-Africa at Washington University.