Todd Steven Burroughs
206 min readDec 25, 2023

A PEOPLE’S NOVEL: At The Dark End of Sesame Street: The Autobiography of Roosevelt Franklin
Coup Tube: The Prose Ballad of Roosevelt Franklin)

(A Satirical-ish Fan-Fiction, Kind-of-Historical, Last Coming-Of-Age-During-Black-Power Memoir)

Todd Steven Burroughs



  • This novel is a nonprofit work of fanfiction written and posted for free online consumption, and hopefully enjoyment, under Fair Use. Roosevelt Franklin is a fantasy puppet character created by a real Black man, Matt Robinson, for use by the Children’s Television Workshop, now known as the Sesame Workshop. Sesame Street is a creation of the Children’s Television Workshop for the Public Broadcasting Service and HBO and is trademarked by Sesame Workshop. The Muppets were created by Jim Henson and the CTW. All Sesame Street Muppet characters and images showcased within are trademarked and copyrighted by the Sesame Workshop. All song lyrics, poems, or other writings not from the author are copyright their respective owners and used here under Fair Use. The comic strip Peanuts is copyrighted by the estate of Charles M. Schulz and is used here under Fair Use. No copyright nor trademark infringement is intended. Story copyright Todd Steven Burroughs © 2024. All material presented in the Appendices is copyrighted by their individual creators/owners/publishers/posters and is presented here under Fair Use.




You played hookie from school and you can’t go out to play, yeah
Mama said, for the rest of the week, in your room you gotta stay, yeah
Oh ho, now you feel like the whole world’s pickin’ on you
But deep down inside, you know it ain’t true
You’re in punishment

’Cause your mother wants to raise you in the right way, yeah
But you don’t care
’Cause you already made up your mind you wanna run away yeah
You’re on your way, runaway child, running wild
Runaway child running wild

Better go back home where you belong
Roaming through the city going nowhere fast, you’re on your own at last
Hey, it’s gettin’ late, where will you sleep?
You’re gettin’ kinda hungry, you forgot to bring something to eat
Oh, lost with no money you start to cry
remember, you left home wantin’ to be grown, so dry your weeping eyes
Sirens screamin’ down neon-lighted streets
You want your mama
Run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run
Are they looking for you?
You’re frightened and confused
I want my mama
Run, run, run, run, run, run, run
But she’s much too far away, she can’t hear a word you say
You’ve heard some frightening news on the radio

About little boys running away from home
And the parents don’t see them no more
You wanna stop to hitch a ride, I know

But your mama told you never trust a stranger
And you don’t know which way to go
Streets are dark and deserted, not a sound nor sign of life
Oh how you long to hear your mother’s voice, ’cause you’re lost and alone
But remember, you made the choice, runaway child, running wild
You better go back home where you belong
He he he, oh, runaway child, running wild
You better go back home where you belong
You’re lost in this
great big city
Go back home where you belong
Not one familiar face, ain’t it a pity
Go back home where you belong
Oh, runaway child running wild
You better go back home where you belong
Oh yeah, my girl
Mama, mama, please, come and sit here by me
Oh but she’s much too far away, she can’t hear a word you say
Oh, you’re frightened and confused, which way will you choose

— “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” by The Temptations

Just another Saturday night in the Harlem ghetto, circa November 1968, One Year Before…..
“I’m gonna kill you n — — s!!!”
Baby Breeze would be laughing right now, but he’s too busy running. So am I.
Running down Amsterdam….153rd Street…..154th Street…
Sooooooo mad at this m — — — — -a right now. We party-crash in Harlem — Baby Breeze talked his way in by naming a couple of names of folks — and of course he has to try to steal the host’s girl. Rapping to her right in front of the dude, not thinking about whether he’d be packing heat!!
152nd Street…..
Good thing the host and his boys can’t run worth s — t! Me and Baby Breeze used to run track in high school! These n —--s must use a lot of these Gypsy Cabs! Wait, there’s one now….
“Get in, Baby Breeze!”
Slam! Slam!
“Take off to Penn Station!” said Baby Breeze. “We gotta get outta here!”
This crazy….I know he’s not trying to go to that Jersey City party after this fiasco….
We both crack up.
Breeze sits back in his seat. “Glad you’re getting in the spirit of things, My Mello.”
I don’t know whether to hug him or slug him. Baby Breeze is that wild card you only like to be around once in a while. He’s the kind of brother who knows what it’s like to have both a cop and a n — — r on the street put a gun to your head.


Description of him? Like me, always searching. From Jersey City. Worked his way up in The Life from boosting to selling Horse but he doesn’t use it; he prefers joints. Has a brother in the Nation of Islam, who knows all about the assassination of Malcolm X. Breeze’s indifferent about criminality: just sees it as an un-taxed, un-sanctioned form of capitalism. He likes to pull out my wild side, but paradoxically he calls me “My Mello.” (He calls everyone else “Bruh Man.”) He had a thing for Tootsie Rolls and pimp hats he likes to wear on Saturdays. (He wore one during our party adventure.) On his 18th birthday, he went to the shooting range with 100 glossy photos of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and Birmingham top cop Bull Connor as targets.
So you are who you run with? Okay, so here’s three quotes that sum up Baby Breeze at this present moment:
• “Life’s too short to worry about bulls — t — whether it’s yours or anybody else’s. It’s what I try to tell Roosevelt, who lives in his own head too much. Life is about today, so go for yours ’cause I’m gonna go for mine. I don’t worry about the future.”
• “What’s life about to me? Partying. Pussying. Running football and basketball plays. Sometimes just running.”
• “I love Catholic School girls because they give the easiest access.”


So what are my quotes? Well, I feel caught between winning and losing. I don’t have a present or a future. I’m just here, bored. There is nothing around me but bulls — t. I’m tempted by The Life but I know that’s not a future. But what it is, what it will be?
Originally from Jersey City but family moved to New York before we lost our parents. Bed-Stuy Do or Die. I can’t shake this feeling of failure but I don’t know the keys to success.
Like running, like my bike. I just got my GED last year and have kept this bulls — t job sorting mail at the Post Office. It’s some bulls — t, but it pays the bills. My sister and I have always worked since Pop and Moms died so we can stay in Bed Sty.
Most changes in my life have been s — t, but one was great — The NJ PATH train! Now I can bounce around my three favorite spots with ease. I like bouncing around between Jersey City, Newark and New York because there are real Black people there. I can choose to bring my bike or not.
Lotta “Habari Gani” s — t going around. Not into it. But this drug-pimp bulls — t is worse. I don’t worry about getting beat down by some Stanley Crouch recording.
I wanna know the key to success that doesn’t involve The Life. I got too many people I know in The Life already. Like Mil and Baby Breeze.


Some little sisters really get on your nerves. I have a sister that I wish would get on my nerves more. Mary Frances is very independent, very quiet, and very emotionally self-sufficient. You think that living every day with someone, you wouldn’t say, “I’d like to get to know her better,” but that’s the case. It’s been hard on us since losing our parents last year to a car accident. We don’t talk as much as we used to, since we have different work schedules. (We are dealing with blue-collar work realities of being a cog in the system’s wheel: the U.S. Post Office [my soon-to-be former job], the factory, the MTA, transit, bus driver, nurses aide [her current job], teacher, preacher, social worker, welfare worker, etc.) With so much happening so quietly, I get the feeling silence is our expression of grief.
She loves television, even now more than ever. Loves it. Whenever she’s not scribbling on a pad, she’s glued to the TV. (I do notice she uses the pad during commercials, when the spell seemingly wears off.) She only now has just stopped yelling at me to come to the TV when “Colored” is on. She almost had a heart attack when Star Trek premiered and she saw Lt. Uhura. From then on, she was the biggest fan of that show you would ever find. She even went and bought a short red dress, just like Nichelle Nichols wore.


It’s now Sunday morning, and Baby Breeze just busted loose to his bed after our latest adventure at that party. Since I’m still wired, I go check out Beasey. I like talking to Beasey, who we sometimes call The Rev. He got out of The Life for the Lord but he’s still got a lotta street n — -a in him. But before I get to just me and him….


One of the things I loved to do was get together with the boys on a Friday night and shoot the s — t. Sometimes it would be at my place in Bed-Stuy when Mary Frances was out with her girlfriends and sometimes it would be in Beasey’s trailer in Newark. It didn’t really matter to us: Friday night was a tradition for bonding. Saturday night was for tomcatting, for proving you were still on this earth and capable of great things. But Friday was kicking back, relaxing. Putting on some Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, pulling out chips and dips and beer. Just a reminder that we may all be soloists — Beasey and Baby Breeze and Mil and I — but we are still part of a quartet. And our sound was unique.
I know that sounds deep but what would really happen is that we would get some weed and sit around in a circle, and play Truth or B — — t. It was our Ripley’s Believe It Or Not meets Truth or Dare. We would tell stories about ourselves and the b — — t we got in and out of. They seemed mostly true, but so outlandish that we knew there were some bulls — t mixed in with the realness.


Baby Breeze: Well, you know before we got into The Life, me and this m — — — -r over here ran a legit hustle.
Mil: (Laughs). Oh, man, those were the days.
Baby Breeze: Yeah, we couldn’t believe how much money was in dem sock-hops! It was so easy — just rent a grown-up and get him or her to rent a hall, make some punch, show up with some platters to spin and a coupla speakers, hire some big m — — — — rs to be the bouncers, and then split the money!
Mil: Remember how we could leave for your house, and we’d have those bags filled with dollar bills?
Baby Breeze: I always used to think we’d get shanked. So we’d take a gypsy to your house. Then we’d spread the dollars all on the kitchen table, and count those s — -ts up.
Mil: I thought you and I would never be tight because of our big fight when first we met Bease.
Beasey (laughs). Yep. I remember: Channel 7’s
The 4:30 Movie versus Channel 9’s The Million Dollar Movie. I met them breaking up this fight. These dumb n — — s almost put each other in the Emergency Room over that argument. I’m so glad I got saved so I don’t argue over dumb s — -t like that anymore.
Mil: The three of us quickly moved on from those penny-ante hustles and graduated into The Life.

Beasey paused. He didn’t like to think about that period, where he was awash in sin, wanting to drink up whole pools of piss and blood.
Beasey: I’m gonna tell y’all, believe it or not, my favorite story from that period.
Mil rolled his eyes because he knew what was coming.
Beasey: Me and Baby were meeting this dude who had some serious Horse. We had robbed from a lotta people to have the money to buy the Horse from this dude. We were ready for a big score. This was it. We had heard about this dude — an albino by the name of Sun God — from a brother we trusted, who had never steered us wrong before. So I called him on a pay phone. It was funny, because I never forgot his phone greeting: “Yes, Commissioner.” Just like from that Batman TV show! It was wild. He set up an appointment with us and gave us the current password.
So me and Baby go up to his apartment and knock on the door and say that day’s password, which was “P — -y Galore.” So he let us in and he went into the back room to get the Horse. He wasn’t afraid to leave us in the front room because it was just an ordinary front room — old black-and-white TV, coffee table, etc. I took a look at the coffee table and there was all these books spread out on it. I figured this was like how the doctor when you were a kid gave you candy, or how doctor’s magazines in the lobby. So I quickly swiped a couple of paperback books and put them in my coat pockets.
Sun God came out with the Horse and gave him our loot. We never had to use the guns tucked into our pants that all three of us clearly displayed.
Baby Breeze: That was some quality Horse. We made a killing that week.
Beasey: Yeah, we made a killing, all right….

He paused. Then said:
Beasey: But if something died in me it was also born. Because the two books I swiped had covers that fascinated me. So I went home and read them. Both books were about The Life but how to go beyond it. All this Black Power stuff that’s happening right now? They predicted it!
Me: “What were the books?”
Beasey: I’m sure one you’ve heard of: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I couldn’t believe how that book spoke to me. I wanted to read it because my pops was always telling me about Marcus Garvey and how serious he was. My pops claimed he was in the crowd that night in Harlem where Malcolm led that march to the hospital over that brother that got vamped by the cops!
Me: “Yeah, OK.”
Beasey: No, seriously….The way Malcolm talked about that night was the way Pops talked about it. The other book was called The Spook Who Sat By The Door, and it’s a fiction piece about how a brother learns CIA skills and brings it back home to create revolution, just like those Panthers are trying today. Those two books got me thinking and paying attention and eventually out of The Life.
Mil: Yeah, sometimes I wish you had never read those d — n books! But his loss was me and Baby’s gain. That Horse was really quality and Sun God and me set up a great system that made real money until he died.
Beasey: So, truth or bull crap?

Me: “Will, Mil and Baby Breeze confirmed the first part so it really doesn’t count. But I call bulls — t on that Malcolm march story.”
Beasey smiled. I was a year or two away from reading those books.


Mil: Okay, my turn! I’m gonna tell you about my fine-ass cousin Stephanie. She is a triple threat — she’s pretty, can sing and has the tiggest biddies I’ve ever seen — 36DD or some s — t like that. When we were younger, she snuck out one night when she was staying with us and I was gonna tell but she said if I didn’t snitch she’d take off her top and bra and jiggle them in front of me for five minutes. I almost passed out from happiness and of course I didn’t say a word! And it goes without saying that she’s my favorite cousin!
Everybody laughed. We all knew it was hard to have a fine cousin that you couldn’t f — k. Everybody either had a story like this from their teenage years — or wanted one.
Mil: Anyway, Stephanie wanted to sing at The Apollo. Some family knew Rev. Ike and others knew Frankie Crocker from WWRL. Stephanie met with them separately and they strongly implied that they could help her if she met privately with them on Saturday at the Theresa. So she set up the rooms, making them adjunct. But that’s not all she set up.
She set Rev. Ike’s appointment for 3 p.m. and she set Frankie’s for 3:30 p.m. When Ike came into the room, Stephanie, who was in a silk slip that was too tight for her body, immediately pulled his pants down and slobbed his knob but good. Reverend was so discombobulated he barely remembered his name. Then she threw him on the bed, threw handcuffs on him attached to the bed and said, “I’ll be right back, baby! I’m gonna get my baby oil!” And then ran next door and did the same thing to Frankie!

She then went back to Rev. Ike’s room and said to the bathroom, “You can come out now.” And I came out and took a picture of the good Reverend, who was fit to be tied for real. I then went next door and took Crocker’s picture.
Needless to say, Stephanie got to sing at the Apollo. She was the warm-up for Amateur Night for a whole month! They even put her name in tiny letters on the marquee!!!

Baby Breeze: Now that….is some bulls — t!
We all laughed.
Me: An old story, but well told! Of course, if she sucked their d — ks, what was the big deal?
Mil shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and has another toke.
Beasey: Ida B. Wells, who was a famous journalist a long time ago, told a story like that. A minister had been caught counseling another man’s wife at the man’s home while he was at work. The minister ran off so fast he didn’t have time to take his clothes with him. The mad husband was a rail conductor, so he took the minister’s clothes and nailed it to the railway car and told the community what had happened.
Me: Dammmnnn…..
Beasey: That’s truth. Ida didn’t play. She wouldn’t even go to a church if the minister had a bad rep like that one. And she’d publicly call out any minister who tried to defend someone like that.

Okay, I got a real short story about tig biddies, in a way. And it’s true.


So I was at the Bridge Club and I ran into Bill Franklin, WNJR’s newsman. He knew me casually, but he decided to confide in me that day. He was telling me about Immamu Baraka and what he was doing in Newark. I liked Baraka, so I wanted to hear the skinny from those in the know.
He told me how Baraka was affiliated with this guy Maulana Karenga. Karenga’s group, US, does some crazy s — t. Franklin told me how shocked Baraka was when he went to L.A. and saw those US women walking around topless, a couple with visible cigarette burns. Some cult s — t.
He told me that Baraka said he had to get out of that scene immediately. And he did. Now he’s trying to build a sort of political united front, locally and nationally.
I just knew LeRoi as a poet. But I guess we all play more than one instrument.
Baby Breeze: Man, your stories are too much like school! That’s
waaay too boring to be anything but true! But how about this?


So I was on the run because Steve, a big m — — — — r, told me if he ever caught me with his girl again he’d kick my ass and he did. In Harlem. So Steve caught up to me on 126th Street, so I ran up the back stairs in the Apollo and banged on the door for someone to let me in.
Someone did. “WHERE YOU HAVE BEEN?” the dude yelled at me. Before I could answer he grabbed me and two women started taking off my clothes. I was too shocked to respond and was curious as to why these two chicks wanted to see what I was working with. They gave me some Tarzan s — t to wear — beads, loincloths, a spear — the whole nine. “What the f — k is this?” I thought.
I was about to ask one of the women who dressed me for her number but both of them grabbed me and put me in some sort of African chorus line backstage! I almost pissed on myself when I realized I was going to make my Apollo debut!
This couple came out in front of us. I assumed they were the leads. They were quite attractive for middle-aged folks. You could tell the wife, who looked sophisticated but not a b — — h, was a real looker back in the day; it’s a good thing the dude was tall and distinguished-looking.
A guy in the wings — the director? — gave us a countdown….. “Three, two, one….”
So the curtains opened, the orchestra swelled, and the couple came out to do some poetry. I don’t know who the hell they were, but they did poetry the way crooners sing! They were great!
I missed some cue and all of a sudden I had to figure out in a split-second the chant all of us store-Africans were doing, softly.
People lost their minds with applause! Some guys came up with flowers for that fine, petite sister. And then the announcer, who sounded like a radio deejay, mentioned that some short, Puerto Rican-looking guy from the State Legislature was here and had some sort of plaque for the poets. One guy in the chorus was annoyed by this for some reason, saying something derogatory about him and talking about how much he loved Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, but I didn’t catch it.
So that’s how I became a Habari Gani person against my will.
Mil: Bulls — t. I’ve seen this plot on a TV show at least three times.
Beasey: It’s bull crap mixed in with some truth. Roosevelt, you break the tie!
Me: Mostly true. So we’ll have to use the horseshoe rule.


Okay, so “hear” is mine. I got a Habai Gani story, too. I was tomcatting in Jersey City, so I thought I’d go to whatever “Habari Gani” rally and see what was happening! So there were some Panthers there — male and female. The female Panthers were fine, but they looked like they could kick your ass.
Anyway, there were some gang members there — white gang members. I think they were called The Romans. They came in like they owned the joint
and glared at the Panthers. I thought there was going to be a rumble for real.
The Panthers looked at the Romans hard. A leader got up and I thought he was going to talk that “Habari Gani” s — t. What he actually talked about was how hard the blue-collar white man had it in America and how he was getting shafted, too. The only way out, said the Panther leader, was to unite and go after the Big Shots who were controlling everything.
This was an interesting coat to pull on those pasta m — — — — -s. Here they were, trying to control a whole state from City Halls to the rackets, but they still had to deal with that they weren’t really Americans to the Big Shots. We can’t date their daughters, the Panther leader said, but they can’t date the bankers’ daughters. We lived in their former ghettos. We have their former jobs. But s — t is not fair to any of us.

Man, you would have been surprised at how hard those m — — — — — -s clapped! I mean, they don’t like moolies and they never will, but they heard something there that they identified with.
The rally took place without incident. And I even saw out of the corner of my eye the Panther leader meeting with the Roman leader.
Beasey: I don’t know whether to call bull crap on that or not. Italians can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. You know about Anthony Imperiale in Newark, with his Italian militia and talking ‘bout “Martin Luther Coon.”
Me: Yeah, but think about all the stuff that Fred Hampton is trying to do in Chicago, creating what he calls a Rainbow Coalition between the Panthers there and other groups….”

And that’s how these sessions went. Later on, when I became old, I began to think about how we sat in a circle participating in very old rituals without knowing that’s what we were doing. I now see we were all outsiders looking for keys and doors. We were only insiders with each other, and it felt good for just one night a week to be free not only from the tumult outside but the storms within ourselves.


Beasey is always doing some writing of some type. Sometimes he finishes things and sometimes he doesn’t. he told me it’s like a term from the comics and other literature: that like all of us, he always leaves some dangling plotlines to pick up later.
He let me read an unfinished essay about his life:
I learned a lot about life by being on both sides of it: The death side and the life side. Jesus pulled me back from a cliff. I wish I had been a better father. It’s why I’m close to Roosevelt. His parents died only such a short time ago, so I’m glad to give him some guidance. Being with Roosevelt gives me another chance, an opportunity for redemption.
He’s an interesting cat because he’s his own preacher! He likes writing sayings that he hangs around his trailer. Stuff like:
• “When you have an opportunity, seize it because it’s not coming back.”
• “You must get out of your way to walk straight into your destiny.”
• “Running is not progress; stillness is, because then you can hear instructions.”
• “A rock thrown is more powerful than any speech.”

When I got to his trailer, I saw he was in the middle of his service. A few scattered people, mostly from the trailer park but a few old friends of his, were in the pews. He was playing a record of The Staple Singers as a fill-in to a choir. He was dressed in his normal tattered dashiki, which he wore as a tribute to Joseph’s many-colored coat.
He then stopped the record and went up to his makeshift podium. I was right on time for the sermon. He spotted me and gave me a wink before beginning:
“My message for today comes from Second Corinthians 3:12: Since we have such a hope, we are very bold.
“This is a time of great boldness. Our people are fighting for their rights. We do not agree with every organization, every religion, every creed. But we haven’t seen this level of work since the days of Marcus Garvey.”
Beasey listed all of the things that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Committee for a Unified Newark and the Black Panther Party, among other groups, were doing in Black communities across the country. I was surprised he didn’t mention Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket, because I knew he was a big Jesse fan and liked his work in Chicago.
And, on cue, he started talking about the alliances the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party under chairman Fred Hampton was making with gang members and with Breadbasket.
“Martin Luther King is no longer here to be bold for us. So we are going to have to ask The Lord for the strength to do the things we need done. From now on, we will have to be our own leaders and followers.”
After the service, Beasey and I went to get a cup of coffee in his trailer, a kind of tradition that had developed between us whenever I came by.
“So what’s shaking?” he asked.
“Same ol’, same ol’,” I said.
He chuckled. “That will be changing real soon. Y’see, God has a plan for you and he shared it with me in a dream.”
Oh, here we go. The Rev is not normally one for spookism.
“Uh-huh. Let’s hear it.”
“All I know is something big is coming for you. And when I selfishly asked God what was my plan, he said, ‘Your plan is that you get to see what’s coming next.’”
“Well,” I said, “That’s a hell — uh, heck — of a vision.”
“Yep. So do what I do when I’m looking for something. Check all the newspapers, because they contain the pain of the past — the news, the promise of the present — those big ads, and the adventure of the future — the classifieds.”
The advice was just weird enough to take. Plus, I was just that bored.

So, pretending I was a mystery I was going to solve myself, I returned to Newark Penn Station, where the PATH was. But this time my route was to the big inside newsstand. I plopped down a buck, grabbed some newsprint, and sat my ass down with another coffee at one of the diners inside. There was nothing of my fate in The Newark Star-Ledger, The Newark Evening News, The New York Daily News and The New York Post. So I checked out three local Black weeklies, The New Jersey Afro-American, The Herald-News and….
….I saw in The I’ll-Be-D — ned News (the nickname some Harlemites called The New York Amsterdam News) that some white people in Manhattan wanted Black males just my age for a “consistent acting opportunity.” I knew no acting, but I did know I was tired of my job. I had seen so many Black people get hired after Martin Luther King’s death. Bloods I knew lied about their educations and had as a result instant entry-level white-collar employment. This ad didn’t seem to require any education: we all read in magazines that actors were notorious for being high school graduates, and sometimes not even that!
Harlem was either the home or the waystation for so many actors and actresses — Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Eartha Kitt, Maya Angelou. It was a time when sisters and brothers were going through open doors — why shouldn’t I try?
I showed up at a non-descript place in New York City. There were only 50 of us because it was just a print ad. If had been radio, there would be hundreds, thousands. A group of white people interviewed us one by one and gave us a script to read. The reading requirement knocked out 40 of us. Out of the 10 of us left, we were all chosen to be producer assistants.
So we showed up at a place called the Children’s Television Workshop. Another group of whites gave us a second reading test, but this time we had to act it out. To this day, I don’t know what happened to the other nine brothers. I think they became part of the unionized production crew. I never had time to talk to those brothers because I had to deal with this weird kid’s show the whites were creating from the ether.


Sing a song
Sing out loud
Sing out strong
Sing of good things, not bad
Sing of happy, not sad

Sing a song
Make it simple

To last your whole life long
Don’t worry that it’s not good enough
For anyone else to hear
Sing a song

La la la la la, la la la la la la
La la la la la la la
La la la la la, la la la la la la
La la la la la la la…….

— “Sing A Song,” From Roosevelt’s New Job

Where I’m from, going Downtown was like going to Oz, or the Looking Glass. It was like wading into a strange ocean. My late rabbit was an on-time staff representative from the Workshop, a young white dirty-blonde in glasses, a mini-skirt and a ponytail. She took me to the third floor. I saw a corridor that was filled with offices. In the offices were all white men and a couple of white women, all in business attire. We met a white man who introduced me to a group of white men in what was clearly the control room. Intros went so fast in the booth I didn’t really have a chance to look down through the glass to the set.

Shake, shake, nice to meet you, shake, shake….Man, do any Black people work here?
Me and the rep then descended to the first floor — the set.
“Now the fun part begins,” she said.
I smiled. “Solid!”
“I think you should definitely meet our Gordon and Susan first.”
She walked me around the set. The soundstage was huge. A score of white men and women were setting up cameras and lights. I saw a director’s chair, and it looked exactly like it did in the movies. My eyes spotted a hippie-looking dude in the corner with a bunch of……strangely-colored monsters???
The set was trying hard to look like a Uptown block. There was a street sign, a garbage can, a kind of alleyway that was closed off and on the other end, a playground and a corner store. There were some pre-school-aged kids — white, Black, Puerto Rican — who were quietly playing. A young white girl was swinging from a tire that was hung in the air from a rope attached to a pipe. It was trying to look “urban”; it was a galaxy away from that phony-ass Captain Kangaroo or Bozo the Clown and that kinda bulls — t.
I saw this brother and sister at the top of the stairs on something that was trying hard to look like a brownstone. They were having what seemed to be an intense discussion.
“Roosevelt, this is Loretta Long and Matt Robinson.”
Loretta seemed like an African queen. She seemed to be wearing a dashiki even when she wasn’t. I think I had seen her on Channel 13’s Soul! once or twice. She had a big Afro on that live music show. I couldn’t tell whether she was wearing a wig.
“Hello, young brother,” she said, sounding both serious and friendly.
“What’s up, Young Blood?” said Matt, who also had a large Afro. He gave me five, which felt weird on this so-called street.
Both of them exuded smoothness so I knew immediately we were gonna be cool.
Matt was dressed in a white shirt with an open black vest over it. He seemed like the brother to create his own style.
The duo seemed very middle-class but somehow not bougie. My just-passed-the-GED ass had to remember to make my subject and verb agree around them.
The rep introduced me like this, “This is Roosevelt Franklin. He will be playing Roosevelt Franklin.” Loretta chuckled. The rep then walked away, saying, “I’ve got some other duties. You’ll meet everybody as long as you stay here. Take care, congratulations and welcome.”
Pause. Now it was time to talk Black talk about The Man was trying to do with us.
“So you’ll be playing yourself,” said Loretta. “That’s good.”
“We still wear the mask,” said Matt. Loretta smiled and nodded. It would take two years to understand that Matt was making a reference to a poem by Black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
I had to get my bearings, so I asked:
“So what is this Children’s Television Workshop?”
Loretta and Matt looked at each other and smiled.
“Something that white people made up, what else?” asked Gordon, giving a wink.
“Yeah, they do that, don’t they?” added Loretta.
The three of us laughed. Okay, we may be on a fake staircase of a fake brownstone in a fake Upper West Side, but there’s no Uncle Toms or Aunt Tomisinas here.
I then asked, “So what’s the deal with this show?”
Matt said, “We are learning the answer to that as we go along.”
“We were told initially that these folks needed hosts of a show for Black children,” said Susan.
Wow….That’s an exciting idea!
Matt asked me about my background.
“Um, a little of this and a little of that,” I laughed.
Loretta’s right eyebrow raised — just like Mr. Spock’s! It was the first time I actually saw someone do that! Wonder if she can do the Vulcan neck pinch….
“I’m trying to get it together.”
“Cool,” he said. Loretta laughed. “We all are.”
“How long have you two been on set?”
“Loretta’s been here for just a couple of days,” said Matt. “I was in the producing ranks then somehow wound up here in the glare of the spotlight. We just met everybody in the full cast yesterday. Those cats….Man, we’re in a pot that’s ready to percolate. Now, see that hippie over there — ”
“Yeah, what’s his deal?”
“He seems to be in charge, somewhat. I’m not really sure. He’s definitely in charge of those monsters.
And like on cue, one of them, an orange one with a big, wide head, walked by us on the “sidewalk” and got into the garbage can.
“That’s Oscar,” said Susan. “You’ll be talking to him soon enough. I think he’s gonna be the breakout character.”
I was happy to see how comfortable we were with each other. The more I talked to them, the more I hoped I’d be cast as their son.
I stood quietly while Loretta — Susan — and Matt — Gordon — went back to talking to themselves.
I looked around. It was a big deal for me to just be Downtown. But now I’m on Mars. And I’ve been hired to be a Martian. To play “Roosevelt Franklin,” whomever he was going to be.
I was real excited to find out. So this is the future of Black people on television — at least on the channels that people used to ignore. No more chuckin’ and jivin.’ No more Amos ’N’ Andy or Beulah bulls — t — the conniving KingFish, the shouting Sapphire….Whatever Susan and Gordon were going to be, it was clear they were moving us forward.
The Lieutenants for The White Lady (more on her in a minute) showed us the promo for The Street that aired on the first episode of Soul! , clearly an episode I missed for one reason or another. It had James Earl Jones in the foreground, with some kids playing games on the stairs. Jones even said he was going to be on the show! Wow!
Man, is Mary Frances gonna love this! She was always the first one in the house to yell “Colored! Colored!” when one of us appeared on TV.
But how much control would we actually have over this? Were we tokens, or something more? And what was the “this?” What was this show gonna be about? And how was it going to help Black people, who were in the streets either trying to get revolution, or at least a new TV or radio, or both?

Scattered thoughts:

I don’t know about this public television thing. So all of a sudden that boring channel on the dial is now going to be essential? I don’t think television will have the power to educate like that. But The White Lady and the Workshop are treating it as a religion. Either they’re fools or they understand something I don’t.

WNDT, later called WNET, the flagship of NET (National Education Television), is in New York but registered in Newark. So should all of this be over there? I wonder what Immamu Baraka would demand if it was there.

Meanwhile, Matt and I were becoming fast friends. Boys. He was the perfect running partner. Urbane, funny, he actually made me think again about going to college. He was really open to my ideas for Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.


The White Lady thought up the idea for The Street at a cocktail party a few years back, I’m told. She got a team together to test and implement her ideas. She learned about television, then about how children learn, and connected the two. It was a mission for her. Whatever The White Lady and her monochrome assistants — Her Lieutenants— said, went. The White Lady checked with every kind of ologist out. Loretta told me when she was approached, it was going to be a show for Black children, but then it expanded. The White Lady. Reminds me of when Porkchop Davis called Eleanor Roosevelt the “White African Goddess.” I can see what he meant because The White Lady was making the education of Black, white, brown, yellow and red children around the nation.
I had seen white ladies like this all my life: running welfare offices…in public schools….in business offices…holding down power given to them by white men. This felt new because The White Lady was really in command. She was running things based on her gut, not a white man’s priorities. It was her and the Funders, who were just as excited. Some days it seemed like a white missionary thing, but other days it seemed like we were given the keys to our own freedom. Most days it seemed like a mix of both.
King’s blood was still wet when we got on the air, so just our appearance looked political and cultural.
The White Lady even converted the cameramen and other people to her cause. As I overheard snatches from the pale raps, everyone felt they were doing something important, significant, new. The Funders were happy.
The point — a new generation allowed to test new ideas on a new platform (public television). New Qs: How much of the nation would change if education was delivered in a new, exciting way? If new people became trusted guardians of childhood — surrogate, trusting parents? It was a long way from that Kukla, Fran and Ollie bulls — t.


Wow. They are trying so hard here. It looks like a Harlem block, one designed for kids. Look at our leads Gordon and Susan. I like this. Black parents of a rainbow tribe. The children are keeping cool.
Man, this signing group they have is heavy! These brothers can blow. I felt bad I never learned their names because they didn’t last long. But that young brother named Luther can really sing. He tries not to outshine the others, but his voice doesn’t really give that choice. When he sang the lead for the song “You Gotta Learn,” everybody stopped what they were doing and looked at him. Even Loretta’s mouth dropped!
The white people are really proud of themselves. It’s pretty much an all-Ofay union shop here, recording, directing and producing this urban Black street. Jim Henson — I learned the stoned-out-looking hippie’s name — is a ball of constant energy, running around and getting up into people’s butts. I don’t know how in the hell they found a Bird that Big. And Oscar the Grouch — who looks much better once he got a green dye job, I have to admit — is great at his job because whenever he opens his big mouth to talk s — t about something or someone I want to slug him. I don’t think he’s acting.
The theme song the Workshop decided upon is really corny, really white. Playing it over and over allowed it to grow on me, though. What caught my ear was their way of singing the alphabet. I really liked that and was glad to see kids on the streets I knew so well knowing that song. I slowly began to think this thing might actually make a difference.
The on-set kids became our children. We looked out for them, gently scolded them if they misbehaved and made sure they knew their roles on set. Like Baby Breeze, I laughed at myself for how quickly I adjusted to this new role of kindergarten helper.
That day Jesse Jackson was here was really great! I had heard about him from folks on the street who had seen him on TV, but I wasn’t ready for that level of swagger. He’s clearly crowned himself the new Colored King. I like how he clearly respected our children.
I loved these animated “commercials” they made. Cool! And these sing-a-long songs: they even made up a song called “Sing A Song!!!” These folks work hard to create this stuff! Imagine having a show devoted to — “sponsored by” — the letter G! Crazy, Man!
Kermit the Frog seemed kinda Zen.
Grover seemed like he was eager to please, like he’d been homeless or some s — t.
Guy Smiley thinks he’s gonna be a regular by sucking up the TPTB (The Powers That Be). He’s wrong. He’s a bit player who hasn’t accepted it yet.
The Count is a straight-up mushroom fiend. He was told quite directly by the Lieutenants to not do anything in front of the children.
Bob McGrath is as white bread as an Ofay can be but he’s real comfortable in his own skin so he’s good people, someone easy to make small talk with at any time.
The Cookie Monster is crazy as s — t! He’s an addict for that d — n sugar. He keeps a flamethrower in his dressing room as a threat if he doesn’t get his quota.
Ernie and Bert are acting like they are fooling people but they’re not. I bet if I checked out the back booth of Stonewall, they’d be right there.
The building set is phony, but the playground set is real! I like the sets in the back that connect to it.
The guy who plays Mr. Hooper acts like he doesn’t want to be here sometimes, but his timing is perfect.

I had a lot to learn about TV. I’m glad the Workshop was patient with us. We had a lot of lead time to get ourselves straight. The suits had a lot of very organized ideas — child psychologists and TV people were working hand-in-hand.
The technicians were almost all white. The writers were almost all white. The producers were all white. The funders were all white. The Street’s residents — particularly the kids — were a rainbow. This was back when schools were not yet fully desegregated, so we were ahead of the curve — so ahead, in fact, that certain stations in the South didn’t air us at first.
So The White Lady and her Lieutenants explained to us — the “talent” — that the model for The Street was Laugh-In. I had watched Laugh-In once or twice — I had quite a hard-on for the dumb-acting blonde chick — but I never really paid attention to it before. So one night I watched it with a pad and pen. Now that I was actually paying attention, I noticed that Laugh-In was going much faster than other comedy/variety shows. Pop, pop, pop. The pacing was making the un-funny funny because it was so unusual. You wanted to see what would happen next. So when The Lieutenants told us that no skit would last more than 10 minutes and that the show would be loaded with “commercials” for numbers and letters, we understood.
And although I’m using the word skits, they were more like vignettes. We weren’t hosts or performers per se. We were playing real characters — we were “Gordon” and “Susan” and “David” and “Maria” and “Mr. Hooper” and so on — and kids around the country learned our “names” and personalities, we quickly found out. Henson’s monster friends and their human friends were soon household names if your household had pre-schoolers. Kids believed we really lived on The Street. And with the hours we kept, we felt we lived there, too!
We had everything — and what we didn’t have we asked for. To give an example: Our “commercials” were animated. So we asked favors from folks in animation. Filmation, a company in L.A. that had several Saturday morning cartoons on all of the networks, answered our request for some free content. Filmation had produced The All-New Adventures of Superman, The Superman/Batman Hour and The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure for CBS. So they gave us these quick one-minute Street-style commercials: Superman talking about the letter S and Batman and Robin had three — showing kids how to cross the street, the importance of cleaning windows, and the differences between up, through and around. In one skit, animated TV Batman even settled a fight between Ernie and Bert over whose turn it was to watch what!
Everything on The Street was designed to teach through entertainment. If someone sang, sang a song, it was about something — like Bob’s famous diddy about what jobs grown-ups had. If two Muppets were fighting over something, a human would step up and help them resolve the issue. So kids would learn not just letters and numbers, but terms like “cooperation.” The rule The White Lady had was that it would only be the Muppets that fight — never the adults, never the children.
Big Bird was the kids’ representative on the show — a perpetual 4-year-old who asked the adults questions someone that age would ask. Big Bird’s job was not to interact with the children, but the adults. This way, the grown-ups would be explaining all of the things kids always wanted to know. I stayed away from Big Bird because I didn’t want to sully him with all the reality I had dealt with. I just treated him as another kid on set. Interesting enough, he and Baby Breeze got on really well! I think Bird wanted to be cool like Baby Breeze. The Lieutenants rejected Bird’s constant requests to be on Elementary, explaining that our segment was designed with the urban Black experience in mind and that he, Bird, was there to represent everyone. He didn’t really get it, but he eventually accepted it when he saw he and Oscar were permanently the show’s central characters.
Oscar was the cynical counterpart to Big Bird’s perpetual naivete. He played a very specific function: he was there to express his opinions and his right to have them. He was there to make sure children felt good about speaking out about their feelings. The role of adults on the show was to attempt and fail to guide Oscar toward the light of kindness and understanding.
And speaking of the kids: sometimes they would perform with the Muppets in improvs about letters and numbers, but it wasn’t about them performing, it was about them listening and learning. The kids were there to show an active street and to react if something was happening on The Street that they should be paying attention to. So they really stayed in the background. The kids’ spotlight was in the opening title sequence, where they sang The Street’s opening theme over footage of them playing in a playground. I began to realize that the opening diddy (Can you tell me how to get/How to get to….) was a sing-along song perfect for four-year-olds to learn through repetition.


I’m glad I’m going to surprise her with this Street thing. She still thinks I work at the Post Office. She thinks I’m pulling double shifts there. I’m slapping some bread on the brothers there, who are lying for me and saying I’m on vacation. They know that if Mary Frances calls to say that I’m busy and that we’ll talk about it when I get home. It’s worked thus far.


No matter how sexy Sonia is, she gives off this sister vibe. I’ve never been around a sexy chick I haven’t wanted to bone, so she’s my first one.
Northern and I would break up bars after shooting. But we had to be careful because we had to make sure that we would not get into public or pubic trouble. He also laughed at the Sonia/Maria thing. He said “David” hugging on “Maria” felt very much brother-sisterish.
More programs were developing. Some white-bred/bread minister from Pennsylvania who had been up in Canada was bringing his show to NET (which is what PBS used to call itself). It was in black-and-white and he did everything himself — sing, write, work with the characters — the whole thing. I thought it was kinda corny but our cast kids loved it almost as much as they loved us!


One of the many, many things I learned on The Street is the power of promotion. Our group and that singing geek with the tiny puppets from Pittsburgh — both our shows took off like two rockets — like ZZZzzoooooommmmm, let-it-ride, Clyde! (And little did I know about a Zoom that was gonna come soon outta Boston!) So we had to get those local promos together and on their air to raise bread to keep public TV body and Soul! together!
As our leads, Loretta and Matt were perfect for that promo gig. Both of them had come from TV backgrounds. Interesting that one of the places Matt came from was from The Street’s producing ranks. He told me he replaced the original Gordon, Garrett Hobart Saunders, when that dude sogged during the pilot stage. Matt was down with The People — his father had been a writer for the Black press in Philadelphia and his sister died because Philly hospitals wouldn’t help her. So he had a genealogy (another word I got from that dictionary kick!) that grounded him.
The crew was telling me about the national promos, the ones about The Street study guides that would help kids during the summer. They reminded folks that The Street was going to be on 12 months a year. As the Professor (more on him later) told me, the undercurrent of that idea was that The Man knew that our children were waaaay behind on basic reading and that we, through The Street, had the opportunity to catch up. “Your whole show is about whether TV can really assist our children in a day-to-day, practical way.” I showed him The Street study guide. He was a little skeptical, the way I now know self-taught Elders act when younger “professionals” show them something. In a time when Head Start was still in its formative stages, a lot of experimentation was going on. And we — the Colored urban poor and, as the Lieutenants liked to include in their talks with us, some rural whites — were the guinea pigs. He didn’t want to say it to me, but I could see it in his eyes: The Man caused the problem purposely, and now he wants to fix it before his whole American superiority bag blows up in his face! But he’s fixing it on his terms, not ours!
I only saw The Street promos on the second topic — how rugrats who couldn’t be told to get to The Street because they had no TVs at their daycare centers. Because, dear Friends of The White Lady and Lieutenants who help out with Channel 13 locally and PBS nationally, with just a pledge of $200 to join Thirteen we can send a Sylvania TV their way! And, as a result, you can wipe away some of that white guilt and give these poor little Black and brown tykes instant, weekday access to a pre-school-level education! That’ll make up for lynching, Jim Crow and killing MLK!!! Hahahaha!!!! Okay, he and Loretta didn’t say the last part, but that’s what the whole thing sounded like to my ghetto ears.
One of them was just Gordon, standing next to the newsstand of Mr. Hooper’s store, where the TV was conveniently placed.
I like the other one, with Loretta and Matt sitting on the stairs, talking with themselves and us simultaneously. I love how Loretta and Matt are just so natural, sitting on their fantasy brownstone on the fantasy New York City block (although we’ve spent so many hours there now, it’s beginning to feel real to me!). Looking straight into the camera, which I now learned meant you looking straight at the audience, which meant they were looking straight at you, and me, and Bease, and Baby Breeze and Mary Frances. It’s a one-on-one thing TV does, I learned from Matt, Loretta and the producers. You are the one peering into the box and seeing us on The Street and we look at the camera we are peering out, looking at you. So Gordon and Susan are talking to themselves and their adult peers, saying, C’mon, help us out! You can do it! TV education is now here!
I overheard them rehearsing their bit.
Matt: “And for just $200……”
Loretta: “Most people I know, they’d use $200 to survive.”


I learned that TV is a hurry-up-and-wait profession. The good thing about that is that if you are curious, you can learn a lot. I knew all about the writers’ room (Sonia’s favorite spot when she wasn’t on camera), so I started peeping everyone else’s hustle. (The other actors were in their dressing rooms, waiting to be called upon. Some slept, some did some light reading, some did something I was told was called TS — transcendental meditation.) Since, like everyone else, I was stuck there for at least 12 hours a day, six days a week with only one day to rest, I decided to make the most of it and give myself an amazing education.
I watched what directors did up close — how they explained everything to the actors, something even showing them what they wanted if necessary. I took advantage and watched how everyone worked — the set designers, the costumers, the art director, and especially the music director. I watched how hard the script “guy” or “girl” worked, giving updated scripts to the actors either on set or personal delivery to our homes. I even got to check out the Publicity Department in the corporate offices — the place I first saw when I first arrived at the Workshop. I learned about press packets, press releases and photo stills. With the show’s popularity, that office was kept very busy. Every once in a while, they would organize press interviews with members of the cast, normally Loretta and Matt. The Workshop was a well-run ship. Say what you want about the White Lady and the Lieutenants, they knew how to execute their vision.
They had big help from Hippie Henson. He was always on the move, making sure animals such as Kermit and Big Bird were on their marks (meaning the taped marks on the stage floor where they were to stand and walk on-cue) and that the Monsters were getting along with each other, were well-fed and felt well. He had a small, dedicated staff of people specifically trained to help him; they were devoted to both Henson and his special friends.
As the show developed, it became clear that among the animals Big Bird and Kermit had become kings and Cookie Monster, Grover and Oscar had become the breakout stars among the Monsters. (Breakout stars Ernie and Bert, like me, were in their separate human orbit within the show.) The writers began to write more and more bits just for the big yellow bird and the small green frog, with other animals and monsters still in the show regularly, but less and less in the foreground. Grover, Cookie Monster, Bird, Kermit, and Oscar had become as popular as Susan and Gordon, or Bob, or David or Maria.
The best bits were between Bird and Will Lee, who portrayed Mr. Hooper so well I would forget that he was an actor. The schtick of Bird exasperating Hooper — whose name he was always mispronouncing — never got old: “It’s Hooper, Big Bird! Hooper!” The fact that Big Bird was really four years old helped the honesty between the two actors. Mr. Hooper always reminded me of Mr. Peebles, the pet store owner who took care of, and was constantly enraged by, Magilla Gorilla in the cartoons. I don’t know if The Street writers had that dynamic in mind when developing the duo.
Big Bird did a great job doing things four-year-olds would do and asking the things and saying the things they would normally ask and say. The writers, working in tandem with the child psychologists hired by the White Lady and the Lieutenants, made sure that Big Bird never hit a bad note. I particularly enjoyed the segments starring him and his new best friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus. The Season Three writers and casting agents hit gold with that one.
Like I said, I continued to stay away from Bird because I dug his innocent nature. I didn’t want to soil him with my street background and salty language. So I was friendly but didn’t make a lot of small talk.
The other hit animal, Kermit, was like a Bud Abbott- or Dan Rowan-type straight man — a Rocky who needed a Bullwinkle. He was always in situations where he was the foil for what was happening around him. He was not only intelligent but introspective. I sought him out when I needed advice on how to do the more expanded segments that required all of us. It was Kermit who took me to the side to give me the standard new-at-the-job-controlled by The Man advice: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
Cookie Monster was fun to be around — the life of any party. But he was a bug-eyed junkie in real life: he really did need cookies to keep himself together. Henson used to keep a stash under lock and key for emergencies. We all quickly learned to hide any cookies he had. He couldn’t help himself, and — like many an insecure artist who became famous by exhibiting outlandish public behavior or dealing with private neuroses — he was afraid that if he went to rehab, he’d lose his schtick, and then his spotlight.
Here’s how a typical conversation between Cookie Monster and me would go:
Me: “Hey, C.M.! What’s shakin’, bay-bee!”
C.M.: “I’m just trying to keep it together.”
Me: “Okay, keep the faith, baby!”
Grover was fascinating because he was filled with natural adrenalin. An extreme sports fanatic, he enjoyed danger and risk. He loved doing his own stunts — particularly those pratfalls he became famous for as “Super Grover.” He actually studied with stuntmen. His high-pitched voice worked well on-set, but it was funny to hear him, behind the scenes, by the water cooler — curse up a storm and talk about people he didn’t like.


Mary Frances tried to get me hooked on Star Trek once. I tried a few episodes and, after Mary Frances pestered me, I tried that Vulcan salute thing. Other than Nichols (wolf whistle!), I thought it was kinda corny when it was not being preachy. The aliens didn’t look very alien. The monsters looked rubbery, as did much of the sets. The special effects didn’t seem that much better than those old ’30s Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon Saturday afternoon movie matinee serials that aired on Channel 13 once in a while. I dug the music, though, and I liked the theme. (Mary Frances told me that she read somewhere that the theme actually had words but they were awful.) And I did like that it came on every weeknight in permanent reruns on Channel 11 — right after reruns of The Odd Couple and The Honeymooners — so I could watch it before going to sleep.
I did like one thing, from my casual watching: I dug how the show’s three leads — Kirk, Spock and Bones — seemed to be one person divided into three. I learned in GED class about some kinda collective unconscious where world myths come from, and that there is a trilogy of archetypes for the human personality: the intellect (Spock), the intuition (Kirk) and the emotion (Bones). (I’d like to think that’s what I have with the gang: Baby Breeze is the emotion, Rev. Bease is the intellect and I’m the intuition.)
I don’t really remember any plots, other than that one where Spock went crazy because he needed some p — — y, bad. I do remember a couple of episodes where Kirk showed how hard-core he was. In one show, he said to the U.S.S. Enterprise crew that “risk is our business.” In another, he said, “We’re not out here to survive.” That was some John Wayne s — t right there.
The only sister Mary Frances was crazy for like Nichelle Nichols was some chick named Maya Angelou. She had just put out an autobiography and Mary Frances read and re-read it until it fell apart. Mary Frances actually has a film of some “Habari-Gani”-type show Angelou did called Black! Blues! Black! because she called the PBS station in California that aired it and demanded a copy! I had to buy a projector for her to see it! Do you believe that s — t?
When Easy found out that Mary Frances had this set of films, he actually had an underground community screening of the whole thing. So every Saturday afternoon during the summer of 1970, that’s what the two of them did. Mary Frances went to the Schomburg, learned everything she could about Angelou (I wasn’t surprised that Mr. Kaiser [more on him later] actually knew her, so he told Mary Frances a lot), and actually did post-screening rap sessions with Easy after each week’s showing! Easy actually paid Mary Frances as a thank you! It was my projector, but Easy didn’t pay me s — t, instead he thanked me for being a deep brother who was committed to “political education,” whatever that meant.
Here’s what I know about Mary Frances. Her favorite phrase is, “You know that’s right!” She is very excited by the idea of going to City College one day. She loves collard greens and pink dresses (except for when Star Trek is on; then she puts on her red dress. She loves TV, radio, books and films. She is crazy about that new group The Jackson 5; she wants to marry Michael Jackson when they grow up. I learned that when I noticed that she replaced a poster of a shirtless Huey Newton (she had to explain to me who he was) with the Jackson 5, Michael at the center. She wants to be a pediatrician. She wants to visit Africa one day after watching Maya Angelou.


So the writers were excited about my debut segment. The White Lady, the Lieutenants, the writers — everybody — wanted someone “authentic.” They wanted someone to really represent the ghetto. Well, as Buckwheat used to say in those Little Rascals shorts that were on Channel 5 every day, “Here I is!” No wig, no blackface, just me, Roosevelt Franklin.
The writers had a lot of ideas on what I should do, but they wanted to keep it very basic. And what could be more basic than the alphabet? The writers were obsessed with the alphabet. They wanted to really drill it into kids’ heads through repetition. (SchoolHouse Rock, a cartoon not unlike our commercials, would do the same thing a couple of years later on ABC on Saturday mornings.) They thought creating an alphabet song would work.
They wanted me to perform with an actress who would play my Mama. When I met her, she seemed familiar. She scared me when she took off her costume head! I was very touched when I saw Loretta!!! She had wanted to surprise me and she did! She talked about it first with Matt, then with Hippie Henson and then finally with the costume designers. They were OK with it. She wanted to be my TV mama!
The writers actually made up a “Roosevelt Franklin” song for me! A sped-up version of it quickly became my theme — my leif motif, as the music directors told me — throughout my tenure. Loretta and I quickly learned the song, and sang the alphabet embedded within it the way the Lieutenants wanted. The keyto singing well on The Street, we all quickly learned, was to sing everything slowly. Kids had to hear it, understand it, and be able to sing along by the second time the chorus came around. Again, repetition.
My alphabet song is not the version The Street popularized shortly thereafter. It was at least an octave lower and definitely more “urban.” It was more of an intro to me — to the fact that I was Young, Gifted and Black — and proud to be from the ghetto, where we were not afraid to be physically and verbally expressive. It showed that me, a Black urban kid who looked and sounded like a Black urban kid, knew basic literacy. I loved how we got to say things like “That’s right!” and “Right on!” in between the verses. It wasn’t as cool as Issac Hayes would, two years later, make the background words in theme from Shaft, but it was still cool!

In just three minutes I had transformed myself. All of sudden, I was myself and this new character, “Roosevelt Franklin.” I felt respected and loved, on-stage and off.
I loved this first sketch. Loretta and I hugged and smiled after each take! She was really my proud Mama that afternoon!!!
Hippie Henson had shown up with the skit’s writers to check out the live taping. He cheered his ass off. So had the producers. He gave a beaming Matt five on, well, the white-hand side.
In just three minutes, something new, Black and urban had been added to national television. To American education. To the fabric of the Black community.
Buckwheat and Stymie suddenly, in comparison, looked outdated, slave-on-the-plantation-like. Stereotypical. The Street was new and hip, but purposeful, too.
The director let me, Matt and Loretta see the playback. “Congrats, Roosevelt and Loretta! We have a winner!” I couldn’t believe how much fun Loretta and I were having! You could see the fun and joy on the screen! We were staring right in the heart of the ghetto saying, “Here we are! Telling it like it ti-is! You belong on The Street, too!”
Me and Loretta made several sequels. Loretta played my mother again, and The Street used the same melody and the same intro by Loretta, when we counted numbers.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: Now I wonder where he is? Where is he? Now where is that Roosevelt Franklin?

Roosevelt Franklin (scatting): Did somebody call me by my first and last name?

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: Yes, I called you and it’s about time you got here, too. Now will you please come on and recite your numbers?

Roosevelt Franklin: All right. I’ll do that and when I do, you’ll know I’m gonna count them just for you.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: Well, we’ll see if you know them for sure. I’m not so sure you even know your numbers.

Roosevelt Franklin: I know, I know, I know, I know, I know.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: Roosevelt Franklin, how old are you?

Roosevelt Franklin: I used to be 1. Now I’m going on 2.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: What you going do when you get three?

Roosevelt Franklin: I’m gonna look my daddy right in the knee.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: Oh, daddy’s little man.

Roosevelt Franklin: Ha, ha, yeah.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: And, Roosevelt Franklin, when you get four?

Roosevelt Franklin: Get me some candy from the candy store.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: What you gonna do when you reach five?

Roosevelt Franklin: Gonna get some honey from the old beehive.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: All right, Roosevelt Franklin.

Roosevelt Franklin: Yes, I like that.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: Young mister Roosevelt Franklin, what about six?

Roosevelt Franklin: Gonna get my first job hauling bricks.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: What you gonna do when you reach seven?

Roosevelt Franklin: Going past the church and say good morning to the Reverend.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: My, what a nice young man.

Roosevelt Franklin: Every Sunday.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: Roosevelt Franklin, what about when you get eight?

Roosevelt Franklin: I’m gonna eat all the collar greens off of my plate!

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: (spoken) That’s good.
(singing) What you gonna do when you get nine?

Roosevelt Franklin: Gonna take a ride on the railroad line.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: Out of town to see your grandmother?

Roosevelt Franklin: Mmm hmmm. She’s waiting for me.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: (spoken) Oh, that’s good.
(singing) Roosevelt Franklin, when you get ten?

Roosevelt Franklin: Going back to one and start over again. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: How come I can’t do that too?

Roosevelt Franklin: You can’t do like Roosevelt Franklin do because I’m Roosevelt Franklin.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Roosevelt Franklin: I said I’m Roosevelt Franklin.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: Yes, he is.

Roosevelt Franklin: Call me Roosevelt Franklin.

Roosevelt Franklin’s Mother: (singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah.
(spoken) Mmm. Roosevelt Franklin sure knows his numbers.

For the third one, about the days of the week, Loretta didn’t play my mother, but instead performed as one of three backup singers as I sang about Monday through Sunday.

Roosevelt Franklin: It was early Monday morning. I was on my way to school

(Girls in Background: Monday morning! Monday morning!)

Roosevelt Franklin: It was early Monday morning. I was on my way to school

(Girls: Monday morning! Monday morning!)

Roosevelt Franklin: I went to study my lessons so I wouldn’t be nobody’s fool.

(Girls: Monday morning! Monday morning!)

Roosevelt Franklin: I woke up Tuesday morning, and I ate my grits and eggs

(Girls: Tuesday morning! Tuesday morning!)

Roosevelt Franklin: I woke up Tuesday morning, and I ate my grits and eggs

(Girls: Tuesday morning! Tuesday morning!)

Roosevelt Franklin: Put shoes on my feet, but first I put socks on my legs

(Girls: Tuesday morning! Tuesday morning!)

Roosevelt Franklin: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I was in school every day

(Girls: Wednesday, Thursday! Thursday, Friday!)

Roosevelt Franklin: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I was in school every day

(Girls: Wednesday, Thursday! Thursday, Friday!)

Roosevelt Franklin: I go five times a week. I get five times smarter that way

(Girls: Wednesday, Thursday! Thursday, Friday!)

Roosevelt Franklin: (Now I’m gonna tell you about the weekend!)
Saturday and Sunday, Roosevelt Franklin can play

(Girls: Saturday, Sunday! Saturday, Sunday!)

Roosevelt Franklin: Saturday and Sunday, Roosevelt Franklin can play

(Girls: Saturday, Sunday! Saturday, Sunday!)

I felt like I was in a new home, adopted by a new family. I felt like I had been looking for Gordon and Loretta my whole life. I had the wrong address, I had been on the wrong street. I had arrived with a “Welcome” mat on the door and a new family — Matt, Loretta as my parents and Sonia and Northern as my cool older siblings.
All I kept thinking was, Should I let Mary Frances know now or should I let her be surprised?

I decided to go for the jaw-drop. So I sat Baby Breeze, Bease, Mil, and Mary Frances down and let everyone see my new job. I just mentioned I worked there, not that I was a featured player, a star-in-the-making.
Sis liked The Street from the beginning. “This is outtasite for the tykes!”
Mil: “Man, this thing is trying to be cool. Not bad.”
Baby Breeze: “S — — -t! Never mind all of that! Who’s that fine-ass Puerto Rican sister?”
“Someone I will never introduce you to,” I said.
“They need to dress her up.”
“No, that’s exactly what they decided not to do,” I replied. Sonia had told me how the producers had been really mad about how the Makeup Department one time had tried to sex her up. After that, they never tried that again.
Beasey: “The main adult female character — isn’t that the sister from Soul!?”
So my skit came on. Mary Frances’ shook in her seat and opened wide. She stood completely still. Her eyes were almost out of her head. She turned to me, still slack-jawed.
“You…You…YOU’RE A TV STAR!!!!”
She hit me in the shoulder with her fist, then hugged me. Then she jumped up and down while still holding me. I later found out my sister took a small picture of the two of us and showed it in school for the rest of the school year.
I looked at the brothers, who were whispering among themselves.
“Well?” I asked.
“We want to sell your photos and autographs on the street,” Mil said, taking on the role of spokesman.
“My Mello, the TV star! SOLID!” said Baby Breeze.
“We gonna make legit loot!” said Mil. They weren’t kiddin’! The next day, Mil and Baby Breeze came by with the photos. I signed every one of them. For the next year, we made that a weekly Saturday appointment.
For the next few years, I had to get used to people staring at me on the street or yelling “My Man!” from across the street. The wildest thing was I had to get used to kids running up to me and hugging me, like I was their uncle or something! They would look at me right in the eyes and start singing, “Roosevelt Franklin/What You Say….


We had a serious rap session one day during our off-camera down time and her still puddles run deep. Her background was real Ghetto Ninja Star. Father who was a violent drunk. Crazy neighborhood. Seeking solace in the life of Charlie Chaplin. High School of Performing Arts. Joins up as a member of the original Christian-rock musical Godspell (the sexy flapper character). Trying to survive, with no real safety at home. Carneige Mellon grad. Back home, but on her terms. Proud of her.


With my segments being a big hit, me, Matt and the writers got together to think about what to do next. Loretta wanted to join us, but she was too busy giving the writers ideas for Susan. The person who had the most ideas in the cast was Sonia. She liked bouncing ideas off of the writers a lot. Because there was such a big cast, you’d think there was a lot of jockeying for space. There wasn’t. We had 30 shows to do a year — 30 hours to fill! With animation being so expensive to produce, there was a lot of space in those 30 hours for eight-minute sketches, songs, gags, etc.
As the show developed, everyone got a particular schtick. Everybody sang. A lot. It was a thing for The Street because I think the writers and producers were so influenced by Broadway. Musicals were almost as big as movies back then. Some of the cast became known for certain songs. Bob McGrath, for example, became known for his “Neighborhood” song, where he met and talked to people in various professions. I think we laid on the music bug for so long because music was also soothing and the producers wanted to create a comfortable atmosphere. The Street was about outside play, and music was a part of that. I guess that’s why the producers had the Listen My Brother group in those early years — street soul was a part of street music life. I found out that the group was created by Loretta’s husband!
As expected, the monsters made the show a big hit! Kermit the Frog was a straight man during his ad-libs with the kids and he was also a TV reporter. (That was when local TV news was becoming dominant in the culture. I now realize the folks were poking gentle fun at those Steve Allen man-on-the-street TV skits.) Cookie Monster was just hilarious, showing up and demanding and getting his fix. Guy Smiley was a host for basically every Street game show. The Count made being an annoying know-it-all entertaining. Grover was a great ad-libber with the kids and even played a superhero! Man, “Super Grover!” I wish I had thought it up first! And Oscar…man, he loved adlibbing insults to the main non-monster cast; he was like a green Don Rickles.
When everybody — the kids, The White Lady, the Lieutenants, the crew — went home, the monsters and the writers loved to go into the writer’s wing and smoke weed and bulls — t. Hippy Henson loved to sit in and talk to everybody. We used to order pizza every Friday night during the season and talk and bulls — t and play Jimi Hendrix records and think up ideas until Saturday dawn. (I had to tell the fellas that our Truth-and-B — — — t sessions had to be moved to those Fridays during The Street’s hiatus. I’m glad they understood.) It became a ritual I really looked forward to.
The fact that basically all these dudes were white and 90 percent of them were male stopped bothering me after a while. When you work with somebody, day in and day out for weeks, then months, they stop becoming categories and become people. So they eventually were not “the white writers,” they were Tom and Jerry and Dick and Bob and Wilbur and Tony and….I also really didn’t get how anti-establishment these young whites were. They were almost as sick of the Man as we Black and Puerto Rican people were, and what made that interesting was that The Man was their fathers, their uncles, their mentors. They hated that the Vietnamese were being killed for their so-called “democracy.” They hated that so few people were rich and so many were poor. They hated that a Black Christian minister had to take a bullet in the neck so that all Americans would be able to vote or use a dirty gas station bathroom. Working in public television on this kind of project made them very proud because they felt they were actually going to change society by reaching the minds of the very young. The world of The Street, from their point of view, was going to infuse values of cooperation and understanding that current adults lacked. When I really understood that, I began to see why The White Lady and the Lieutenants took this so seriously.
Everybody would take turns thinking up skits for everybody. When we started doing this, before people got too high, we would take notes and, when, we thought we were really wasted, we would tape-record ourselves! Every Monday morning we came in looking for the notes and the reel-to-reel tapes, convinced we had created masterpieces.
Instead, much of our notes looked like this:

But what about the tape recordings? Well, they sounded like this:

TsjkslanksdjkasfkkhKFKJSF HOSIA;JL Big Bird CHACHCKACN SJLASCKkcslssolajhc ahfdlJHF;n;sfljsa lfhj;JCVlcls; laflajFLF;NKK;W Susan adj;fadjoaonvowefphnvp’aweoi’a’LJEA;WEJE then Oscar /xswja; wuwla;ufoflfrl fwiapoaoadejm ekwea;;a;wa;ahelela jala la; f;a;a;tutoaoel…..

We cracked up every Monday morning as we checked for any strewn junk and used air freshener to make sure we weren’t caught. One day, The White Lady caught us laughing at our notes and asked us what was so funny. One of the writers quickly mentioned what President Nixon had said the night before on television — “I would have made a good Pope” — and The White Lady laughed so hard we were worried she was going to fall down.
When you are young you make the space for a lot of dumb s — t and you hope you can get away with it. We did.
Some things just happened naturally — like Joey Calvan, that cute little white toddler who tried to annoy Kermit by purposely messing up her ABCs by interjecting “Cookie Monster.” There was a lot of space for that — ad-lib. Improv. We were taking the cue from our inspiration, Laugh-In. The Lieutenants said to all of us that as long as the kids were learning something, there was really no restriction to what we couldn’t do. Any format — Western, superhero, spy caper — anything, as long as the budget didn’t go crazy. I thought it was really hilarious when Ernie thought of the idea that a guy on the street selling hot stuff — you know, like wristwatches and stuff like that — should try to sell him a letter from the alphabet. Ernie and one of the writers tried to do an improv immediately, in front of all of us acting it out, and we laughed our asses off. It became a well-known ’70s skit for us.
So one night around our first month, Matt and I brought our idea to the group. We wanted to show a Street version of what the inside of an inner-city high school was like. Matt was excited because this gave him something to do on the show other than play Black America’s equivalent to Father Knows Best. Matt and I explained that the film Blackboard Jungle had given a near-less-than-human American inner-city stereotype that was not given to the clean-cut-but-angry British kids in the subsequent film To Sir, With Love.
We told the writers that we wanted to show inner-city kids as smart and eager to learn, but in their own loud, energetic style.
We did not mention race — not one time. Matt and I knew what we would be able to change: the image that Black and Brown kids were dumb, that they were unable to learn.
The writers were intrigued by our idea and asked me and Matt to act out a skit right there and then.
Little did they know that Matt and I had something prepared, but we made it look like we had made it up. That way, the writers were convinced that we were on the ball.
So Matt and I did this skit about how to teach how to cross the street. We did this for the writers because we knew how much everybody loved the Batman animated short that Filmation donated to The Street on this topic. We wrote this for Baby Breeze, who hit it out the park when we recorded it.
The writers laughed their asses off! They told us, “Okay, this is your recurring thing on the show! Matt and Roosevelt, consider yourselves the chief co-writers of your new thing! What should we call it?”
Matt and I looked at each other. We hadn’t thought that far ahead.
I said, “It’ll be called ‘Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School.’” I smiled. Buzzed by the idea and the smoke from the weed, I made up and sang the theme right then and there.

Hail to thee/Our Alma Mudder
Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School! Elementary School!

Matt smiled. Everyone smiled. And then everybody laughed. And just like that, Matt and I took our developing character of “Roosevelt Franklin” and made him a permanent part of The Street’s earliest seasons.

Matt and I talked about the roles of the characters that would make up our Elementary class.
“We definitely need a know-it-all,” said Matt. “That should be the main girl in the skit.” Of course, I based who would become Smart Tina on Mary Frances and all the girls I grew up with. She’d be easy to write for.
“I want someone really street-smart,” I said. “But only for one skit — our crossing the street one.” I knew just the person for it! Baby Breeze was so excited when I told him the news during his break, he almost forgot to go back to work at the job I helped him get — The Children’s Television Workshop’s security guard! He knew his star turn on The Street would be talked about on our streets for months (and it was!).
“I want folks to be average sisters and brothers, but I want them to look like they are from the Black Power Movement, y’dig?” declared Matt.
“Solid!” I said.
We both thought silently. Then we both laughed at the same time. I knew what Matt was going to ask.
“Roosevelt, what are you going to do in your own skit?” Matt asked. “I can’t believe we forgot that part.”
I paused. “Well, if the skit is for me and the school is named after me, I guess I should be either the teacher or the principal.”
Matt and I thought about it. What would be best for the Black and brown children who were going to watch this?
“You could be the principal….On the one hand, it would be important for our young people to see a Black man leading a school….”
“….But,” I continued, finishing his sentence, “my character is freewheeling, energetic. He’s too rambunctious to be in a position of authority. And besides, he needs to be in the classroom.”
“So he’s gotta be the teacher.”
“More like a ringmaster,” I said.
“Right! The important thing,” Matt stressed, is we want to show that being loud and energetic is not the same thing as being undisciplined.”
We thought, silent, as one.
“So who are we gonna get to be these actors for this skit?”
We asked Sonia for referrals since she was a graduate of that New York arts school. We told her the kind of characters she wanted. She quickly found some young Black grads who were, of course, looking for work. The only thing was that the young people did want to use their real names. So we made up nicknames like Smart Tina and Hardhead Henry Harris. Baby Breeze needed no changes. We had the cast and the idea. Now we had to produce something.

But because our skit would be recurring, to be an official part of The Street, we had to explain our new idea to everybody. The White Lady and the Lieutenants had to be convinced for us to go ahead. It went this way: the writers convinced the producers and the producers convinced the Lieutenants.
Me, Matt, Sonia, Northern and Loretta gently explained to our white cast members and TPTB that we thought that Elementary would fulfill the original mandate not only of just The Street, but of public television itself. After we explained what Elementary was going to do, they agreed.
Loretta: “Some of these children need to be seen in school — to see it as a place they’d be excited by, to be comfortable there.”
Sonia: “Right. What you are saying — how you’re going to do it — sounds very much like the kids I grew up with, the schools I attended in the South Bronx.”
Northern: “Right on!”
We all laughed.
Bob and Will (Mr. Hooper) said they were excited to see what we would do. “It’s great that we can be this experimental,” Bob said.
“Aw, your idea is bulls — t!”
We all looked around to see who was peeing on our parade. Of course it was Oscar. He liked doing this — f — king with people who agreed on anything. He didn’t care about this — he just liked being publicly contrarian.
Loretta rolled her eyes because she knew what was going to happen next. He wanted to get a rise out of me and Matt, so I gave him what he wanted, not missing a beat! “Yeah, f — k you, Oscar!”
We all laughed — Oscar loudest of all.
Sonia rolled her eyes and sighed. “I’m glad Big Bird wasn’t around to hear you all curse.”


I saw the Electric Company skit about Easy Reader going into a bookstore and asked Morgan Freeman which one was it.
Easy didn’t make it easy! “Man, you haven’t heard of Professor Michaux’s House of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda?”
“Naw, but it looked cool!”
“Cool is not the word, Little Brutha. Go and see!”
So I slid down to the spot. The sign outside looked familiar to me, but it took me a while to remember. I stood out in front until I remembered because I didn’t want to embarrass myself inside.
S — t, now I remember! I watched some footage of Malcolm somewhere — he used to speak in front of this sign!
I walked inside. It was kinda dark but after my eyes adjusted my eyes widened because I had never seen so many books before in my life! Piles and piles and piles! A tall middle-aged, brown-skinned guy in a trench coat and stylish hat whisked past one. A short old guy in a skullcap is talking to his back: “Don’t be a stranger, Brother Noble. I’m glad to help you as you and Melba fight with those white people at Channel 7.” A thin, dark-skinned brother in a leather jacket and turtleneck with a close Afro nodded. He didn’t seem that much older than me. The old man turned to him. “Now, Brother Byrd, let’s get to you. I know you were excited to see John and Yosef in here last week discussing what they found. So let me show you what they’ve written, what we keep and use. I don’t know how this will help you on ‘RL, but it’s a good thing I don’t have to know.”
I had no idea who any of these people were and what the hell they were talking about. So much was happening then — so many things starting — that you couldn’t keep track of it.
I walked around, looking at all the shelves, twice. Too much, overload, too much. I walked up to the Old Man.
“Where do I start?”
The Old Man chuckled. “With today.” He pulled out copies of a baiege-ish book book Malcolm X Speaks and two pamphlets, one black and one kinda green. Malcolm X Talks to Young People and Malcolm X on Afro-American History.
“I bet you thought I was going to say ‘at the beginning.’” He had a twinkle in his eye.
“Well, the beginning is now. And yesterday and today are becoming the same. You’ll see.”
I paid for the books and walked out of the store. It was like leaving a cave after talking to a guru or some s — t.

I kept coming back to the man everyone was calling the Professor. That kept me on the streets, but in a different way than I had before. Because I was now recognizable, I dressed down whenever I hit the curb. Easy, on the other hand, dressed up because he told me he felt bloods were used to him being in those Electric Company jeans.
One time I came by where X had marked the spot and saw two Black men, one brown-skinned and one dark-black, bring piles of books to the Professor for purchase. The three of them had a looonng conversation about the books, the topics and the authors before the Professor opened the register. I got the feeling that I had seen something that had happened before. I wanted to ask who they were, but I was too shy at this neophyte stage. I felt I should have known who they were, so I wasn’t gonna ask.
I was so glad to have a teacher, even if he was constantly busy with other customers. We actually did start at the beginning. Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett Jr. From Slavery To Freedom by John Hope Franklin. The autobiographies of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, to Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown and Youngblood by John Oliver Killens. I was just in time for some new releases, like Bobby Seale’s Seize The Time, his quickie memoir of his early years and the start of the Black Panther Party of Self-Defense.
I learned that Frederick Douglass, a slave, and Malcolm X, in his younger days a slave to his limitations, learned about the power of reading and books and turned themselves into powerful men. The fact that that could happen twice in two centuries was amazing to me! What could be accomplished if we first changed ourselves? These are the questions I was asking.
I wanted to read and buy almost anything with “Black” or “Negro” on it. Luckily, the Professor and Easy stopped me from going wild. So I found the local library and the Schomburg and spent at least one weekday evening there a week. At the Schomburg, I met a librarian there named Ernest Kaiser. He was very kind and helpful. I was embarrassed when the Professor told me who he was — the guy who was reviewing hundreds of books for Freedomways.
There was so much to read! E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie was a strong critique of the bougie motherf — kers who looked down on people like me, Breeze and Bease. I was amazed when I saw that Frazier got Black students “wrong.” Within three years of that book’s release, four students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. And that was the second beginning of the Movement. In the Black papers I began reading, The Amsterdam News and The New Jersey Afro, I began observing names and dates of recent history. Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
But I talked about it with Easy and he said. “No, he had it right for the time. But the times can change at the drop of a hat, Young Blood. Always remember that. All it takes is one key action.”
Yeah, I was beginning to see that. I went to the movies and saw Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln in For the Love of Ivy. This was a different Sidney than the one I had seen coming to dinner at some white folks’ house. This film was about Abbey, a maid, leaving her white patrons and going back to our people. There was a scene in it that made me laugh out loud: Sidney is showing Abbey the mobile, illegal gambling operation he has. It’s a big, impressive space. Abbey wants to play one of the games but Sidney quickly shuts that down, saying, “We don’t take money from blood.” It was then I realized that all the patrons were white. It was a Black racket — a prosperous one! Yes! Wow! It was another way to get over on The Man, and I enjoyed that. I thought about The White Lady and how I wished she was one of the patrons getting fleeced.
Me, Easy, Baby Breeze and Bease all went to see Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song and Shaft when those films came out. We cried while cheering in the theater. Like, finally, to see ourselves as the dashing hero who can stick it to The Man. No more Sidney Poitier respectable bulls — t. We had heard that there were bloods behind these films. Easy tried to explain who Gordon Parks was and Life magazine; he even showed us some pictures Parks took in some old Lifes. We had only heard of Melvin Van Peebles, who was from the Left Coast. But what was important to us is that they were strong Black men who put strong Black men on the screen!
Freedomways and The Liberator magazines. And believe it or not, the Professor told me to get some back issues of Ebony and Jet, and actually read them and the current issues. It turned out that Easy had a complete collection of both magazines going back to 1953, and something called Negro Digest that went back even further, years before Jet started. Easy got real excited when he talked about Negro Digest becoming Black World. But he wouldn’t let me borrow or read any of his Black Worlds: “Sorry, my brother, you have to get your own.” He also said I should read Black World after reading the rest. I trusted him on that.
Easy and I would spend entire Saturday and Sunday afternoons reading all of the mags.
“D — n, I didn’t know Jet had so much Movement news,” I told him.
“Well, you know why,” Easy answered. “Most can’t get past Page 43.”
We both laughed. Now that we were national TV celebrities, one of our shared goals in life was to meet any of the women who had been Jet’s “Beauty of the Week.”
We noticed that brothers and sisters were making serious strides on TV, public and commercial, outside of The Street. We knew Loretta had been on Soul!, that great music show on Channel 13. It was great to share a channel with them and the news magazine show Black Journal. I was checking out the other shows about bloods along the dial — Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant on Channel 5, Positively Black on Channel 4 and Like It Is on Channel 7. I was a Channel 7 fanatic because I had a huge crush on Eyewitness News’ Melba Tolliver. I would dream about her, how we would publicly announce our engagement on television and talk about how we would publicly fight for Black people.
Man, the music had exploded. Motown stopped being corny and attempted to catch up to the Blackness of Stax. You listen to Stevie and Marvin and the Temps and Tops and you wonder what they could really do. When I was on The Street, we got to really see that, thanks to Soul! and this other show on Channel 5. It was like Soul! but younger, more colorful. Soul Train became my jam and I forgave Don Cornelius for being from the Left Coast. All of a sudden, we were grooving on TV, and on strong. Soul! was local at first, then went national like Soul Train. (Because I was on TV and hung around TV people, I now paid attention to things like what broadcasts where.) I wondered if Loretta’s husband would steal Listen My Brother from The Street one day and be on either of these shows!
Soul! didn’t have commercials, and I thought that was a good thing until I got on the Train!!! The dancing, the scramble board, Don’s cool….all of it!!!! The commercials!! What the hell?!? Cleopatra selling hair spray and skin cream??? Frederick Douglass talking about keeping your Afro tight??? This really was a new day. I remember seeing The Godfather of Soul on, and some short, pudgy boy-preacher-type kid with a lotta hair and a deep voice named Al was giving him an award for something. We in The Street were non-commercial TV because we wanted to remain pure and not sell out like CBS’ Captain Kangaroo. But Soul Train showed that gaps were opening and we were coming in with our fists in the air.

Loretta introduced us to Ellis Haizlip, who was in charge of Soul! One of our favorite radio disk jockeys, Gerry Bledsoe (“Gerry B”), was there the day we went to its set. It was a great day. I was beginning to really see what our people were and what they were trying to do. I met a real cool chick there named Vicky, who was the show’s intern. I found out she was an artist with a capital A, attending Cooper Union and planning on getting a Ph.D.! Wow, people my age are making real strides, making real moves! I’m glad I have a TV deal!
My other crush was Angela Davis, who was in a battle for her life. I was riveted by the newspaper and radio accounts of her being captured after going underground. I struggled through George Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Easy helped me out and passed a dictionary to me to understand some of his words. (I gave up on reading Frantz Fanon — it was too hard — but I loved Stokely and Hamilton’s Black Power.) He was such a deep brother and Angela was such a deep sister. Committed. Like the Panthers, they represented a real challenge to America; you could tell because that has-been actor who was Callie’s governor seemed real scared of them.
Davis and Powell and others in the movement were all over National Black Network’s radio news. It was cool to know that bloods around the country allowed us to listen to what was going on. We were all linked through WWRL, WBLS and WLIB. Rumor has it that the bloods who purchased WBLS — which included Malcolm X’s lawyer and widow and Rev. Jesse Jackson, who I met on The Street! — stood for “Black Liberation Station.” When I was chatting with Mr, Kaiser about my love for our Black radio, he told me he read somewhere that the “LIB” in WLIB was from World War II and stood for “liberty.” Right on!
Me and Easy would talk for hours about the weekly newspapers of the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam. I liked how they both had sections called “What We Want” or “What We Believe.” I learned a lot about what was going on with bloods around the nation from those rags. Like Sister Vicky, we were on the move!
Folks from both groups seemed to be on every other corner, and I noticed that the corners they were on were devoid of drug dealers. I thought dealers weren’t afraid of nobody! (Me and Baby Breeze once poked our heads in the Harlem branch Panther office once just to see what cats were up to and some folks actually recognized us and cheered us!!! I couldn’t believe it!!!) I really respected those cats because they stood toe-to-toe with The Man. A gun for a gun and a life for a life.
I innocently asked Easy, “How come Black people read both these newspapers instead of just one or the other? Aren’t they too different for the masses?”
“Remember, Young Blood,” said Easy, “Malcolm said we’re not lynched because we’re a Democrat or Republican, but because we are Black.”
I asked Baby Breeze once what he thought of Adam Clayton Powell, our congressman who was getting thrown out at the time, and what LeRoi Jones, a.k.a., Immamu Amiri Baraka, was trying to do in Newark, the place where I would get my Italian hotdogs.
“Powell….You mean that Italian-looking Mo-Fo?” Baby Breeze asked. “I don’t know anything about him but he loves Malcolm and that he fights the Man — spits in his face. The rest is details, My Mello. As for LeRoi Jones, wasn’t he run out of Harlem or some’in? I hope he succeeds in fist-raisin’ over there, but the Mafia steers that Ark, so I don’t think he’ll survive it.”
Risk is our business….We’re not out here to survive….
Not surprisingly, Easy Reader had a more intellectual response to the Abyssinian Baptist Church pastor.
“Powell is one of the most powerful congressmen our people have,” he declared. “He has helped pass more domestic legislation than anyone else in recent memory. Freedomways even listed the legislation he was responsible for. Have you ever gone to his church? It’s like Black VIPs galore in there. And I like how he told Martin Luther King to don’t be coming up here with that nonviolent b — — -t.” He laughed.
During our all-too-brief hiatuses from The Street, me and Easy could finally stay up late on weeknights and listen to our favorite deejay, WWRL’s Gary Byrd. He had a way of mixing music, news and history that was really deep.
So many bloods were doing their thing. I’m glad Easy and I had ours — well, The White Lady’s, but still….

Being in the vortex of the Street took me beyond The Street. It also gave me new big brother figures. Since I never had a father, it was like being snared into a web of brotherly love.
Haizlip taught me the power of controlling your cultural product. He was introduced on-air as the producer of Soul! That was very important to us because we were always dancing to someone else’s tune. In this case of Soul! and Haizlip, we controlled the tune and the stage. For those of us who grew up in cities, we could go to cultural festivals and nightclubs to baptize ourselves in Black culture. But to put something like that on television…it was like creating a Black world for an hour. Haizlip used his contacts and skills to create the kind of cultural experience he wanted. And it went first around New York, and then around the nation! We were seeing ourselves as we really were. The Professor gave me the names of some books of poetry. Of course Mr. Kaiser found them for me to read. One poem, by Léon Damas, read something like, “Black is beautiful…and ugly too.” In the streets, I had been surrounded by much ugliness. Now I was not only seeing beauty but understanding it, knowing we can replicate it if we make the space to try and be consistent.
Ernest Kaiser is so disciplined. Librarians have to be, I guess. I want to reach his level of discipline. He was always so well-dressed, so ready to answer any questions. He knew the location of thousands of books in the Schomburg and somehow he knew what was in all of them. On the streets, we see all kinds of discipline, but none of it for anything positive. Mr. Kaiser had the kind of discipline I aspired to because it had so much dignity, so much purpose.
I only met Tony Brown once, but I was very impressed by his earnestness and directness. Like Mr. Kaiser, he was always impeccably dressed. I learned he was from Detroit — he had helped organize a march there where Martin Luther King tried out his “I Have A Dream Speech” before Washington — and that had a Master’s degree in Social Work. He might have been the first Black person I met who had a graduate degree. I felt that Brown could do almost anything. I was very upset but also very happy when he accepted a job as the first Dean of the School of Communications at Howard University. By the time he returned to New York I was a different man.
William Greaves was a lot like Haizlip: he was very independent. He didn’t want to spend his life at Black Journal. That feature film he made in the park was as crazy as its name. When I saw him, Greaves had a combination of energy and elegance that I wanted to emulate.
Michaux was my guru. I would go to the House, wait for him to be in between customers, and then pull up a chair from the back room and ask him questions. He was very patient because he saw the hunger in my eyes. Somehow, our exchanges felt ritualistic, in a way I really can’t explain. Whenever I would go on a quest for something or someone — like, say, Katherine Dunham for example — he would be Step One and Mr. Kaiser would be Step Two. I got key posters from the Professor: Malcolm, Huey and Bobby, Che, and later Angela Davis.
Easy made everything look Easy. Acting. Reading. Thinking. Just being. The white people who named his Electric Company character did a good job. I learned to focus without stressing out. I used to hang out with The Company cast; they were vets of stage and screen so they knew how to have a good time onstage and off.
And Matt…he always seemed to have so much confidence. He had been the host of a Black entertainment-type show in Philly, so he knew how hard Ellis Haizlip worked. He always wanted to try something new: that’s what led him to become Gordon. The vision of the White Lady and her Lieutenants intrigued him. He said he and Loretta used to talk all the time about what The Street would mean to Black children if it succeeded. They knew they were parenting those children in key ways.
Around this time I finally got some Brother Malcolm records. Deborah (much more on her later!) had told me where to go to get them in Brooklyn because the Professor always sold out by the time I’d get there to check the House. I had read Malcolm but hearing him was a whole different experience. I shared these records with Baby Breeze, Bease and Mil. We would play the same album until we had memorized it; then we would act it out for each other, mouthing Malcolm’s words and remembering gestures we saw on the albums and the books. I don’t know what Mil thought about Malcolm — he was deep into The Life — but Baby Breeze was like me; he couldn’t get enough. Beasey thought the man was a Muslim prophet. We all could hear the discipline in his voice that he called for in his written speeches and Autobiography.
We didn’t think much of Martin Luther King. To us, he was that fool crazy enough to ask Black people to love those who hated us. Love didn’t protect our mothers, sisters and girlfriends; we did, with bats and pieces. Even Beasey, a Christian minister, felt this way. We were definitely products of the Northeast. I never built up to nerve to ask The White Lady or The Street adult cast what they thought of King. The fatality was too raw.
The brothers I met during my time on The Street were like Malcolm, but in their own way: they were not only mature but extra Black and clear on their objectives. They were on paths of their own choosing while simultaneously doing what the times demanded.


With the framework for Elementary established, we had several challenges. The first one was to get the Lieutenants to agree on expanding the budget to include our new bit players.
“Can’t you use Big Bird, Grover and Cookie Monster?” one of them asked.
I was about to go off on them, but Matt pushed me back a step and stepped forward. Admittedly, he was better at things like this. The Street had not taken the street completely out of me yet. I literally bit my tongue.
“We’re doing the inside of an inner-city high school,” Matt explained for what seemed like the millionth time. “We need young people actually from the streets, who look, act and sound like they went to public school in the ghetto. The Muppets aren’t it.”
Matt was masterful with them. He quoted some dude named James Baldwin — and boy, for whatever reason, were they impressed by that name! — to talk about the intricacies of Black English. (I learned the word from taking the Professor’s advice and writing out the dictionary, the way he said Brother Malcolm did. I stopped after about a month and I keep trying to pick it back up, but I told Beasey about it and he did the whole dictionary!)
Anyway, Matt eventually won them down. We could get Baby Breeze (I had to remind him to keep it cool and not hurt the other actors if they got on his nerves. I even wrote a skit that starred him!), Tina and Henry as speaking characters — regulars — and about five people as extras, who would make noise but not be given speaking parts. (Which meant that only the regulars would be able to join The Screen Actors Guild.) We were also only given seven segments and those segments would repeat for at least one calendar year.
“Sold,” said Matt. “Solid!” said I.
One of the crew members said, “Now you’ll have to join the WGA — the Writers Guild.” That sounded good to me!
As segment showrunners, Matt and I decided that we were going to be hyper-democratic. We weren’t gonna act like the Lieutenants acted toward us. We would all get together as a cast and decide what we would do in a given Elementary segment and how we would do it.
I am sooooo glad I held back the instinct to tape-record our first weekly main cast meeting. I’m also really glad Loretta couldn’t make the first meeting because she was working on something with Haizlip and Listen My Brother.
Matt had a really nice place and a really nice wife. It was my first time meeting her, but we knew so much about each other from Matt it was like meeting an old friend. The kids I had gotten so used to seeing were asleep in their rooms upstairs.
Everybody but the Reverend Beasey came in smelling like weed. Baby Breeze brought whiskey. He had house training enough to ask me if it was okay for Mil — who he brought with him — to do some cocaine lines in Matt’s living room. I asked him to not to do and if he did, to let Matt know privately and to please do it discreetly in the ground-floor bathroom.
We all sat around the living room. Rev gave prayer. I kept my eyes open because I like to see how many actually close their eyes instead of just looking down. Everyone had their eyes closed — except Matt’s wife, who was upset that so many street people were in her house and one of them was such a heathen he kept his eyes open during prayer.
I quickly closed my eyes.
Matt took center stage and explained to everyone what we were trying to do. I told them that we had hand-picked them because we needed to show the variety of people in the inner city. I didn’t use the word “respectable,” a word that would come and bite me in the ass later; instead, I used the word “authentic.” I didn’t want to get anyone’s respect; I wanted children in the ghetto to understand that there was nothing wrong with them — how they communicated to others, how they expressed themselves when they were with their friends — and if people couldn’t buy that, that was their hangup.
Beasey: “This sounds great.”
Smart Tina: “It does, but we can’t let white people let the ‘Black segment’ look dumb.”
Baby Breeze: “Why you on the negative? As long as we don’t Uncle Tom, this will be the breakout segment of the show and that will make Roosevelt the breakout star.”
Me: “That’s not what I’m trying to do.”
Beasey: “But doing that means these young people will get to keep the jobs you and Matt are giving out, right? So there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Matt’s wife: “So is Tina the only woman in this?”
Matt: “The only one with a major speaking role, yes. There are women in the background whom the audience will see.”
Mil: “Do you have any cups for this whiskey?”
Henry: “So will we talk about the condition of Black people in this segment? Will we talk about how the pigs are vamping on Panthers across the country? Will Roosevelt teach about Huey or Malcolm or Kwame Nkrumah or Brother Stokely?”
Matt: “I don’t think we can go that far. I mean, they just had Jesse Jackson on and that was a big thing for them.”
Smart Tina: “When are they gonna have some strong sisters on?”
Me: “That’s gonna be you, Tina!”
Tina fell silent. That was a lot of responsibility. “As long as I don’t sound like some Amos ‘N’ Andy Sapphire, I’ll do my best.”
Matt: “Thank you.”
Mil: Excuse me, I gotta go to the bathroom to deal with this snow.”
Matt’s wife glared at Matt. He pretended to ignore it. I felt like this was not going well.
Baby Breeze asked, “We don’t have to deal with any Ofays, right? This is a just-us thing, right?”
“The crew will be white, but no, me and Matt are running this segment.”
Baby Breeze said with all seriousness, “Good. ’Cause I don’t wanna pull out my piece on these mo-fos.”
Tina and Matt’s wife were a little nervous at this. I read their faces like it was a shared thought balloon in a comic strip: Was he packing right now? Does he understand we have children upstairs?
If they knew Baby Breeze’s street rep, I thought, they’d upgrade their flight to fright.
“Baby Breeze, you work security for the show. Somehow, you got a gun permit — and I never wanna know how you managed that. But you don’t bring your own piece there, too, right?”
Baby Breeze just smiled. Henry smiled, too! I rolled my eyes and made a silent plea to Jesus and Allah.
Beasey sought to break the tension. “If I can ask a question: are you going to go with full scripts or just improv? How real is this going to be?”
“We’re going to do a little of both,” explained Matt. “We’re gonna come in with a topic and an outline and let people improv.”
“In fact,” I said, “Let’s try one now.”
So we gave them a sample idea. They were awful. They kept talking over each other. They kept trying to upstage each other — to win a contest of attention.
“I know what I’m talking about,” said Smart Tina, who was giving the right answer to a question.
“I’d have to look that up,” said Henry.
“Go ahead, you’ll see I’m right.”
Henry: “Then can I get those digits to talk to you about this later tonight, baby?”
Tina sighed and rolled her eyes. There was a lot of eye-rolling that night!
Baby Breeze ignored the conversation between Tina and Henry because he was giving his soliloquy about how the concepts of right and wrong were controlled by The Man.
“No, no, no,” said Matt. “You’ve gotta think about this like a dance — you are all moving together.”
“Trust me, all of you are going to get your turn in the spotlight,” I added. “We’re writing this, so we’ll make sure of it.”
Matt said we would try again next week. On cue, Mil came out of the bathroom grinning like a fool and floating like a loose kite.
Beasey did a closing prayer. Everyone closed their eyes (I checked!) Then they left as a group, arguing with each other over where they were going to sit in our classroom set. (On set, we decided for the sake of the camera angle that the three of them would be in one vertical row, with Tina starting in the middle, followed by Henry, then followed by Baby Breeze.)
Me and Matt’s wife looked like we had just seen a car accident up close.
Matt just chose to laugh. Then he pulled out a pad and started to write down everything he could remember.

On Saturday afternoon, I went to the Professor to talk about that disastrous meeting. As usual, the cashier recognized me and pointed to the back room.
He was with Noble and Byrd. The broadcasting those two brothers were putting down was like, the fifth topic of conversation on any street stoop or corner, including the ones with the drug dealers. The trio — two tall microphone men and a short Professor — were finishing a conversation. I couldn’t believe it when these up-and-coming Harlem stars actually recognized me! Because the two of them were so tall and I was so short, both had to bend down a little bit to shake my hand on the way out.
Noble turned to Byrd. “Do you think he looks like your co-conspirator Bob Law? He looks like he could be his son.”
Byrd looked at me intensely, then smiled. “A little.”
I had no idea who they were talking about.
Anyway, I moved on to my broadcasting tale. I told the Professor what happened at the meeting and he laughed. “It sounds like to me the only thing all of you have to do is tell it like it is and you’ll do fine.” I guess that’s what Matt was going to do.
I felt better after unloading on the Professor. He was happy that I was now relieved. (He must have a hard job, listening to people all day!) Then he went to a bookshelf and pulled out a book.
“I will let you have this for free if you promise to fight those white people you work for to do a segment on this.”
I nodded.
The book detailed the history of the African continent. I took it home and finished it by Sunday night. It stayed on my nightstand.


The Professor started giving me more and more time as I got more popular. It had nothing to do with the worship that people give to someone on television. He started to have stuff ready for me — highlighted even! I read this quote in one of the articles the Professor gave me:
“In the case of the American Negro, from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.”
The Professor made sure he wanted me to see this quote. I think it was that Baldwin guy The Lieutenants were so impressed with.
Then he gave me a journal that had something called a “doll test” in it. It showed that Black children not only preferred white dolls but thought they were better than Black dolls. The study showed that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created low self-esteem in Black children.
While the Professor was pulling my coat about this, one of those scholar guys who buy a bunch books — the brown-skinned one — came over.
The Professor told him who I was and what he was showing me.
The Scholar-Guy paused.
“Young man, I want you to remember something. Europeans not only colonized most of the world, they colonized information about the world.
Then he walked off. Then the Professor gave me a salute, and went to help another customer.
I felt some sort of invisible weight on me. Suddenly, I missed my street-running days with, ign’t as f — k, with Baby Breeze.

I talked about this with Easy and Loretta and Matt.
Easy: “Yeah, my man, we have a deep job with these here chillins. We are a shock to their racialized system.”
Matt: “We are trying to give all children a psychic rupture of the brainwashing all of them have had. Look at how our show is structured. Loretta and I are the two adult leads, right? That means we are the adult figures of this show. That’s the first time that’s happened to Blacks in a way that has stuck. I mean, some of us remember when Nat King Cole had his own variety TV show. It didn’t last long, because the crackers in the South weren’t on board at all.”
Loretta: “Just by us existing every day — by being the TV ‘parents’ to the audience — we can change people’s hearts and minds. On the show, I’m not a nanny or a maid. I’m married to Gordon, an educated Black man. Julia didn’t even have that! We are a professional couple who are leaders on this street. That means as leaders, as role models for the Monsters and the children, as parents, we are in no way inferior to anyone else. For national TV, that’s new.”
So I began to understand the near-religious zeal of The White Lady behind this because there was actually something behind this. So The Street was not just about numbers and letters, or the joys of cooperation, or the importance of learning how to cross the street on green. What we were really doing was wiring kids’ minds to see color but not make it the basis for a judgement call. That’s why Hippie Henson and the Lieutenant picked monsters that together were the color of a rainbow. This entire show was an antidote to the doll test! Solid!


A good story to tell is how The Street stopped me from getting high — well, as high as I used to get, anyway.
Hiatus time. Saturday. Sunny day, everything A-OK, so we all went to the record store — me, Brother Bease, Baby Breeze, Easy, Mary Frances, the Elementary cast, all of us. We spent the afternoon there.
There’s something about the record store. Music has no beginning and no end. I was reading books the Professor suggested that explained that music was part of African life and it was proof that “our experience was non-linear” — whatever that means. All I knew was that we groove on everything, from jazz to Gospel to Rock to Soul!
Beasey went to get The Staple Singers (“O Happy Day”) and, for a walk on the wild side, the original cast recordings of Christian rock operas Godspell and Jesus Christ, Superstar.
Mary Frances ran to get the debut album of the Jackson 5: Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5. Finally in possession of a full album, she sang those Jackson 5 songs all day and night and often lovingly rubbed the huge poster of the group that hung over her bed.
Hardhead Henry Harris was looking for some group called The Last Poets. The owner had a couple of 12-inch singles.
Baby Breeze and Mil were looking to see if Sly and the Family Stone and something. They also heard of these new funk bands Funkadelic and the Salty Peppers. The owner explained that the latter was going by a new name based on the leader’s astrological chart.
Matt was heavy into The Rolling Stones and The Beatles — which to me was like being a Yankees and Mets fan at the same time. He also wanted to check out the new Miles disc, Bitches Brew. Word on the street was Miles wanted to follow Sly’s groove.
Smart Tina had a serious jones for Ike and Tina Turner. I think she wanted to be just like Tina Turner when she was younger because she looked at those album covers the way I looked at baseball cards and Beasey looks at his Marvel comics. When she thought no one was looking or listening, she would sing “Proud Mary” to herself in between Elementary rehearsals.
So here we are, swirling in a secular-sacred circle, spinning. It’s a wonderful feeling to be alive and at a music store, to step into our world and swim in it. With the cares of the world gone.
We all came back to my place and played our new records. We danced and all of a sudden, it was an instant party, a celebration of art and Black culture and all that lay between bridging the two. All the music felt like it hung in the air, that it was blending into each other through our ears. It was like the music was pulling us forward, into a new reality that the artists could see but that had us temporarily blind.
Everybody left at midnight. I was so filled with music and art my head didn’t hit the pillow until 2 a.m. So later on that night, I had been wondering whether I had been spending too much time in TV Land and waayyy too much time with Easy and the Professor because I had this weird-ass dream.
I was at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, a place I’ve only heard about all my life but have never visited. It was nighttime. There was some kind of special service. I was there, as was Mary Frances, Mil and Baby Breeze. We were all in our Sunday best. I couldn’t tell if it was a funeral or a wedding.
It turned out to be neither. In the pew on either side of pastor Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a roster of the dead and future dead — Nat Turner, Martin Luther King, Ida B. Wells, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Evelyn Cunningham, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, the Professor and those two scholar-guys.
There were mikes on the pulpit’s podium, like it was a press conference. Instead of saying the call letters for channels 2, 4, 5 and 7, it said BET News, Radio One, Black Power Media, Roland Martin Unfiltered/Black Star Network, American Urban Radio Network, Marc Lamont Hill Official, The Grio, WLIB-AM, WWRL-AM, WOL-AM and TV One.
Some soul gospel sang in the background — even a soul version of “Day By Day,” that song from Godspell. (I felt bad for Sonia that she couldn’t be in the movie because she had Street duty. She told me her Godspell character, the sexy flapper-type chick, was written for her by its Carnegie Mellon creators. She took it like a trooper and wished everybody in the film cast — including her lookalike replacement, Joanne Jonas, well.) Appropriately, Sonia, a veteran of the original off-Broadway cast, was the choir soloist in this dream. The choir was was vined in red, black and green.

Day by day
Day by day
Oh, Dear Lord
Three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly
Follow thee more nearly
Day by day
Follow thee more nearly
Day by day
Day by day
Day by day
Oh, Dear Lord
Three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly
Follow thee more nearly
Day by day
Day by day by day by day……..

The choir then suddenly switched to a song that I somehow knew hadn’t been written yet. “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”

Hang on to the world as it spins around
Just don’t let the spin get you down
Things are moving fast
Hold on tight and you will last
Keep your self-respect, your manly pride
Get yourself in gear
Keep your stride
Never mind your fears
Brighter days will soon be here
Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free, yeah
Keep on walking tall
Hold your head up high
Lay your dreams right up to the sky
Sing your greatest song
And you’ll keep going, going on
Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free
Hey, just wait and see, someday we’ll all be free, yeah

Then the choir switched to another song that somehow I knew hadn’t been written yet. I somehow sang along anyway:

Blow wind, blow
Further than a thousand winds
Blow wind, blow
Transporter of the clouds
Blow wind, blow
Fan of a thousand fires
Can’t you see?
That every place you go
The people gotta need to understand
Yes, the people wanna know
Won’t you blow wind, blow
Fly breeze, fly
Like a symbol of the change
Fly breeze, fly
Cuz’ only you can conquer time
Fly breeze, fly
Between the sunshine and the rain
Can’t you see?
Moving on from place to place
There’s a need for peace
Written on everybody’s face
Won’t you fly breeze, fly
You alone have been to Africa
(To hear the rhythms of the drums)
And at the same time in America
(You breathe the morning sun)
I wanted to get word to my brothers
But I really didn’t know how
Not until now
Until now
Blow wind, blow
Please tell em’ don’t give up the fight
And blow wind, blow
Through the calm and through the storm
Blow wind, blow
Between the pages of my life
Can’t you see?
Traveling on the wings of time
That only you can look ahead
And see what’s happenin’ is clearly as you see
Won’t you blow wind, blow
Blow wind, blow
Blow wind, blow
Blow wind, blow

Somehow, I figured out I was in a time vortex. The past, my present and the future somehow were occupying the same space in that church. What shocked me was who suddenly got up from the front row to speak at the podium. It was Brother Beasey! He was resplendent in red, black and green robes.
He held a large book that I somehow knew was called The Book of Nommo. The choir grew silent. He opened it and began to read.

In the beginning. God created the Heavens and the Earth and Gutenberg created the printing press mainly to print for the masses a holy book that told how in the beginning….
Then the printing press begat something called the telegraph.
Then the telegraph begat both the telephone and. later. something called “wireless” communication. It was eventually to be known as the radio.
Then the radio begat television.
Then television begat cable. then a later sibling called satellite service.
But there was also a Computer. And the Computer grew powerful. And all were sore afraid.
And the Computer said to them. Lo, I will merge all of thee within my bosom called the World Wide Web, and there will be a Great Convergence throughout the land. And this Great Convergence will allow a television set to be All Things.

But where was the Drum?
The Drum, the creation of a Great People, was born between God’s creation of the Heavens and the Earth and Man’s creation of the printing press.
No one had asked the keepers of the Drum to join the Great Convergence. And so. The Drum was left in the wilderness, to wither and die.
But the keepers of the Drums had faith. So they said, Lo, since no one will ask us to join with them, we shall join within Ourselves to make sure that all continue to see and hear the Drum; For the Drum is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, of Our Experience. The Drum is our Soul, and we cannot live without our Soul. We must play our own Drums; For too long have others played the Drums for us.

So the keepers of the Drum Converged within Themselves.
And God and The Ancestors saw the Great Convergence of the Drum, and All Was Good.

I had no idea what the de hell he was talking about. Beasey turned to sit down, but before he did he looked at me and said, “There’s always been a hunger in Roosevelt’s eyes. I’m glad he found that television show because it allowed him to advance. I like that he’s with brothers and sisters who are making something happen. I’m part of the Negro past; Roosevelt is going to be in the Black future.”
The church said “Amen.” I got red, partly from embarrassment and partly because of the nakedness of the love the Rev expressed. It’s hard for Black men to open up, y’know?
Then suddenly, Martin and Malcolm got up and stood at the podium together.

Suddenly a voice boomed, “So that’s the past and the future. So what’s shakin’ now, Roosevelt?”

I woke up. What the hell — um, what the Heaven?

It was Sunday. So I went to see the star of the dream, who just finished preaching to five people. He was placing the folding chairs in the back of his trailer. Without saying hello, I started to help him.

“Thanks! It’s good to see you, Brother Roosevelt!”
“It’s better to see you,” I said. “Wait ‘till you hear what I have to tell you!”
He locked up his trailer and joined me at a local coffee shop.
I told him about my dream. “So this is about too much time at the record store, right?”
He paused, looking very serious.
“I just had a dream I was walking to a podium but I woke up before I said anything.”
So now we were both very contemplative.
“The only thing I can say about your dream is that you are near the center of great cultural and historical forces. God wants you to learn not only from the past and present but the future! That’s a great blessing! Continue to pray, continue to pay attention, and your moment will arrive.”
“To do what?” I asked.
He smiled. “I hope to be here to find out,” he said.
That’s when I left the weed alone — for the most part.


Met at a newsstand Uptown. I was there to get the latest issues of Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk for Beasey. I don’t really know when my gang got into the 12-cent Marvel funnybook habit. By 1968, when everyone — Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Sub-Mariner — got their own separate books, we were locked. We wouldn’t be caught dead reading DC, not any of us. It was Marvel that had T’Challa and Wakanda, after all, while those corny, racist asses had Gorilla City in Africa. We were mad when all the comics jacked up their prices to 15 cents and then 20 cents, but it didn’t stop our serious four-color jones.
She had on a black leather jacket, a sweater, jeans and an Afro. Somehow she made that look foxy. She was looking through newspapers, deciding whether to buy The New York Times or The Daily News.
“So I see you’re a serious intellectual,” she said with a smile as she looked at my purchase. She had big, powerful eyes. I could tell just after 10 seconds that she had a lot going on under the surface. She was Mt. Everest and I pulled out my boots!
“Well, you know, I like light reading,” I answered. I immediately started my smooth rap.
(I would say that I’m getting the comics for a friend, but it sounds too much like trying to convince somebody that you read Playboy for the articles.)
“So…which paper do you prefer?”
“Actually, the paper I sell, the People’s paper, The Black Panther,” she said. “But I still have to keep up with what’s going on for our Political Education class. I guess I’ll have to get both.”
Wow! I’m talking to an actual Black Panther! I didn’t know chicks this fine joined!
“So when is this Political Education class, and when are you in it?”
She giggled. “You don’t waste a lot of time, do you? I’ll tell you what, you can pick me up at the Branch HQ after Political Education class tomorrow and we can get a cup of coffee. Then I’ll tell you about the Party. How about that?”
“Solid, baby! Lay those digits on me!”
She laughed at my enthusiasm. Then she pulled a piece of paper and put the name “Deborah” on it along with her number. (I found out when I called it was to a Panther Pad.) She told me it was her middle name. She told me it was going to be easier if she called me.
Surprisingly, she did. So we started to hang out. I realized I had to take it slow when I tried this at the end of the first date:
Me: “Okay. The beginning.”
Her: “Nice try. Nicer line.”
So I did. She was real serious but funny at the same time. She just graduated college and was mapping out her future. We went to museums, to the Schomburg (Mr. Kaiser was very impressed with my date!) and to the movies. She really liked that For The Love of Ivy flick: “The brother understood the sister was being emotionally exploited.”
She talked and l listened. She told me about the revolution in Cuba. The Little Black Book. Who Che was. Who Robert Williams was. What the Deacons of Defense were. How Brother Malcolm inspired them. About the Panther 21 case. I would memorize in my head book titles she would mention and then go back and ask the Professor and Mr. Kaiser about them.
I began to buy The Black Panther every week there was a new one out.
When I told her about my upcoming work with The Street, she grew very quiet, very pensive, for about a minute. Then she said, “Television can be a great weapon for Political Education. I’m glad our children will see you and other Black people on TV, and not the Ozzie and Harriet stuff we grew up with.” `
My friends had the standard reaction to my new, exciting diversion.
Baby Breeze: “Man, now that you living the high life, you now want them brainy chicks. I like chicks who like to ball, period. As usual, you are wasting your time. When you’re off from work, you’re off to the library — where all the ugly chicks are — with your head in a book. What a waste of youth!”
Mil: “Does she give up the panties or what? If you’ve hung out three times and the drawers don’t drop, you a fool!”
Brother Beasey: “My brother, I’m very proud of you. I’m glad you’re seeing that there’s more than just the flesh when it comes to getting a help-mate, even for a friend. Between her and this new job, you’re learning a lot. That’s always good.”
And now, my new friend Matt: “Okay, with this chick, balling has to be her idea. You let her know where you stand, and it’ll happen either sooner or later. Keep it cool as ice.”
Our schedules ultimately got in the way so we never got more than platonic. But she seemed happy that I didn’t make the panty push. It was like she had a lot on her mind and appreciated that I took her away from what she was dealing with. She was happy that I was drawn to, and was hungry for, her ideas.
We had a direct talk one night. We knew this was so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night. It was time to move on to our very individual destinies. No harm, no foul, but no dice.
“Okay, girl, you deep and alladat,” I conceded. “We’ll do this friend thang, but I’m just letting you know, I’m gonna come for you one day!”
She laughed out loud. “Yeah, okay. I’ll be ready.”


Being locally famous was outtasite! I was very humble when I could enjoy it! I mean, I was working and reading so much that there really wasn’t a lot of time for me to ego out. I did enjoy getting fan mail. Most of the fan mail was from little kids. But this one blew my mind!

Dear Roosevelt,
Thank you for showing our children can learn. As a student teacher, you are an identifiable role model for our young people. And as a former director of service for children, I know they need to see people like you!
Keep going! Hope we can meet at some point in Brooklyn! Until then, take care!
Shirley Chisholm

Wow! She had just got elected to Congress and she wrote me!
I showed the letter to everyone — Matt and Loretta (“D — n!,” said Loretta, shaking my hand), Sonia (“Wow!”), Mary Frances (“Now you really are famous!), Baby Breeze (“Go ‘head on!) and the Professor (“I’m glad she knows you!”). They made me get a frame for it. Everyone was happy, but when Brother Bease read it, I saw tears well up in his eyes: “You are making a real difference for our people and this proves it!”


So with the crazy hours I now keep, getting up late — late meaning after 8 a.m., when the producers let me — is now a guilty pleasure. So imagine that destroyed when I get a 6 a.m. call from Easy.
“Hey, Rose! Dig, turn on Channel 2 right now!!!”
After a few choice curse words — and how and when did I become “Rose” all of a sudden? — I fumble to the TV and turn it on.
So the black screen on my black-and-white TV comes into view, and I’m seeing a Black man in a suit talking. He looks familiar and his name flashes occasionally on the screen, but I’ve decided to focus on what he is saying.
He’s talking about ancient history from the chocolate-chip side. I listen. I realize that he’s the brown-skinned guy I keep seeing at The House — the one buying all the books and having those long conversations with the Professor! I remember that Easy is still on the line. “Easy, let me call you back.” Click.
Dude talks for almost a half-hour, uninterrupted. I forget his name but not something he said. Something about history being a clock…..
I call Easy back.
“Okay, thanks! But what the hell was that?”
“A new show!” he said. “One-hundred-and-something lectures about us and our history, y’dig?”
Boy, this TV thing is really important, I say to myself because I don’t want Easy to think I’m stupid.
“Solid!,” I say.
“Space-age transmission,” Easy joked.
“Well, let’s get up and get dressed and play our parts in the space age,” I joked back.
We exchanged solids and all that bulls — t and got off the phone.
Up. Showered. Dressed. For some reason I keep thinking of how in movies and TV, they never show anybody taking a bath or a shower. At least on The Street we show Ernie having a good time with his rubber duckie.
So I go check in on Mary Frances, who is scribbling something while eating cereal. The TV is on, but for company, not for watching. I realize that we never talk in the mornings anymore — she’s always coming back from work and I’m always going or gone.
“Hey, Mary Frances, have you checked out this new thing on Channel 2 called Black Heritage?”
“Yeah,” she said nonchalantly, like she said almost everything. “I normally catch it when I’m coming back home.”
Okay, out the door. Now to what has really become my schedule at this point. Get to work. If it’s a light day, go check out the Professor at the House and if it’s a heavy day come straight home and go to sleep so you are ready for cast call the next morning. Boy, Bird, Kermit and Oscar must have cots and showers in their dressing rooms, because they’re always there when I go home and always there no matter how early I get there the next day.
I meant to ask Baby Breeze this exact question because he would know. Because he arrives at the studio gates every day by 8 a.m. to start his shift. When I helped him get the job, it was to get him off my back. I’ve been shocked that not only has he stayed on for the last six months, but that he actually has taken to the role— dark blue uniform and cap, station, booth, desk, the whole nine.
“My Mello!”
“Hey, Baby Breeze. Have you heard about this new thing on Channel 2 called Black Heritage?’”
“Yep, I watch it while getting dressed. We are Negroes no more, My Mello. We are now Black on the way to being African.”
I was shocked at this coming out of Baby Breeze’s mouth. Growing up, if you called him “Black” — don’t even think about calling him African! — he’d fight you and if he wasn’t winning, would pull out his switchblade. “Black” meant dirty and “African” meant those dumb people in the Tarzan films we all grew up with.
“You better look out, Baby Breeze. You soundin’ like one of those ‘Habari Gani’ people!” I laughed.
Baby Breeze looked me in the eyes. “’My Mello, ‘Habari Gani’ means ‘What’s the news?’ in Kiswahili.” So I’m glad to be able to say that and tell you what it means. I learned it watching one of those shows….”
Wow. People you’ve known all your life can still really surprise you.
“Well, What’samatterU to you, too,” I joked, using a pun from Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Okay, score one to Bob Dylan about the times, ’cause if a street n — — r like Baby Breeze not only has a real job but is working on improving himself, they are for real a’ changin’!
Leaving the offices for The Street, I transform into “Roosevelt Franklin.” On my break, the real me seeks out Loretta and Matt. Thankfully, they are not yet annoyed by my taking so much of their break time almost every day to ask questions about everything and anything.
Loretta: “Yeah, we are living in this new world where more people are getting more information than ever before.”
Matt: “Just look at what we do here. Millions more children now know their ABCs and 123s because of us. That means fewer children left behind in kindergarten.”
They always know the right thing to say.
It was an early day, so I popped into the House and asked the Professor about it. “Oh yeah, they told me a year ago what they were going to do. I told them, ‘Don’t hesitate to call me if you need any help.’ I watch it each and every day.”
Did I join a cult? What is it with everybody? Don’t nobody wanna talk about Motown or Jim Brown anymore?
The Professor peeped my brow and chuckled because he knew what I was thinking. “The Negro has been so brainwashed that once he or she hears the truth, it takes a while to absorb. The problem with the truth is, once you hear it, you can’t unhear it. You become responsible. This is what Malcolm had to deal with at different stages of his life.”
I decided to be quiet. It was still painful for the Professor to talk about Malcolm. Sometimes when he came up, the Professor would actually pull out a hankie and turn away from me for a couple of minutes. I remember reading in The Autobiography that Malcolm said if he could, he’d go right back and finish his education from the grade he left it. I suddenly remembered Rev. Beasey and his dictionary copying, Frederick Douglass and that orator book of his, the yearning across time…..
So The Street and other programs were not just on for background noise but were part of an unseen curriculum that we all took part in every day, all across the nation. That was deep as s — t. I began to begin to think about what I could actually do as “Roosevelt Franklin.” What power did I have? I was having so much fun with my new “family” I had never asked myself that. I started to pay a little more attention to not only what we were all doing at work but why and to what end. And I became a regular watcher of Black Heritage, no matter how early it was on, no matter how tired I was.


I’m not really serious about Daisy because she wanted a leash while I wanted a jet pack.
Daisy is one of those girls who are everything an average guy on paper wants. Cute as a button. Church girl. Going straight to City College after graduation. Committed to New York. Typical New Yorker in that she hates going to Jersey; the mere thought of living there would give her nightmares.
But she is boring, boring, boring.
Me: “What do you want out of life, Daisy?”
Daisy: “I want a Black man with a good job so with our double income we can take care of our two babies.”
Me: “What do you want out of life, Deborah?”
Deborah: “I’m so different now than from who I was just a few years ago. I would have just wanted a house, a husband, a job and a dog then. Now I want revolution — I want our people to be free.”
To be honest, I just want to make these chicks on the regular. At least that’s what I tell myself. I mean, me and Baby Breeze know who to go to if we just want to ball. We know there are really fine chicks who charge (and we have no problem with that, when we have the bread), and then there are the really good-looking chicks who just love to ball — including a couple of okay Ofays we know who can’t get enough of the Mandingo Dark Meat.
I am highly sexed in my own mind, but when it comes to making it a priority, it never really takes. Love and sex are definitely two different things, and only one is on my mind constantly.
For Baby Breeze, though, it’s a game he takes as seriously “ass” football and baseball. He has a specific dress for the hunt, a turtleneck. Don’t ask me how, but it works. He even has a specific cologne for balling. He claims he got it in Haiti and that it was made from the sweat of birds there into an aphrodisiac. Real dumb s — t, but he claims it works.
Baby Breeze’s style is to be smooth, but always with a little danger. Baby Breeze likes to show a woman that he will give her a good time and if any n — -r tries something with her, he might kill them. He likes that protector s — t. I think Baby Breeze got this attitude from hanging out with too many paisans. Being that paisans don’t like Moolies and will kneecap a Moolie if a blood looks at their almost-pale women in the wrong way, that’s not an easy personal connection. But Baby Breeze liked to do things that most people couldn’t get away with. Our thirst for adventure, for what you get to see and experience doing things the hard way, is what brought us together in the first place.
I like tomcatting with Baby Breeze because while he comes on strong, I can be gentle like the morning rain, baby! I can be love personified — patient, kind, and all that jazz in the Bible. You’d be surprised how quickly the panties drop when you’re not begging for it. I also like to be straight-up indifferent. That drives chicks crazy because there’s like, “Why are you not pursuing me? What’s going on here?” I learned that this was just a thing that worked for men, and you’ll be surprised who I learned it from! Believe it or not, it was Mary Frances! She had a thing for Spock that shocked the s — t out of me! The most emotionless one on the Enterprise had the biggest hold on the female fans, according to TV Guide.
The problem was none of my s — t worked on either Daisy or Deborah. See, Deborah was a divorced woman and a Panther. She had no time or space for silly s — t. I would see her at rallies, snatching quick conversations. Every once in a while, we would do a movie or she’d come by and we listen to some records.
But she was really married to those Cats and I was just the side-hobby. All I learned about her was that Deborah was actually her middle name and she grew up in the South and North and she had a sister. I had to struggle to make sure I was more than her little brother, but it was almost like you’re in a debate but the person you thought your opponent was somewhere else, debating a third person.
We’d be at my pad and our me-and-she rap session would go like this:
Deborah: “Brother Roosevelt, I’m really glad how committed you are to our small children.”
Me: “Thanks, Deborah. So do you like my record collection? I just got the new Miles — and man, is he new with this Bitches Brew!”
Deborah: “Yeah, we play it at the Panther Pad all the time.”
Me: “What do you want me to play?”
Deborah: “No, nothing right now, thanks.”
She would get real silent sometimes. I began to feel that she was using me for something unusual — not for sex or money or fame but for a space for silence, for contemplation. With what was going on with the New York Panthers — oh, and did I mention the Newark branch office got bombed?!?!? — I understood it although I wasn’t very happy about it. I read carefully the Panther papers I used to buy from her in bulk (she said she was a “lousy” paper seller) and then discreetly give to Baby Breeze, Northern, Beasey, Sonia, Loretta and Matt to give away: Panthers consistently said and wrote that they thought their destiny as a party was either death or revolution, which meant everything from overturning the American government to radically reforming it.
Her silence would create my silence. I would turn off the TV or radio or stereo if we had it on. She would sit on a chair and I would sit upright on my bed. She stared into space while I stared at her.
She knew I wanted her horizontally but she liked that I understood her — that everything was not about two pairs of drawers on the floor. But I have to admit it would frustrate me when she would big-hug me goodbye and just kiss me on the cheek. One time she did that goodbye, I held her head tenderly and kissed her back on the forehead. That almost-parental “endearment” move (Man, this fancy language! I’ve been hanging out with Beasey, Easy and The Prof for too long!) surprised both of us. All of a sudden, instinct had our foreheads meet and it was then I realized I was both participant and observer of a doomed situation.
Soon after that, her picture would be on the front page of The Daily News, with the top story being she being wanted for questioning.

And then there was Daisy. With her, I had the opposite problem in terms of relating to her. I didn’t have to fight for her attention — at least not in the way I had to with Deborah. She understood that as a church girl, she had to reel me in but not go too far. Daisy gave me full-mouth kisses and would mount me on a couch or, in this case, a chair, for both dry-hump quasi-satisfaction and to assure unlimited second-base freedom — I loved handling her sizable bosom for hours — but she wanted my crystal-clear intentions before she dropped the panties. So I was hitting permanent ground-rule doubles although my bat was clearly wanting to slide into the dugout.
Daisy: “So with your television career established, don’t you want to work on getting a family now?”
Me: “I don’t have a ‘television career,’ Daisy. It’s something I fell into and something that Ofay can easily push me out of.”
Daisy: “So then what about your future?”
Me: “S — t, I still have yet to decide what my present is. I’ve fallen into a speeding race car but I’m not yet driving.”
Silence. Bra snapped back on, blouse buttoned back on, dismounted.
So one chick wanted, needed, stillness because she was in a gale worthy of Dorothy and Toto; she needed the center, or any center, of silence. And the other wanted forward, exact motion.
All of this close-but-really-far-away s — t was deeply frustrating, both emotionally and sexually. For me, everything is a possibility to expand or contract. I’m trying to reach for the future, the way Matt and Loretta and Sonia have. I want possibility, adventure and purpose — this is why I’m attracted to both chicks because they appeal to the different sides of me. Breeze and Bease told me in their very particular styles that I’m putting too much onto them, and myself.
So for a while, all of this made my carnal visits to the white girl — and her cute blond friends, one of whom even knew who I was and told me to do whatever I wanted with and to her! — quite regular, to be honest. Only one of my heads was screwed on straight.


I thought now was the time to use the book on my nightstand. I told Matt and the team my idea and they loved it. The Professor got me one of those display maps you have in real elementary schools. Danny Epstein, one of The Street’s top musicians, provided us with the best beat a human could produce, and our cast had mastered improv at this point.

Roosevelt Franklin: Here I am. Now, who knows what Africa looks like?
Smart Tina: I do. I do.
Hardhead Henry Harris (annoyed at Tina): Agh.
Roosevelt: Uh huh, describe for us.
Suzetta Something (also annoyed): No. She knows nothing.
Tina: I do too. I know…
Henry: You don’t know all about…
Tina: …everything.
Henry: …Africa.
Suzetta: I know you do.
Tina: I know all about Africa.
Suzetta: Mm mm.
Tina: It’s a Jungle. Just one big jungle.
Suzetta: Agh.
Roosevelt: Uh.
Tina: I know because I saw it on the “Tarzan” movie.
Suzetta: A Tarzan movie?
Henry: Tarzan?
Suzetta: Were you listening…
Roosevelt: Uh…
Tina: Right?
Henry: Oh.
Roosevelt: Wrong. Wrong, Smart Tina.
Suzetta: Wrong. Wrong. Smart Tina, you’re wrong. You’re wrong.
Roosevelt: You…
Tina: Oh.
Roosevelt: You and…
Henry: Oh, no.
Roosevelt: You and Tarzan are both wrong. Look at this. Only this little teeny bit of Africa is a jungle. All this is a desert.
Henry: Aww.
Students: Mm hmm.
Roosevelt: All this is a whole bunch of beaches.
Suzetta: Aww, that’s nice.
Suzetta: Aww.
Henry: A bunch of beaches?
Roosevelt: And water.
Tina: And water.
Henry: Uh huh.
Roosevelt: And fishing places.
Students: Mm hmm.
Roosevelt: And these…
Henry: Mm hmm?
Roosevelt: …are big cities…
Students: Big cities?
Henry: You mean big cities?
Roosevelt: …with buildings.
Suzetta: Look at that tall one.
Henry: Mm hmm.
Roosevelt: And lakes.
Henry: Yeah.
Suzetta: Lakes too?
Roosevelt: And parks.
Students: Mm hmm?
Roosevelt: And schools.
Tina: Schools?
Henry: Mm hmm, they need a school?
Suzetta: Yeah.
Roosevelt: And up here, it is oil.
Students: Oil!
Henry: Oil?
Roosevelt: And down here, it is diamonds.
Students: Diamonds!
Henry: Aww.
Roosevelt: And here, it is gold.
Students: Gold!
Roosevelt: And this whole place is next to the biggest piece of land in the whole world.
Students: Wow.
Roosevelt: Now do you know what Africa looks like?
Tina: Yes. I guess I was wrong, for once.
Students: For once?
Henry: [laughs]
Suzetta: Yeah.
Henry: [laughs] Yeah. Well…
Suzetta: [laughs]
Henry: …I know what Africa look like, and I know what Smart Tina looked like…
Suzetta: Tell her.
Henry: …too. [laughs]
Suzetta: Tell her. Tell her what she looks like.
Henry: She look like an African queen.
Students: Aww.
Suzetta: Are you listening in?
Tina: Oh, that’s nice.
Suzetta: This is it.
Henry: Yeah. Wait. She, with, with, with diamonds and, and gold all around her.
Students: Aww.
Tina: Aww, come on.
Henry: And…
Suzetta: I didn’t…
Henry: …and, and…
Suzetta: …want you…
Henry: …and, and…
Suzetta: …to talk like that.
Henry: Dig it, dig it. She, she has a smile like the desert sun.
Tina: Like…Aww.
Students: Aww.
Tina: Oh, yeah.
Suzetta: Oh, yes.
Henry: I mean, and eyes like the cool waters of the lakes.
Suzetta: Oh, it is very…Agh.
Tina: Uh huh.
Suzetta: You know I didn’t mean like that.
Henry: And she’s tall like buildings…
Tina: Aww.
Henry: …in the great cities. [laughs]
Students: Wow.
Tina: Aww.
Henry: And…
Suzetta: That’s nice.
Henry: …and, and, and, and, dig deep. She got feet like an African elephant.
Tina: How dare you point me?
Henry: [laughs] Yes, you do.
Tina: How dare?
Henry: You know that’s what I do.
Suzetta: Like an elephant.
Suzetta: I think that’s where it’ll be.
Roosevelt: I think, I think…
Suzetta: I saw your feet.
Tina: Stop laughing at me, you.
Henry: I think you’ve…
Roosevelt: I think…
Henry: …big toes.
Roosevelt: …class is dismissed.
Suzetta: [laughs]
Tina: Henry, what are you saying?
Suzetta: Look at her.
Roosevelt: I know it’s dismissed…
Suzetta: Talk of big…
Roosevelt: …now.
Suzetta: …toes. Big legs…
Roosevelt: ’Cause I’m not going to…
Suzetta: …and everything.
Roosevelt: …stay around here to see what she…
Tina: You, what did you say?
Roosevelt: …says to him.
Tina: What did you say?
Henry: You heard it loud from me.
Suzetta: You better know.
Roosevelt: I’m going to…
Suzetta: Like the hands…
Henry: You recall.
Roosevelt: …dismiss myself.
Suzetta: …like the leg and feet…
Henry: You better get back in the comment again.
Roosevelt: In fact…
Suzetta: In fact? …of an elephant. An elephant. [laughs]
Roosevelt: …it’s like…
Tina: Don’t laugh at me.
Roosevelt: …I’m going to give myself a pass…
Suzetta: You have bigger feet.
Roosevelt: …to get out of the class.
Suzetta: Look there.
Henry: You know you’re just…
Tina: You better not laugh at…
Henry: …you’re just like that.
Tina: …me.
Henry: Look at your feet…
Tina: Yes, you know you don’t mean that.
Henry: …big here, and big toenails.

Matt and I were so happy about this skit that we took the entire Elementary cast to dinner at Sylvia’s to celebrate. It didn’t feel like The Last Supper.


Matt told me he had a secret project. He had just gotten The White Lady’s permission to do it. He told me that it was going to be a me-and-him thing, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was yet. I learned to take everything with a mellow vibe, so I said, “Sure, Matt, whenever you are ready.”

But meanwhile…..well, the rumors were true, so we had to break the bad news. Me and Matt told everybody in our weekly Elementary meeting that there would be no more weekly meetings.
“What the f — k?” said Baby Breeze. Me and Matt were happy we told Baby Breeze to don’t leave his day job, so he just went back to the security gate.
“I knew this was going to happen once we did a segment on Africa!” exclaimed Hardhead Henry Harris. “The Man can only handle so much truth. They understand that we were reaching our kids and that we made them proud to be themselves. We were telling our people to not imitate somebody else.” Harris, who I had learned had real connections with the New York Panthers, was part of the cadre that became the Black Liberation Army. He told me he said he was proud that Clarence Williams III had stolen his Elementary look completely for ABC’s Mod Squad.
Smart Tina took it very hard because she really got excited about how she was becoming famous in the ghetto. She kept all the positive letters we got about her, saying how happy our people were to see smart, confident Black girls on television. She wept and ran out of the room.
Suzetta Something asked a question I knew she was gonna ask: were we going to be integrated — bussed, in effect — out of Elementary to The Street proper, or were we out?
“I’m not sure; I don’t know yet,” I lied. I knew enough from my time on the real streets what was probably going to happen next. It wasn’t said out loud, but to the White Lady and the Lieutenants, our cast was not “mainstream” enough to stay on The Street.

I talked about this with Sonia and Northern. By this time, I had gotten over how fine Sonia was and only saw her as a sister.
Sonia still liked to hang out with the writers. (I think she was thinking about being one.) She said they liked Elementary but they wanted to be careful because of the history of Black images on TV. According to what Sonia heard, the White Lady told them The Street could not traffic in racial or ethnic stereotypes. The Street had to reflect the desegregated future, not the segregated past.
“I’m sorry, Roosevelt,” she said. “You and Matt are being punished for trying to replicate very authentic experiences. You know, I’m from New York, so I get it, but I think the Black middle-class parents are thinking about what kids in Iowa or Washington State would think of those kids in your skits, particularly when you contrast them with the very-well-behaved children we have on our set.”
So me and Matt have to worry about Iowa? That’s some bulls — t.
Northern said that the show was clearly evolving past its Black and Latino roots into a “mainstream” show.
“It’s good for funding, but…..” his voice trailed off.
They both hugged me and then walked away.
I’m really shocked that my own people did this to me. What did these bougie Negroes find objectionable? That Black people were educating themselves, on their own terms? That we talked about Africa? That we talked about how to communicate with each other, to be tolerant of each other, and we didn’t ask any help in doing it?
Matt was shocked, too. He and I had worked very hard on Elementary. It was definitely trial-and-error on our part. But we liked the fact that our Street segment was loud and brassy like the Black and Brown kids were reflecting.
I was there the day when the crew had dismantled the Elementary set. We had done less than 20 segments but for our cast and crew, our corner of The Street, it was like we had done a whole 22-episode season of a sitcom. I scowled because it was an alternative to openly tearing up.
I saw Suzetta Something, who came to pick up her last check. She was tired of the hours anyway so she went straight to graduate school at CUNY for social work.
I realized how much I and everybody else were just puppets to The White Lady and the Lieutenants. They offered me another kind of Street role. It was bulls — t. As bureaucrats like to do, the Lieutenants pretended my demotion was actually a promotion because, as the referee in the new Roosevelt Franklin Stadium, I was set “free” from what they clearly saw as the program’s ghetto segment. I was “mainstreamed” in a television equivalent of urban renewal, in a send-up of ABC’s Monday Night Football, which at that time had taken network television by storm.

Matt was very disappointed that bougie Black people cut the strings attached to what to him and us was his best work on The Street.
He left The Street in 1972, shortly after Elementary was scuttled. He was tired.
“Roosevelt, it’s time for me to move on. I think I’ve done everything I could do here.”
I was crushed but I understood. In a couple of years, my contract would not be renewed and the stadium set would be torn down.
“Yeah, man, I may be following you in a minute.”
On his last day, Easy showed up to wish him well and slip him some skin. “Upward, Baby!”
When the show wrapped for the day, Sonia and Northern showed up with three chocolate cakes. The kids didn’t know what was going on but they and Big Bird lined up for the cake.
Oscar did know what was going on. I saw him give Matt a quick salute before he disappeared into his can. Grover presented Matt with a huge birthday card — at least four feet tall! — signed by all the Muppets and the whole ensemble of Listen My Brother. Big Bird wrote his name in a big scribble.
Some local TV bloods showed their respect. Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant hosts Roxie Roker and Jim Lowry showed up with a gift-wrapped framed photo of the three of them. Inside had just been canceled, so we were happy to hear from them and see what they were doing now. Channel 7’s Melba Tolliver, the love of my life, and Gil Noble, along with Tony Brown, the new host of NET’s Black Journal, sent messages that were read out-load. Loretta was visibly upset. Since that first dude didn’t survive the pilot, she and he had steered the White Lady’s ship from an unknown televised embryo to a TV toddler for TV toddlers, a national broadcast phenomenon. They were always working as one, always in Black-Power sync. And now The White Lady and the Lieutenants had to start over with a new Gordon. A new Black father for a national audience of kids of all stripes. A new rock of stability on The Street.
Matt thanked and hugged all of us. His children were there. They were going to miss being among the few kids who knew what The Street was really like behind the scenes.
He swore we would stay in touch. And we did for a while. Because we had one more project left — one that would leave our mark on and off The Street.


Rhythms and sounds
In leaps and bounds
Scales and notes and endless quotes
Hey! Black soul being told
Hypnotizing while improvising is mentally appetizing
Off on a tangent
Ain’t got a cent
Searching, soaring, exploring
Seek and you shall find
More time, more time
More time, more time
More time, more time
More time, more time
To find who? How? Where were you? Are you blue?
We’re not thru digging the new
Climbing higher, soul’s on fire
Seeking the top, can’t stop, dig bop!
Left Earth on a new birth
In space, out space, our place and face us
Regenerated less complicated, vibrating, educating, stimulating
Young and old as a whole
Those who know jazz is prose
And how it goes and is going to be
Me, us, we, free
Baby can’t you see
Hey! Check it out without a doubt what it’s all about then shout!
Off and on, being born
Rhythmically in a wail can’t fail, smooth sail
Break it down, run it around
And give it a pound on the town in the world
Dig the sound of our love inside our pride that’s on the ride
Jazzoetry is poetry!
Getting hat on a scat
The beginning of this, the end of that
Riffling on a cue, the play is never through
Solid, baby! Me and you
Smooth glowin’ and flowin’ while your horn is blowin’
Puttin’ on the show
Digging some mo’ black ego!

Going up, growin’ up that’s us
Smokin’, cooking, hard-boiled like a cobra-coiled
Blowing your mind to rhythmic time
Digging up driving, striving, arriving at conclusions
Life and death all in one breath!
Minor chords, soft keys, summer breeze, winter freeze, listen, please!
Breakin’ the rules, schooling the fools
Jazz is cool that’s the truth
Dig my proof rhythm and swing doing your thing
Abnormally, informally, Jazzoetry is poetry

Poetic vibes, masculine bass
Flute and drums pick up the pace
Piano keys on a spiraling flight
That’s jazzoetry in black and white
Brilliant colors, glowing hues
Intimate expressions, personal views
Spreadin’ the news, by way of the blues
Brothers, others, lovers, mothers, sons, friends

Brothers, others, lovers
Mothers, sons, friends
Brothers, others, lovers, mothers, sons, friends
On the set − ain’t none of y’all been freed yet!
Trying to pin what’s happening
What you’re coming from and going to
Communicating with me and you
Internal feeling is spiritually healing
When I’m dealing with jazz
That has turned me on
Blow that horn!
Of course it’s boss, get on your horse
And ride with pride jazz and poetry side by side!

— “Jazzoetry,” by The Last Poets

When Matt finally told me his secret idea, I absolutely flipped.
“An album??? The two of us???”
“And with our boy Joe Raposo and some of my friends,” he said. The White Lady had gotten Thomas Z. Shepard to be listed as producer, but it really was gonna be the three of us running the show.
Joe was one of the folks who handled our music on The Street. Here’s what I wrote in my liner notes about Joe Raposo: “Now, the guy that I told you I would tell you about who helped Matt Robinson with the music, well, his name is Joe Raposo, and that’s not all he did. He arranged all the music and he led the band and, man, I wish I could tell you everything that Joe Raposo has done since he came out of Fall River, Massachusetts. Well, I’ll tell you a few things, like he used to be the musical director for a lot of TV shows and also theater shows like House of Flowers; he wrote a lot of stuff for the play You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Also, before he conducted my orchestra, he got himself together by leading some bands, like the NBC Orchestra, the CBS Orchestra, and the ABC Orchestra. So I figured he was ready. And man, he won an Emmy for his Sesame Street music, and he’s in charge of all the music on Sesame Street, and that’s where he met Matt. So, naturally, when it came time to do this album, it didn’t make sense for anybody but Joe Raposo to take care of business with the music. And man, he did some kind of job.”
So with Joe behind us, we were ready to blast off!
But I had a million questions. Matt had all the answers and, thanks to The White Lady, a week’s worth of recording space. She and the Lieutenants had made album creation and recording a priority — which is not surprising when you think of all the music The Street produces! — and they wanted me to be the first The Street’s first solo outing!
I practically floated home and told Mary Frances. I knew she was going to be over the moon!
She sat silent for 30 seconds. No jumping up and down. No hug. Just thinking.
“I want to show you something,” she said. “Stay here.”
She went into her room for five minutes and came back with one of those cheap school notebooks with the black boulder cover.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“My original songs that I wrote,” she said.” Show these to Matt.”
I did. Matt went into the orbit I thought Mary Frances was going to go into.
“These are outtasite! If she can sing she can sing these with you!”
“She can sing,” I said. “Man, I didn’t know she had this level of talent.”
“People will surprise you,” Matt said. “Even you will surprise yourself sometimes.”
Matt was telling me he and Joe that he was going to ask Rosalind Cash to help us with all female voices other than Mary Frances’. So she would wind up playing my mother.
We would have asked Loretta, but she was busy as usual. When I mentioned the album to her, she said, “Oh, Good! About time Matt told you! I was tired of keeping this secret!” She gave me a big hug and a big, loud CONGRATULATIONS!
I thought about getting Listen, My Brother involved, but the group was on tour and working with Loretta’s husband on a project! Man, everybody seems to have a project going!
I checked in with the remainder of my close “Street friends.” I asked Sonia if she wanted to be involved. She told me that she was sorry but she was busy teaching herself about TV screenwriting. She wished me well and told me she was proud to know me and Matt. And Northern didn’t want any side-hustles. He just wanted to come to work and go home. He seemed very moody sometimes, so I just chalked it up to that.
I checked in with my gang and told them the news.
“MY MELLO! Let a brother in!! What can I do?”
I’ll get you a role, Baby Breeze.” It turned out I needed a younger brother, so he played “Baby Ray Franklin.” He was so happy I had to calm him down! I have to admit he was good at it.
Mil wanted to play the drums in the background. Check. Rev. Beasey wanted to be a background singer (and he helped me with some liner notes; more on that in the paragraph after next). Check. Matt would staff the rest of the performers.
Matt and I huddled for about a month, after I finished tapings and on weekends. We flushed everything out as quickly as we could and quickly invited as many Elementary folks as we could find because the recording day was coming up.

I thought I would be the first person to show up at the recording studio, but this fine-ass café au lait sister with a big afro and big earrings beat me to it. It was 7:30 in the morning, so it took a minute to get my rap together, but she caught that and quickly beat me to the punch. “Hi, Roosevelt! I’m Matt’s friend, Rosalind Cash. I’m the one playing your mother.” That Oedipal move shut me down kinda quick, which I think she did on purpose. In the lobby, the security guard believed we were who we said we were so he let us in. (I think he recognized me but he wanted to play it cool in front of the chick.) I came back later to give him the names of the gang so nobody would have a problem getting in.
Here’s what I wrote about my recording-mother in the liner notes: “Now, Rosalind Cash, she knows what she is. She is what they call an actress, which is what she was ever since she came to New York from Atlantic City. She is so good that Mademoiselle magazine said she was the Best Actress of the Year in 1969. Rosalind, see, she was the leading lady of the Negro Ensemble Company, and she kept getting so many of what they called rave reviews that now she’s in a movie called The All-American Boy. Besides that, Rosalind is co-starring in a movie with Charlton Heston, and the movie is called I Am Legend. [Book Publisher Correction: The film was renamed The Omega Man and it was released in 1971.] How about that! I know a co-star! Now, the reason she’s doing all the girl voices on this album is because she starred in a play Matt Robinson wrote for CBS-TV called The Requiem Door, and she sang in that play like somebody she wasn’t, so he knew she could sing like somebody she used to be and somebody she might be someday. Well, she sang so good that she’s getting ready to make her own album singing like Rosalind Cash.”
A half-hour later, Matt and Joe rolled in with some coffee and donuts. We were ready to go with Day One.

Matt, Rosalind and Joe sat us down on Day One to explain to us our roles.
“An album is a collaborative project and process,” explained Rosalind. “The more you hang around here, the more you’re gonna get to do. We’re gonna ask you to stretch beyond your comfort level — that is a guarantee. We’re going to experiment and make mistakes, very important activities if the goal is to produce good art. And that is our goal.”
“Any questions?” asked Joe.
“Yeah, the bathroom?” asked Mil.
Matt pointed to the left. “Any questions about the album?” he asked.
Mary Frances spoke up. “Would you please read my notebook of poems and song lyrics?”
Our trio of leaders looked at each other and smiled. I hadn’t told her the good news yet.
“Of course, my young sister,” said Rosalind. “Let’s let the four of us look at it together. And thank you! We don’t have a lot of time!”

Which was emphasized by the session band. Man, artists are organized but really temperamental! They need everything a certain way, and if they don’t get it, they complain. The drummers, horn players, guitar gods…once they get settled, their equipment tuned just right (and maybe some chemical relations), then they’re at 300 percent, each time, every time. Matt warned us to not go into the booth with them unless you had to s — t together. We’re glad we all took his advice. I’m glad that I had the stuff I had already done on the Street memorized, so all I had to focus on was the new stuff.
We were in the studio every day for about two weeks, 15 days total. From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It was great watching Matt and Rosalind take command of us and also mother-hen us. We were all newbies and they were very patient with us. Except for that time Baby Breeze and Mil set off the fire alarm by smoking weed in the Men’s Room, everybody behaved.

I couldn’t believe how well this recording was going. Something was happening. I don’t know how to really describe it. Tambourines. Keyboards. Electric guitars. Back-up singers! Studio engineers! Pianos! Organs! The studio band, including the drummer!
It seemed like truth was available in the air — that it was accessible. That you could see it. The music Matt and I were putting out there. It added to something very serious that was happening.
Big caps. Wide collars. Platform shoes. Outsize — outsize colors, politics, movements.
The word. The note. The melody. The hope. To make you find the love within you and connect with it. Rhythm. Timing.
Matt brought his young kids to the studio one day. The girl was very curious about how everything worked, while the boy was just bored. I think he had been taken away from his Little League practice.
It wasn’t so much that Matt and I were trying to prove something as much as we were trying to connect to something that had no name. Just feeling the vibe was enough. It was as if all the times we had to be quiet, humble, and wild were over. It was time to stand as men and women and see ourselves as part of the entire world, and declare to that world our humanity. We had to express our love to each other.
There was so much we had in us — slavery, segregation, the Movement(s), Africa, our speakers, our preachers, our singers belting. Haizlip understood this — understood he was reaching into a deep well of feeling and art.
I started fantasizing about what this could do for me, Matt and Rosalind. Could we be on Soul! or Soul Train??? Would the Professor make a special exception and play our songs in the House like he played “A White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell?”
The balance of the private and the public, of the seen and unseen, of the spoken and unspoken. It all welled up inside of us and poured out onto those 8-track tapes. A blank piece of paper on a stand. A small room with a microphone. A dark room with no distractions. It was a place of belief, a place of faith.
Detroit had Motown, Memphis has Stax. New York had….things coming up! Poetry, jazz…I mean, we always had jazz as our highest expression. But it was too high-falutin’. Even Miles saw that — that’s why he switched up to soul jazz! We need cornbread, hog maws, grits, greens, oxtails and gravy and moonshine whiskey!
The music wasn’t a challenge — it was a release. Matt and I had so much inside us — things we wouldn’t say, not even to each other. What The White Lady and The Lieutenants called “Black English.” It was our expression — from streetcorner children’s chants and games, from rural juke joints, from streetcorner soul groups like Listen My Brother. All done with equal parts sweetness and rawness, with flutes and drums in alignment, all on vinyl.
We finally have the right connection and the right complexion! The Black man and the Black woman publicly declaring that we would survive and thrive for the rest of this century and beyond!
Our music is the only thing that counters brainwashing. Boomboomchichcichcboomccchciiicchbooom…..
Like Soul! and Soul Train, finally in control of our product — at least cultural control.
Rosalind Cash was as talented as she was fine. I really enjoyed listening to her sing and hearing her suggestions. I couldn’t believe she knew so many things. I learned from her the same thing I learned from Loretta, Sonia and Deborah: that the sexiest thing was a brilliant, talented, independent woman!
Speaking of brilliant, Vicky — that chick who was the Soul! intern — came by to help Matt with some audio things. Her energy, optimism and humor were infectious. We all missed her when she left as suddenly as she came. We know that she was working on her doctorate and didn’t have as much time to be with us as we would have liked.
Matt asked me something crazy during this process. He wanted me to draw cartoons of myself and talk about whatever I wanted. He said it was for the liner notes. I did the best I could. It was fun because, like my Elementary segments, I could combine both myself and “Roosevelt Franklin.”
We were surprised that the White Lady and the Lieutenants accepted every note. I wondered why. But I remembered that their whole thing was going past boundaries. They wanted “legitimacy” in their product, and The Street and the album gave it. After all, Marvin Gaye had to fight Motown for What’s Going On, and he won. And then Stevie followed up with the realness with Talking Book. Now it was our turn.

So I loved telling Baby Breeze did he actually had a solo coming up! I was afraid he was gonna die of excitement.
Matt told him to go into the studio and get ready.
“This is one of our really powerful social songs,” he told Baby Breeze, who was listening to him on the headphones. “Just do it naturally and not preachy.”
And so went “The Skin I’m In:”

Take a look at me walking
I like the way I walk
Take a listen to me talkin’ uh huh
I like the way I talk,
yes I do
If you’ve never
seen my kind
I wonder where you have been
A lot of people have my kind of skin,
You know I love the skin I’m in
ha that right

Way way back in the old days
We used to be ashamed,
imagine that
But then we found out that
we were beautiful
and we’ve never been the same uh uh
I'm not just speaking for myself now
I speak for all of my kin
Oh when I tell you
just a once more again
that I love the skin I'm in
hah love it!
Black is a fact
there is no taking it back
I wonder if you understand
I know you can see
I’m happy to be
A bright-eyed
smart type
black young man
I know my letters and my numbers

Oh Yes I do
And maybe better than you
So if you look at me funny, huh
I look at you funny too
Now if we stop all that foolishness
I have a feeling we’ll win
but just remember
what my knee told my shin huh
It said I love the skin I’m in
yes it did
It said I love the skin I’m in
aww do it
it said I love the skin I’m in
Yes I love it…
Now You see Mary Frances, Baby Ray
Loves the skin he’s in
and so should everybody else
because there are different
kinds of skin and
different kinds of people

The next song was an anti-Vietnam song. I told Matt and Joe how much I admired the clarity of it.

Just Because

Matt Robinson: Now, what I told you about is not hurting yourself.
Matt: But what I’m going to tell you about right now is not hurting other people.
[sings] Just because you tell me to, I’ll swim to Spain. I’ll fly for you.
But I will never hurt some folks just because you tell me to.
Hey, I’ll rid the world of rats for you, of snakes and sharks and sickness too.
But don’t tell me to hurt someone who never did hurt me or you.
There are too many folks I’ve never seen who could be friends of mine.
And I’ll shake their hands, break bread with them, even though they’re not your kind.
I am not old, but I am wise, too wise to hurt some other guys,
Some guys who will not live like you just because you want them to, for you. Hm.
There are too many folks that I’ve never seen.
And hey, they could, they could be friends, friends of mine.
I want to shake their hands and sit down and break bread with them,
Even though, even though they’re not your kind.
I am not old, but I am wise, too wise to hurt some other guys,
Some guys who will not live like you just because you want them to, for you.

Mary Frances had been working closely with Matt and Joe on the songwriting chores and being part of a duo with Baby Breeze. By the end of the week, she was the unofficial, uncredited staff writer for the album! She had been very happy with her contributions to the songs such as “A Bear Eats Bear Food” and “Keep On Tryin’.” In fact, most of “Keep On Tryin’” (Don’t give up/ Keep on trying/You’re gonna make it/ I ain’t lying / Don’t give up, don’t ever quit/ Try and try and you can do it/ Don’t give up, yeah) came right out of her notebook.
Suddenly, it was like Mary Frances had been replaced by her much happier twin — like the opposite of that Star Trek opposite episode where Kirk, Uhura, Scott and McCoy get switched out into a mirror universe.
I watched Mary Frances get into the booth. Suddenly, Matt said, “Okay, Roosevelt, this next one is a Franklin Family duet.”
I got in and Mary Frances gave me lyrics to “Me and You.”

Roosevelt: You remember that box you had to put up on the shelf?
Mary Frances: And I couldn’t get it up by myself.
Roosevelt: Well, you looked at me.
Mary Frances: Huh.
Roosevelt: And I looked at you.
Mary Frances: And it all boiled down to two.
Roosevelt: Who?
Mary Frances: Me and you.
Roosevelt: Both of us.
Mary Frances: Both of us together.
Roosevelt: Who? It must have cooperated.
Mary Frances: That’s what it is.
Roosevelt: Mm-hmm.
Mary Frances: And you recall the time you had your arms full of clothes?
Roosevelt: Yeah, I dropped them all over the place, goodness knows.
Mary Frances: For a time, you just didn’t know what to do.
Roosevelt: And then it all boiled down to two.
Mary Frances: Who?
Roosevelt: Me and you, that’s who.
Mary Frances: That’s who.
Roosevelt: Oh, we did it together, you see.
Mary Frances: Congratulations Roosevelt.
Roosevelt: Oh, nothing to it.
Mary Frances: Hey, let’s keep working together.
Roosevelt: Yeah, you never can tell what we might do.
Mary Frances: Uh uh, you never can tell, because even in rainy weather.
Roosevelt: Mm-hmm. I would try.
Mary Frances: What?
Roosevelt: To keep you dry.
Mary Frances: Yeah. Well, I’ll hold an umbrella over you.
Roosevelt: That way I won’t get wet.
Both together: Oh, oh.
Mary Frances: I would never get wet.
Roosevelt: I understand. I have a hand that is at your disposal.
Mary Frances: Well, in that case, I will make a proposal.
Roosevelt: Well, all right, sister, but before you do, you know, it all boils down to two.
Mary Frances: Who?
Roosevelt: Me and you, that’s who. The two of us.
Mary Frances: Together.
Roosevelt: We’ve done so many things together, Mary Frances.
Mary Frances: No.
Roosevelt: You remember the time we got on the seesaw?
Mary Frances: Uh huh.
Roosevelt: And I seed and you sawed.
Mary Frances: No, no, no, I seed and you sawed.
Roosevelt: That’s what I said. No, wait a minute. Maybe I sawed and you seed.
Mary Frances: No, Roosevelt, listen, I was, I was on the downside and you were on the upside.
Roosevelt: But, well, well, we were seesawing, weren’t we?
Mary Frances: Yeah.
Roosevelt: Oh, well, that’s what’s important. We had a good time on the seesaw.
Mary Frances: OK.
Roosevelt: Seesawing all day.
Mary Frances: Well, all we have to do is just keep working together.
Roosevelt: Yeah, ’cause you never can tell what we might do.
Mary Frances: I never can tell, because even in rainy weather.
Roosevelt: Who? I would try.
Mary Frances: Yeah
Roosevelt: To keep you dry.
Mary Frances: I’ll hold an umbrella over you.
Roosevelt: Oh, uh, I’ll keep bones dry.
Mary Frances: I’ve got a brand new umbrella you got me.
Roosevelt: Listen, I have a hand that is at your disposal.
Mary Frances: Well, in that case, I will make a proposal.
Roosevelt: Well, all right, sister, but before you do, you know it all boils down to two.
Mary Frances: Who? Who?
Roosevelt: Me and you, us two, together.
Mary Frances: Me and you.
Roosevelt: I and thou.
Mary Frances: Who’s thou?
Roosevelt: Thou and me.
Mary Frances: Then that makes me thee?
Roosevelt: You thee? Well, who me?
Mary Frances: You are thou.
Roosevelt: How about we?
Mary Frances: Together?
Roosevelt: That’s right.
Mary Frances: OK.
Roosevelt: [chuckles]
Mary Frances: [chuckles]
Roosevelt: Yeah.
Mary Frances: It’s just me and you.
Roosevelt: That’s right, us two.

Thanks to Matt, Joe and Mary Frances, it felt like a lost Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell classic that we had discovered and claimed for ourselves.
But there was something more happening. Somehow, as we sang and talked through that, it was like our old, very close relationship we had before our parents died had returned! I didn’t know it had gone! I just knew we got real busy trying to survive and stay sane.
At the end of it, we just started crying. We hugged and cried and cried. We looked up and saw Matt and Rosalind and everybody crying.

So The Day arrived. We all sat in the Listening Room. We waited a while because we wanted to see if Loretta, Northern, Sonia, Easy and Ellis Haizlip would show! Everyone did (except for Northern)! So with everyone here, Matt played the whole finished album, from beginning to end, for everybody. Heads nodded like they were about to come off of people’s necks.
Everybody loved Rosalind’s version of my alphabet skit/song:

(spoken word portion)
Matt Robinson: Uh oh, my mother’s gonna find me as sure as a moose likes moose juice.
Rosalind Cash: Now, where did he go this time? Roosevelt? Roosevelt Franklin?
Roosevelt Franklin: Bip, bip, bip…
Roosevelt’s Mother: Roosevelt Frank …
Roosevelt Franklin: …bip, bip, bip…
Roosevelt’s Mother: Roosevelt…
Roosevelt Franklin: Be, be…
Roosevelt’s Mother: …Franklin.
Roosevelt Franklin: Here I come. Here I come. Did somebody somewhere summon me?
Roosevelt’s Mother: Yeah, somebody did call you by your names. Now, Roosevelt, we’ve got to go over the alphabet.
Roosevelt Franklin: Oh, I know that. A to Z, A to Z, I know all the alphabet.
Roosevelt’s Mother: All right.
Roosevelt Franklin: I know all the…
Roosevelt’s Mother: You’re gonna sing.
Roosevelt Franklin: Mama, I know the alphabet so…
Roosevelt’s Mother: All right.
Roosevelt Franklin: …good.
(song starts)
Roosevelt’s Mother: Roosevelt Franklin, what you say?
Roosevelt Franklin: I say the very first letter is the letter A.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Well, what more can you tell me?
Roosevelt Franklin: I say the very next letter is the letter B. Hm, hm.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Hey, Roosevelt…
Roosevelt Franklin: I’ve got A…
Roosevelt’s Mother: …that’s…
Roosevelt Franklin: …and I’ve got B.
Roosevelt’s Mother: …very good.
Roosevelt Franklin: Ain’t that something?
Roosevelt’s Mother: Roosevelt, what comes after B?
Roosevelt Franklin: Everybody know it’s the letter C.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Mm hmm.
Roosevelt Franklin: Hm.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Young Mr. Franklin, what comes after C?
Roosevelt Franklin: I know D comes right after C.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Hey…
Roosevelt Franklin: [laughs]
Roosevelt’s Mother: …that’s very good…
Roosevelt Franklin: I’ve got A, B…
Roosevelt’s Mother: …Roosevelt.
Roosevelt Franklin: …C, D. Ooh…
Roosevelt Franklin: …I’m good.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Doesn’t an E come right after D?
Roosevelt Franklin: That’s right. Then come the F, and then come…
Roosevelt’s Mother: [laughs]
Roosevelt Franklin: …the G.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Roosevelt Franklin, oh, what you say?
Roosevelt Franklin: I say after the G come the H, I, J.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Oh…
Roosevelt Franklin: [laughs]
Roosevelt’s Mother: …Roosevelt…
Roosevelt Franklin: I’ve got all the way to J. I want to jump.
Roosevelt’s Mother: All right, now what comes after them?
Roosevelt Franklin: I believe it’s the K, L, M.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Hey.
Roosevelt Franklin: (laughs)
Roosevelt’s Mother: I’d like to hear some more from you.
Roosevelt Franklin: You do? How about this, M, O, P, Q. [laughs]
Roosevelt’s Mother: Very good…
Roosevelt Franklin: I’ve got…
Roosevelt’s Mother: …Roosevelt.
Roosevelt Franklin: I’m good.
Roosevelt Franklin: I’ve got up to Q.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Now, how about doing some more for me?
Roosevelt Franklin: Well, I’ll give you an R and an S and a T.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Yep, yep, right down to the end, I see.
Roosevelt Franklin: That’s right, U, V, W, X, Y, Z. [laughs]
Roosevelt’s Mother: That’s right…
Roosevelt Franklin: I did it.
Roosevelt’s Mother: …Roosevelt.
Roosevelt Franklin: I did it…
Roosevelt’s Mother: Way to go…
Roosevelt Franklin: …A to Z.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Roosevelt. And now put it all together for me.
Roosevelt Franklin: I’ll let you hear my ABCs…
Roosevelt’s Mother: Let me hear it, Roosevelt.
Roosevelt Franklin: …like A, B, C…
Roosevelt’s Mother: Yeah.
Roosevelt Franklin: …D, E…
Roosevelt’s Mother: Good.
Roosevelt Franklin: …F, G, H…
Roosevelt’s Mother: You didn’t miss…
Roosevelt Franklin: I, J…
Roosevelt’s Mother: …one yet.
Roosevelt Franklin: …K, L, M…
Roosevelt’s Mother: Very good…
Roosevelt Franklin: …N, O, P…
Roosevelt’s Mother: …Roosevelt.
Roosevelt Franklin: …Q, R, S, T…
Roosevelt’s Mother: Go.
Roosevelt Franklin: …U, V…
Roosevelt’s Mother: Do it.
Roosevelt Franklin: …W, X, Y…
Roosevelt’s Mother: And what?
Roosevelt Franklin: …Z!
Roosevelt’s Mother: Oh, Roosevelt Franklin, you got that right.
Roosevelt Franklin: Now Roosevelt Franklin’s going out of sight. You see, I’m Roosevelt Franklin.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Oh, yes he is.
Roosevelt Franklin: I know I’m Roosevelt Franklin.
Roosevelt’s Mother: Say it again, Roosevelt.
Roosevelt Franklin: I will. I’m Roosevelt Franklin.
Roosevelt’s Mother: And Roosevelt knows his…
Roosevelt Franklin: (laughs)
Roosevelt’s Mother: …alphabet. (laughs)
Roosevelt Franklin (spoken word): Well, what Roosevelt Franklin does not know, nobody knows…..

And that’s how it goes! At the album’s end, everyone cheered. Matt and Rosalind, both standing, hugged each other. We all jumped up out of our seats and hugged everybody. But I couldn’t hug anyone because Mary Frances grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. There were tears in all our eyes.
Ellis Haizlip, who had spent his adult life in the world of Black performance, felt the need to tell us something. So he did, taking control of the room:
“Sisters and brothers, what you have done here today represents all of our yesterdays, all of our todays and all of our tomorrows. Yesterday because we showed here today that we all come from trees with strong, heavy roots. Today because we proved we are completely with it, in sync with the times and helping others with the beat. Tomorrow because our children will not have that sense of inferiority that we had because now they have a product that says that their whole reality is valid and beautiful.”
Everyone was real quiet after that. I looked at Rosalind. She wiped away a tear.
Then one by one, led by Ellis, people started saying their goodbyes. Knowing that we produced a serious cultural product for the nation’s youth and for particularly our youth, It was time to confront 1970.
Rosalind said to the people leaving: “This was great! You were great and you are great! Take care, everybody!”
Matt: “Great job, group!” Take care!”
Easy: “This is great! I gotta get The Company to start doing this!! We’re gonna catch up to you and The Street, Roosevelt!”
Me: “Oh, you want a fight? Let’s go…but first we gotta decide which of our groups is Ali!” Laughter.
And then, while I’m turning away from Easy, I’m blindsided so fast with lightning so strong I knew how Billy Batson felt.
Baby Breeze: “MY MELLO!!! I am officially a RECORDING ARTIST!”
“Yes, you are,” I said.
Baby Breeze stared and me for what seemed like a long time. Then he did something he never did before. He walked up to me and hugged me.
He turned to Matt and Rosalind: “Nobody ever gave me an opportunity like this before. Nobody. The right word because until I met all of you, that’s how I felt. Nobody.”
I decided to joke and went into my Jesse Jackson impersonation: “I AM….SOMEBODY!!”
The kids looked at me like I was crazy, but Baby Breeze laughed. And then he hugged Mil, who was waaayy too macho for such an open display of camaraderie. Mil took the emotion like a champ! He understood.
Matt and Rosalind looked at each other. They were very touched by such a declaration in two weeks of declarations.
“Look, Baby Breeze,” he said. “We feel like you do. None of us had any of this before until recently. It’s a new era with new opportunities. We’re happy that you stepped up with such power. Because Power is what we need to display, right, baby?”
Baby Breeze smiled so hard I thought his face was going to crack. He would never be the same person again.

The next day, Matt decided he would take the last day we had scheduled in the studio and have a quick wrap party! Led by Mary Frances, everybody who we could grab said yes and got the carpooling going, the who-was-gonna-bring-what list together, etc.
Rosalind stayed for a little while but quickly split— but not before giving Matt a big hug and me a kiss on the cheek! Outtasite! Say what you want about me, but I got great taste in Mommies! She sashayed out of there wearing a mink coat and sunglasses! I waited until she was gone before I gave the biggest wolf whistle in the history of wolves.
Matt laughed and grabbed my shoulder. He looked around to see if Loretta was within earshot. When it was clear she wasn’t, he leaned and said softly: “Believe me, I understand. Now you know why I live in Philly — so I don’t get tempted by these soon-to-be superstars. They are everywhere, brother, and these chicks are liberated, if you know what I mean!”
“Whoo-whee!!! I can believe that!” I said. We both broke out in laughter.
I stayed behind to help him straighten up the place. Loretta stayed, too. Our studio time was ticking away.
I liked being around Matt and Loretta on The Street set, but I really liked it when it was just us three. We three had become a special kind of home to me!
Loretta stood in front of us with wide eyes. That was the signal she was gonna profound on us.
“Matt,” she said, “you and Roosevelt….you two make real magic together, the kind that opens our childrens’ eyes and allows them to see their beautiful reflections. We had a funeral today, and it was for Styme, Buckwheat, Little Black Sambo, and all that jazz. Good riddance! Your album makes Black kids from the ghetto and all kids proud to be themselves. You are confirming their natural confidence in their presence as full human beings. D — n, I’m really glad to know and work with you two strong, conscious Black men.”
She hugged us, then got her coat and left. I had begun to forget that there was a time in my life when I didn’t know Matt, Loretta, Easy and the Professor. I wish he had been here, but he’s always busy with the House. I’ll make sure he gets a copy.
I looked at Matt. He looked back.
“We did it,” he said. “We made a move and took a stand — against racism, against Vietnam and U.S. imperialism. And we did it for our youngest, so they won’t grow up and make the same mistakes these jive turkeys in the Whitest House are making.”
I just listened.
“The goal is to use entertainment as a vehicle for cultural enrichment, for understanding,” he said. “We tried to meld it all together and we succeeded.”
And got my sister back who I didn’t know was lost. And got my friend on track. And….
“Right on!” I said.

The picture of Matt and I, with a light blue background, like the sky, made a perfect album cover. Matt has his left hand on my right shoulder. We are showing the world that we are best friends and partners. I guess everybody can see how much I look up to Matt because here I am on the cover, looking up to Matt. I can’t believe how he and the producers and Rosalind handled everything!
The White Lady got big-time folks to give blurbs.
Mayor Lindsay: “Children are not born with racial prejudice — they learn it. From Roosevelt Franklin they can learn other things instead — tolerance and understanding and friendship for each other. This album is a delightful, constructive contribution to the struggle for understanding and equality.”
Barbara Walters, The Today Show, NBC: “’Roosevelt Franklin’ not only delighted my two-and-one-half year old, more important, it should help her, and all of us, live in a happier, more understanding world.”
Ed Sullivan: “As a grandfather of five I recommend it! Not only to the nation’s youngsters, but to their parents as well. It offers something to people of all races and all creeds.”
B.B. King: “I really enjoyed this LP when I heard it. I wish albums like this would have been available when I was a kid in Mississippi.”
Shirley Chisolm: “‘Roosevelt Franklin’ brings together, Black and white, fat and thin, shy and bold. They are natural children, untouched by the polluted minds of adults. It is beautiful.”
Ed McMahon: “This recording is vibrant…It is with it…it is educational but above all it teaches tolerance for others and love for all. That’s a big order beautifully fulfilled.”
Matt and I were very proud of ourselves. I’m particularly proud of the liner notes I provided, which included my drawings of myself and my gang. Mort Goode, an artist The White Lady knew, did a great job turning my sketches into final drawings and comicbook-style lettering.

We threw a party for the entire album entourage at Matt’s house in Philly. We had a raucous time. To this day I can’t tell you who was there and what happened, but it made our Elementary meetings seem tame by comparison. The disk jockey had all the new s — t — the Temps, The Supremes, Donny, Stevie…He even played this spoken-word thing, “Every Brother Ain’t A Brother.” The voice sounded familiar….wait, I think that’s that Byrd guy I met at the bookstore!
I was so happy that Loretta and Sonia came. (No Northern again.) I cornered both and told them about the craziness of putting on an album. “Yep, that’s the normal process,” said Loretta. Sonia told me some horror stories about recording the original-cast Godspell album.
I had to keep a sharp eye out for Mary Frances because I knew she could be a little boy-crazy and I didn’t want her to get corrupted. Matt and his wife made sure she was okay. After midnight, she went upstairs and slept on a cot in Matt’s children’s room.
I was hoping Matt would not stop the proceedings to say something deep. It was time to get down, not be lifted up! Of course I lost that bet with myself. In the middle of the party, Matt stopped the music. He was in the mood for a toast.
“To Roosevelt Franklin. I’m glad to be his collaborator and more importantly, his friend.”
Everyone put their cups in the air and cheered me. I was choked up!
“To all you Mo-Fos!” I held my cup up. Everyone laughed as the disk jockey went back to work. Grooving. Grinding.
Man, I can’t believe how much my life has changed in two years. In 1968, I was just a n — — r with a job who liked to run the streets with his friend Baby Breeze. We had no focus and no future. My friends and I had no opportunities. Our lives were spent on, ironically, The PATH. As 1971 became 1972, I’m a TV star with fake and yet kinda real parents, a serious reader with an expanded vocabulary, a Black Power sympathizer and now a recording artist with his own album! I went from having a gang to an entourage!
Could I go any higher?
You know the answer.
The problem is not the descent. It’s that you either spend so much time trying to get to the summit — or in my case you accidently hit it — that when you fall there’s no game plan, no Plan B. You can’t return to who you were but you also can’t use up as a forward direction.
There were so many people making moves — Sonia, with her up-and-coming writing; Loretta, with her husband and Listen, My Brother; and what about all those brothers at the Professor’s store — the two book guys and Brothers Gil and Byrd.
Me and Matt were joining the music biz at an interesting time. On Broadway, people and songs were searching for something. “Let The Sunshine In.” “Day By Day.” On Broadway at least, hippies seemed to publicly ask Jesus for a fix. On the chocolate side of town, The Last Poets and a brother inspired by them, Gil Scott-Heron, exploded like a music bomb that rolled into a four-alarm blaze.
Searching…..for new life and understanding? To boldly go…where? Where would be my/our Final Frontier?
I had found so much. But I didn’t understand the downside: that that meant you could lose so much, too. The inside things you could keep. But the outside things had expiration dates. You had to be ready to drink the milk while it was fresh and then drain it down the sink. I could only stay on The Street, not take it with me to new places.
I and so many others had become representatives. Some on the real street might call us mascots because we were visible but not controlling the game; we could step out on the field, to get some cheers, but went back to the sidelines when our role was done.
As the decade started I began to notice that some wanted to change that and they weren’t hung up on how. The whites were looking for the light. We were banding together publicly and in the dark. The whites had been comfortable because they thought we needed their light. They were wrong.

Published By Pickled Pig Feet Music, Inc.
Manufactured and Distributed by CRA, Children’s Records of America — New York
The Year of Roosevelt Franklin: Gordon’s Friend From Sesame Street, 1970
Sesame Street: My Name is Roosevelt Franklin, 1974 (re-titled and re-issued)
• Produced by — Thomas Z. Shepard (only credited on original album, and only on album jacket)

• Directed By — Joe Raposo
• Engineer — Ed Michalski, Frank Laico, John Guerriere
• Lyrics By — Matt Robinson
• Voice Actors — Matt Robinson, Rosalind Cash


In the end you’ll still be you
One that’s done all the things you set out to do
There’s a cross for you to bear
Things to go through if you’re going anywhere (ooh)
For the things you know are right
It’s the truth that the truth makes them so uptight
All the things you want are real
You have you to complete and there is no deal
Stand, stand, stand
Stand, stand, ooh
You’ve been sitting much too long
There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong
There’s a midget standing tall
And a giant beside him about to fall
Stand, stand, ooh
Stand, stand, ooh
They will try to make you crawl
And they know what you’re saying makes sense and all
Don’t you know that you are free?
Well, at least in your mind if you want to be
Stand, stand
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na
— “Stand,” Sly and the Family Stone


Easy dragged me to this church, this line. Misery loves company, so I dragged Beasey. So here we were, in front of the loonnnng line for the public viewing of Adam. I only half-paid attention to the drama surrounding him, but I knew Harlem was going to take this hard because his name was synonymous with it. Bease and Ease did the summary since we had nothing but time: Adam was a great congressman who became a powerful Black man in America and they punished him for it, sending him into political exile.

Baby Breeze and I, on the way to the movies, did see the papers headlining that Adam was defeated. Baby Breeze took a look at the front page picture of the winner and exclaimed, “Okay, that’s the dude that was onstage at the Apollo — the one I told y’all about!”
Wow. Harlem was going to have a new political leader in a new decade. The Old Harlem Mafia was going to become a new, modern Harlem Mafia.
All I knew was that he left Congress, published a book (I remember seeing Gil Noble interview him on Channel 7 about it), and then died. I remember his death because again, I was with Baby Breeze going to see Shaft’s Big Score and we again checked out the newsstand.
Hence, the viewing, the line and us.
Easy: “So, did, this was the man who put the fear of God into The Man. Malcolm said if there were 20 like him in Washington, he’d retire.”
I couldn’t help but think that Malcolm was retired by gunfire. The Panthers took up his flag in many ways, and the pigs vamped on them hard across the country. Here, the Panther 21 just escaped going to prison for a long time. It made me think about Deborah and how I hadn’t seen her in so long. I wonder what she was doing, how she was holding up now that President Nixon’s folks had declared war.
Beasey: “Black men like him don’t get to retire. They get spent, one way or another.”
I thought about what Beasey had said. Maybe that was true of the older generation, but we were young and serious about turning this thing over in all the ways that meant.
We saw a limousine pull up and an old woman step out.
Beasey: “Oh, wow, that’s Moms Mabley!”
Moms and Pops loved Moms — had all their records. Me and Mary Frances used to look at our parents like they were crazy when they laughed until they cried listening to those routines.
Easy: “Yep! Proof Adam touched a lot of people — from the famous to the low.”
I was quiet, but I was still thinking I was watching the end of somebody else’s black-and-white film and thinking about how my film, just on its second reel, was in color.
Hours later, we sat in Small’s Paradise. We liked going there because Malcolm had mentioned how much it meant to him in The Autobiography and we also knew its long history. But at this point, it was a dive. But we went anyway and got a back table.
The Ease/Bease team kept telling me more stories about Harlem — the gangsters like Bumpy Johnson (who was turned into a fictional character in the first Shaft), the Nation of Islam, the Garvey movement, the whole nine. I kept thinking how I was just one degree separate from them because I knew the Professor and he knew all of dem!
Bease turned to Ease: “So what do you think of this new Congressional Black Caucus? Is this the ten folks Malcolm was talking about?”
Easy: “We won’t know until we know. They could be Blacker than my coffee here or filled with cream, like yours.”
Clearly these two had been put in a Malcolm-Harlem frame of mind by the viewing. Being a heretic from Brooklyn, I decided to fight for my borough.
Me: “Did you know that Sister Shirley Chisolm, my biggest fan, is going to run for President?”
The duo started laughing. “I don’t know how that’s going to advance the Black man,” said Beasey. “You heard about how the brothers in Gary ignored her, right? She’s ain’t doin’ nothin! Now, Baraka, who headed that Gary meet-up with Mayor Dick Hatcher, that’s my man! That’s the future of Black politics!”
Easy: “That’s the truth, Ruth! Like they used to say!”
Beasey had become a big Baraka booster after his movement helped elect Ken Gibson as Newark’s first Black mayor. Beasey had told me Black people there literally danced in the streets! Beasey even attended Baraka’s big meetup, the Congress of Afrikan People.
Rev also liked that young guy at the city’s Board of Education. Larry Hamm. Gibson had nominated him for the Board at age 19, making him the youngest cat in that position in the nation’s history. Beasey said Gibson did that to shore up support among Newark’s Black nationalist community. But regardless, it was a good move: Hamm, who was just a little bit younger than me, had pushed re-naming the schools after Black heroes and pushed a proposal to have the Black nationalist flag — the red, black and green — to be flown at any school with a more than 50 percent Black student population. I knew that because I saw an editorial on Channel 11 denouncing him.
We talked on and on into the night. Well, Ease-Bease talked. I just listened. Matt and I used to talk like this, but now he left The Street. What I felt was…well, a lot of things. So much was changing, but was the change progress? As far as me and The Street were concerned, Matt’s loss meant a major ally of mine was gone. Elementary’s demise meant I had to find a new space, one not created for me by any street.
And it was new spaces I was about — I liked the fact that the Panthers had offered to protect Sister Shirley as she tried something new. As I held onto the Street, I was thinking about what was going to be my and my generation’s big score.


I got up early and went down to the House for the last time to see the Professor. Me, Easy and Beasey decided to help him pack up the 200,000 books that the House held. The House would no longer be a home for us; the city harassed him so bad he was just too tired at 90 to deal with any more bulls — t.
It was 1974 and so much had changed. Matt was gone from The Street and so was I. The White Lady was nice enough to re-issue our album under a different title but we were just memories of The Street’s early days. The dude that originally replaced Matt didn’t work out, so this new dude, Roscoe Orman, became Gordon. Matt had gone back to Philly and continued to write for the stage, screen and TV. Thanks to good referrals from Easy and Matt, I joined 1190 WLIB-AM as a weekday “floating” producer and 1600 WWRL as a part-time Sunday “floating” producer. The brothers and sisters there were fans of mine and quickly showed me the ropes. Saturdays were my only day off, and I was glad to give this one up to make sure everything was okay with the Professor.
We spent the whole day clearing out the House — from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Professor had already packed up and had taken all the memorabilia — the signed photos and posters. All that was left was the books. To pass the time, we definitely talked about what we liked to talk about — Black politics, what was going on, etc.
Beasey hadn’t seen Easy since that time we were in line for Adam’s wake. Beasey asked him what happened to the New York Panthers, especially the Panther 21.
Easy: “Well, the same thing that happened to them everywhere else. Some went to Cally to try to help Bobby and Elaine with that Mayor bulls — t disaster, while others went abroad to Cuba or some such place and others went underground.”
Yeah, I know all about the Black Liberation Army, I thought, shutting my mouth. Involved in a shootout somewhere, she allegedly gave as good as she got! Up until she got caught by the pigs, every once in a while someone would slide a letter from Deborah under my door. The last one read:

Dear Brother,
I’m so glad you are free of that Downtown plantation. Once you talked about oil and diamonds in that Afrika skit I knew your goose was not just cooked, but burnt.
Many of the brothers and sisters in the cadre loved your role as a TV student-teacher who embraced who he is and saw himself as beautiful. I’m glad your legend with The People is strong and just beginning. Just remember from now on to be a
driver, not a passenger.
Thank you for that moment of peace and understanding at your pad that day. I will always treasure it and you.
Your Sister and Comrade, ……

I missed her, but what she got involved in, and what happened, scared me but good. Hardhead Henry continued to keep me informed about her and her comrades in the belly. And my gigs at Black radio stations allowed me to be updated on the latest news, like her now being a mother.
The Professor thrusting something in my hand broke the mental spell Deborah always seemed to cast. As a thank you, he gave us all copies of a brand-new book: Angela Davis’ Autobiography. We had heard about it and wanted to read it because we wanted to know her relationship with the Panthers and with Brother George Jackson, our latest martyr.
Angela’s acquittal and George’s murder kind of ended the publicly radical wing of what bloods were doing now, at least nationally. If, in 1970, we were asking, “Which way, Black America?” Four years later, the answer seemed to be “To the 4th of July cookout.” While we were sweeping the floors and getting more boxes ready, Beasey told us New Yorkers what had gone down in the New Ark (as Baraka called it). Mayor Gibson may have taken over City Hall from the Mafia, but he still was beholden to the whites in the county and the state. He distanced himself from Baraka and did not renew Hamm’s board term. He said Hamm, who had dropped out of Princeton to help the vanguard, went back. Baraka, meanwhile, had this cockamamie idea to build a Black cultural center in the city’s Italian ward! The battles over it divided the city, and Gibson and the City Council came down against him. The United Brothers ticket of 1970 was splintered and Newarkers may have gotten better sickle-cell treatment but they were still poor in education and employment.
Easy: “D — n!”
Me: “That shindig’s done.”
Boy, MLK was right: Bombs in Vietnam really did explode at home, but we didn’t know it was going to be friendly fire!
Beasey: “But that’s not the interesting thing. Baraka went to Africa and came back as a card-carrying Communist. He renamed CAP into some kinda name and started taking down some of the Black posters and replacing it with folks from Albania, or Romania, or somewhere like that.”
Me: “Wow!”
Beasey: “Yeah, that’s what we said. So we got Uncle Tom on one end and the Black Lenin on the other.”
Easy: “It’s interesting you mention Africa. I got a Truth or Bulls — t right now for y’all. Ready? Okay! Dig this, I was Downtown appearing somewhere for The Company and when I was done, I was walking around, and I saw in a big glass window a whole bunch of Ofays sitting down, completely gone, in a trance, listening to this Black man in a suit. So I slid in!
“It turned out to be Alex Haley, that dude who wrote Malcolm’s book for him. He wasn’t talking about Malcolm, though: he was telling this looong story about how, using some African words and names his family remembered, he had traced his family history all the way back to his African ancestor and his village in West Africa, in Gambia!”
Me: “Are you serious?”
Beasey: “That would be a great accomplishment — if true.”
Easy: “He’d be the first one to do it! That’s wild, right?”
Me: “Yeah, wild.” Later, when he became the biggest deal ever, Harlemites would snidely refer to him as “Alex In Wonderland.”

And that’s how 1974 went for those who lived in America — but the one “brought to you not by the letter C, but by the letter K.” Scattered Panthers. Low-key Nation of Islam. The National Black Assembly from the Gary Convention slowly losing its momentum. Everything was fractured, being closed down, like the House of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda.
At 8 p.m. we all said our goodbyes. For me and many, The House was a second home.
Easy: “What’s next for you? You going home?”
Me: “No, I’m gonna check out this new underground music scene in the Bronx. I hear it’s crazy! Wanna tag along?”
Easy: “Solid!”
The next week and weekend, I tried to tell my bosses what I had heard and seen — a great, new blending of deejaying and hosting but it wasn’t their bag. I had to get used to the idea that time caught up for some but had not yet for others.


I was so busy running around with these two jobs and making sure I was emotionally checking in with Mary Frances when I wasn’t working that I lost track of everybody else. It was okay for the gang — we still got together on Friday nights when we could — but my very disciplined Street routine had been split like a tree can do concrete.
So when Easy called me and said, “It’s real bad. You need to go visit him right away,” I knew exactly who he was talking about.
“Which hospital is he in?” I asked, a little ashamed I didn’t know.
Easy: “At Calvary, in the Bronx.”
I took a day off of work at WLIB and told them why. They understood.
It took so long to get there by train and gypsy I’m glad I took the whole day. He was in good spirits — as good as someone with fourth-stage cancer — past the operable stage — could be.
He brightened up when he saw me. I finally met his wife, Bettie, his son Lewis Jr., and his two sisters, Ruth and Margaret who drove up from Down South. I was shocked when they knew exactly who I was and embraced me like I was a member of the family.
“It’s about time you got here,” the Professor cracked. “I told Easy to tell you to get your ass over here right away.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Seriously, thanks for coming. I don’t have a lot to say to you, but I do have one or two serious things to say to you. So I’m gonna ask my family to go get some lunch and come back at 2. Roosevelt and I will be done by then.”
The family immediately got up, hugged me one by one, then left as a group.
I moved to a chair right beside him. I showed him some wallet pictures of me folks at WLIB had taken of me at work. The Professor then put on his glasses and looked me right in the eyes. I realized that I had no pictures of just me and him, and mentioned that.
“Well, we don’t have time for that now. Maybe if my family has a camera we can do that when they get back. But let’s talk serious talk now.
“I’ve talked to Kaiser at the Schomburg, and I told him to start giving you extra attention when you go there. But of course, now you’ll have to start going back there again,” he said with a half-twinkle, half-glare.
“Our people think we are moving forward, but we’re really moving backward,” he admonished. “Clearly, this peanut farmer who’s about to get in the White House is gonna give out a lotta jobs so they’ll be a lotta Negroes driving new Cadillacs soon.” He chuckled, the physical pain he was experiencing leaving for just a second.
“That skit you did on Africa from the book I gave you — that was a step forward. Thank you. Now, you have to think about how to make that happen again and again, wherever you are, whether cameras are involved or not. I need you to promise me you will do that.”
Pause. Gulp. This must really be the end. I choked out a “I promise.”
“Good. Now take this.” It was one of those curriculums I heard about circulating Harlem, done by that dude with all the books, the one who helped with Black Heritage…..
The Professor died two weeks later. The funeral was at Benta’s Funeral Chapel on St. Nicholas Avenue at 141st Street. I saw Gil Noble and Gary Byrd and the two serious bibliophiles, who I now knew were famous historians in Harlem. When I met up and sat next to my dynamic duo I realized how hard it had become to see Easy and Beasey outside of funerals and our bulls — t sessions. The three of us went out to eat afterward and talked about how we were getting older, and what that meant.
All I could think of is, if, as the African proverb says, when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground, what the hell do you call an old man who had 20,000 books, whose face and space were legend in Black New York?
I kept it all in until I got home. I wished Mary Frances a good night, went into my room and quietly sobbed for one hour. I then quietly thanked God for finally knowing what it was like to have a grandfather. Then I went to bed, the curriculum on my nightstand.


I got tired of feeling that I was stuck inside a pinball machine. Sometimes I felt like I was that d — n silver ball and sometimes I felt like it was chasing me all over the field, sped up by the bumpers I was trying my best to avoid. It was time to commit what I heard sisters and brothers call an act of self-determination. And I had just the task.
I learned the hard way that freedom is the ability to s — t when and where I want. And now I have to let America feel my diarrhea. So I discreetly let folks know I wanted in on whatever was going on.
Slowly I realized I had become Spock, Kirk and Bones. Wow. Mary Frances would be proud of me and scared to death for me if she knew about this.
Well, the wait is now over. Now we’ll see whether Hardhead Henry (or whatever he’s called now) was serious or jiving….My leg in this journey is up or the jig is up…..
There she is, just like the brothers promised. Gotta remember to call Deborah — her middle name by birth, I found out during our time together — by her new name.
“Ready, Assata?”

Assata Shakur was born Joanne Deborah Byron, in Flushing, Queens, New York City, on July 16, 1947. She lived for three years with her mother, school teacher Doris E. Johnson, and retired grandparents, Lula and Frank Hill. In 1950, Shakur’s parents divorced and she moved with her grandparents to Wilmington, North Carolina. After elementary school, Shakur moved back to Queens to live with her mother and stepfather (her mother had remarried); she attended Parsons Junior High School. Shakur still frequently visited her grandparents in the south. Her family struggled financially and argued frequently; Shakur spent little time at home. She often ran away, staying with strangers and working for short periods of time, until she was taken in by her mother’s sister Evelyn A. Williams, a civil rights worker who lived in Manhattan. Shakur has said that her aunt was the heroine of her childhood, as she was constantly introducing her to new things. She said that her aunt was “very sophisticated and knew all kinds of things. She was right up my alley because i [sic] was forever asking all kinds of questions. I wanted to know everything.” Williams often took the girl to museums, theaters, and art galleries.
Shakur converted to Catholicism as a child and attended the all-girls Cathedral High School, for six months before transferring to public high school. She attended for a while before dropping out. Her aunt helped her to later earn a General Educational Development (GED) degree. Often there were few or no other black students in her Catholic high school class.
Shakur later wrote that teachers seemed surprised when she answered a question in class, as if not expecting black people to be intelligent and engaged. She said she was taught a sugar-coated version of history that ignored the oppression suffered by people of color, especially in the United States. In her autobiography, she wrote: “I didn’t know what a fool they had made out of me until I grew up and started to read real history.”
Shakur attended Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) and then the City College of New York (CCNY) in the mid-1960s, where she became involved in many political activities, civil rights protests, and sit-ins. She was arrested for the first time — with 100 other BMCC students — in 1967, on charges of trespassing. The students had chained and locked the entrance to a college building to protest the low numbers of black faculty and the lack of a black studies program. In April 1967, she married Louis Chesimard, a fellow student-activist at CCNY. Their married life ended within a year; they divorced in December 1970. In her 320-page memoir, Shakur gave one paragraph about her marriage, saying that it ended over their differing views of gender roles.
After graduation, she began using the name Assata Shakur, and briefly joined the Black Panther Party. She then joined the BLA, a loosely knit offshoot of the Black Panthers, which engaged in an armed struggle against the US government through tactics such as robbing banks and killing police officers and drug dealers.
Between 1971 and 1973, she was charged with several crimes and was the subject of a multi-state manhunt. In May 1973, Shakur was arrested after being wounded in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike. Also involved in the shootout were New Jersey State Troopers Werner Foerster and James Harper and BLA members Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Malik Shakur. State Trooper Harper was wounded; Zayd Shakur was killed; State Trooper Foerster was killed. Between 1973 and 1977, Shakur was charged with murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, bank robbery, and kidnapping in relation to the shootout and six other incidents. She was acquitted on three of the charges and three were dismissed. In 1977, she was convicted of the murder of State Trooper Foerster and of seven other felonies related to the 1973 shootout. Her defense had argued medical evidence suggested her innocence since her arm was damaged in the shootout.
While serving a life sentence for murder, Shakur escaped in 1979, with assistance from the BLA and members of the May 19 Communist Organization, from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township, NJ, now the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. In early 1979, “the Family”, a group of BLA members, began to plan Shakur’s escape from prison. They financed this by stealing $105,000 from a Bamberger’s store in Paramus, New Jersey. On November 2, 1979, Shakur escaped the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, when three members of the Black Liberation Army visiting her drew concealed .45-caliber pistols and a stick of dynamite, seized two correction officers as hostages, commandeered a van and escaped. No one was injured during the prison break, including the officers held as hostages who were left in a parking lot. According to later court testimony, Shakur lived in Pittsburgh until August 1980, when she flew to the Bahamas. Mutulu Shakur, Silvia Baraldini, Sekou Odinga, and Marilyn Buck were charged with assisting in her escape; Ronald Boyd Hill was also held on charges related to the escape. In part for his role in the event, Mutulu was named on July 23, 1982, as the 380th addition to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, where he remained for the next four years until his capture in 1986. State correction officials disclosed in November 1979 that they had not run identity checks on Shakur’s visitors and that the three men and one woman who assisted in her escape had presented false identification to enter the prison’s visitor room, before which they were not searched. Mutulu Shakur and Marilyn Buck were convicted in 1988 of several robberies as well as the prison escape.

She surfaced in Cuba in 1984, where she was granted political asylum. Shakur has lived in Cuba since, despite US government efforts to have her returned. She has been on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list since 2013 as Joanne Deborah Chesimard and was the first woman to be added to this list.


…..a performer in the Big Apple Circus.

Horse s — t is nothing compared to elephant s — -t! And it was my first job at the Apple to clean it up!
I saw the flyer in the street and met the Russians who were creating the thing. It took me a year to figure out the whole thing was a front for the Russian mob. They used it to funnel money, to give mercenaries far from
home jobs, and it was an easy way for spies to come to the United States so they could be given cover identities to begin covert ops against the United States. I respected that they didn’t bend to the will of what Gil Scott-Heron called “The Dollar Eagle.”
Every once in a while, the Italian mob would buy out a performance, just to glare at the Russians. reminded me of the Cold War b — — -t that was about to take over America as Ray-Gun came to power.
I worked my way up from s — t cleaner to ticket-taker to clown. I loved being a clown. It was like being back on the Street, but instead it was
LIVE! Not surprisingly, I easily took to being a performer and making kids laugh.
The animal trainers loved those whips a little too much. I felt for those tigers and thought about how they might get their revenge one day. I kept thinking of that Bob Marley lyric about the Eagle, the Bear and the Lion.
I left the Apple in 1987 because it was going to compete in the International Circus School competition in Monaco and I didn’t want to risk having to go through Kennedy Airport with my real or false IDs. I just walked out one day, no notice, no last check, nothing.


……Jean Dominque’s and Michele Montas’ right hand at Radio Haiti Inter.

DIARY ENTRY, Late 1999:
I can’t believe what I observed in the studio this week. I wrote it as the draft of a play:
The shots continue in the background — as if they are outside — while Jean Dominque begins his broadcast: “It’s 7 a.m. They try everything — to gnaw at us; to bury us; to electrocute us; to drown us; to drain us; it’s been going on for more than 50 years. Is there a reason for it to stop? Yes — one: Things much change in Haiti. I have spent 20 years trying to provide in-for-ma-tion — Risky business. I know I am attacked because I’m doing my job the way it should be done.”
The gunshots stop. Michele Montas then jumps in. “Today we are going to have a special. I wanted to talk to you about the American Black Power Movement from someone who witnessed it — me.”
Jean gently chides her on-air: “You went from Homecoming Queen at the University of Maine to Black revolutionary at Columba University.”
Michele: “Yes, I did.”
Michele then does an hour outlining her experiences in New York in 1970, talking about the conflict between the followers of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. She then goes into detail about the Panther 21, the collection of New York City Panthers who were arrested on trumped-up and false charges. She talks about Afeni Shakur and her bravery. She then talks about how the New York Panthers became the Black Liberation Army. She also talked about the Republic of New Africa, which had as a founding member Betty Shabazz. Montas’ script comes to life for the audience.
Jean jumps in one time, talking about how “The Battle of Algiers” influenced him as a Black man and a film lover. Michele mentioned that the film had a big impact on those who would fight to the death against apartheid in South Africa.
Michele: “It was a killing time.”
Suddenly, there is a slight tremor.
The broadcasters decide to include it in their programming. “Our country may shake, but we must continue to build such fighters in Haiti for freedom — no matter who’s in power,” said Jean. Michele nods. Jean continues, “You cannot kill truth; you cannot kill justice; you cannot kill what we are fighting for.”
On-air, the Dominques are showing great courage but they know they are in danger. Off-air, the Dominques are irritable with each other to hide the deep fear they feel. They are in danger at work because of a critical interview Jean did with Haitian President Jean Bertrand-Aristide.
They openly talk about how Haiti Inter staffers Richard Brisson and Konpe Filo had once been beaten by gangs affiliated with “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and they were afraid that Aristide’s gangs or some other group angry with Jean’s influence over the masses would do more than that. They talk about how much longer Haiti Inter can stay alive. Jean says he is in this to the end — they had been exiled to America twice before, and he was not going back there. After all, he said, America via the Central Intelligence Agency had played a serious role in Haiti’s problems. And no more rebuilding of Radio Haiti, as they had to do in the past after Haitian military attacks. “We have given ourselves a life sentence — to Radio Haiti and each other,” Jean said.
Suddenly, Jean sniffs the air, his real-life equivalent of Spider-Man’s Spider-Sense. He knows something is going on.
Michele broke the serious mood with a surprise: she has arranged for Dominque’s daughters to surprise him for his birthday, even though that day is not for three months. It is the first time he has seen them since they returned to Haiti. With the audience knowing that Dominque is going to be assassinated, this is a poignant moment. They take a family photo. One of the staffers takes the pictures. The daughters’ impatient shouts of “Shoot! Shoot!” silently bothers Jean for some reason.
The photos taken, history documented, the beautiful family moment ends with a stronger tremor. Jean and Michele look at each other.


…….a loyal soldier of Grenada’s New Jewel Movement.



…….a high school debate coach in Cuba.

RESOLVED: More Cubans can read this sentence — in English, without translation! — than many Americans.


…….a member of the PLO.

DIARY ENTRY, September 29, 1979:

I got another chance to see Jesse Jackson today. This time he was doing something a lot more serious than talking to the Street kids, but he was still casually dressed.
He was with Leader Arafat. We took him to see a church in central Tyre that had been bombed by the Israelis, with help from some Christian wackos.
Jesse said: “There can be no peace on one side of the Jordan, but there must be justice on both sides of the Jordan River.”
I like that Brothers like Jesse and Brother Andrew Young from the United Nations are very clear about the reality of occupation. Andrew Young came to talk to us recently and secretly. They are very progressive brothers who I’m sure will be committed to Black liberation for their entire lives. With brothers like that on our side, working with Leader Arafat and holding onto the gun, Palestinians will be free very soon.


…..an expatriate in apartheid South Africa.

DIARY ENTRY, February 9–11, 1990:
I can’t believe the ANC comrades gave me the job of driving the car that day out of Victor Verster Prison. I was so excited. It was the first time I had ever met Comrade Winnie. She was very happy that day, as we all were.
It was a
looooooonnnng driveway.
Two things I never forgot that day — February 11, 1990. First, that Madiba had been away for so long when they put a boom mike near his head, he recoiled, thinking it might be a weapon of some sort. The second thing I remember is when we took a detour to Archbishop Tutu’s house, and he greeted Madiba with, “Aren’t you supposed to be at the stadium?” or something like that. Not exactly a greeting for the history books.
We drove pretty much in silence until we got to Cape Town. It was amazing. He got out of the car and walked right into the future of a nation:
“Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. We call on our people to seize this moment so that the process toward democracy is rapid and uninterrupted. We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake that generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts.”
I don’t know if this is going to work. Luckily, Winnie will guide him. Are these Ofays really gonna give up the land and the banks? My friend here, Frank, also an American expatriate, says Madiba’s problem is that he’s a lawyer and a Christian. Gulp! Is the ANC just an African version of the NAACP? I hope not. I’m glad that Frank and I can depend on leaders like Chris Hani to stop any sellout of the people.


There’s a land that I see where the children are free
And I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are
Take my hand, come with me, where the children are free
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll live

In a land where the river runs free
In a land through the green country
In a land to a shining sea
And you and me are free to be you and me

I see a land bright and clear, and the time’s comin’ near
When we’ll live in this land, you and me, hand in hand
Take my hand, come along, lend your voice to my song
Come along, take my hand, sing a song

For a land where the river runs free
For a land through the green country
For a land to a shining sea
For a land where the horses run free
And you and me are free to be you and me
Every boy in this land grows to be his own man
In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman
Take my hand, come with me where the children are free
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll run

To a land where the river runs free
To a land through the green country
To a land to a shining sea
To a land where the horses run free
To a land where the children are free
And you and me are free to be
And you and me are free to be
And you and me are free to be you and me

You and me
You and me
You and me
Ba ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, ba ba-ba-ba-ba-ba
Ba ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, ba
And you and me are free to be you and me

“Free To Be…You And Me” (from that TV project spearheaded by Marlo Thomas)


I came back to Bed-Stuy, quietly and secretly, and used one of my IDs to get a job in maintenance.

I got cable. I started binging Nick At Nite and TV Land because I wanted to see with my own eyes what I had heard about before Assata’s rescue: all these Negroes going around imitating me in the 1970s. While I was in my reading period, all these imitators had popped up:
* Charles M. Schulz, the white bread who was making a fortune with Charlie Brown and his all-white, 1950s white, Republican kids, created this token Black character named Franklin. All he did was talk about his grandfather. Token ass. He never did anything. He was the most colorless Colored boy I had ever seen. He could have been TV token Julia’s son, along with Cory.
* Rodney Allen Rippy, a kid who took my style and used it to sell burgers. I saw him on The Odd Couple once, being carried around like a doll. What the f — k?
* Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, who took how I talked and turned it into something cool on ABC’s Welcome Back Kotter. He’s like the dumber version of what I would have been if I had stayed on The Street. “Hello, Mr. Kottterrrr!” It was the worst imitation of me I ever saw. And he was a student in the classroom, not in charge like I was! Out of Brooklyn, yet! Blacks and Latinos used to set up a base for the Borsch Belt!
* Jimmie Walker (JJ Evans). Took everything from me and turned me into a coon show. I don’t know what Michael Evans had in mind when he created the show for the white folks, but Good Times split me into two — it was clear I was both Michael and JJ, but in the extremes. Where were those Negro middle-class people who got me kicked off The Street? Dy-no-mite? I should shoot that Negro on site.
Remember Roxie Roker, the sister from Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant? She became a big star on the CBS sitcom The Jeffersons. Her son, Lenny Kravitz, became a big music star and her granddaughter Zoe became a big movie star.
I kept my head down and kept working. Going to college at night, I got my bachelor's degree and my teaching certificate. I became Mr. Jefferson Thomas.
Time passed. Thanks to me learning from Assata how to stop, look and listen, I got a woman, but thanks to being as emotionally distant with her as Assata was with me, I lost that woman. (She did have one passion I tried to accommodate: Star Trek! It reminded me of course, of Mary Frances, who got married and later got sick and died when I was too far away. In my kid sister’s honor and to try to satisfy this woman, I watched The Next Generation with her and went on movie dates to see the films starring the Next Gen cast and then that first rebooted film with those young people trying to be Kirk, Spock and the rest. None of them are even close to the original show and movies, which I own on Blu-Ray!) No kids. In my spare time I go to museums and the Schomburg and every once in a while play the ponies.
My woman asked me why, other than my jazz collection, the only other music I had was all of Luther’s records. I wish I could have told her the truth but I decided a long time ago to keep the past in the past. I’m not surprised that he made it big — we all saw it! — but that he made it soooo big! I am so proud of him and went to all of his NYC concerts, especially that contentious tour with Anita Baker that everyone talked about being so explosive behind the scenes.
In 2015, my old and new worlds clashed. I was in disguise. Snuck in Nkechi Taifa’s house in Washington, D.C. I had heard sister was strong in terms of representing those who are now known as political prisoners — folks like Sekou Odinga, Ed Poindexter, Mumia Abu-Jamal. The nature of the police had not changed. She had a wonderful house. I was happy to sit in her basement and see Odinga, who finally got out of the joint. He had just come back when I peeped him. It made me think how long it had been since I’d seen Assata.
I read Assata, An Autobiography and, not surprisingly, fell in love with it. I’m glad she followed my wishes and made sure I was not mentioned. I’m glad it’s a radical classic. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. I keep it on my bookshelf right next to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I loved when my favorite television host, Gil Noble, did that special 90-minute Like It Is episode on her. Hopefully, you can still find it online. I miss her and I hope she is well and safe.

All the while, the Street kept streeting. It’s clear Loretta is only leaving in a coffin. I’m glad that Sonia is doing well. Her memoir made me cry, but not as much as what I heard about Northern’s mental unraveling and departure from The Street. He died in 1990. I don’t know if mental illness is just more prevalent now or that we’re on top of it more, but I felt really bad that there was no one to step in, to intervene, to help. Northern was a really good guy and he deserved help and attention.
Matt Robinson died in 2002. I quietly sat in the back row of his funeral. I didn’t talk to anyone and I quickly left when it was over. (I visit his and Mary Frances’ grave sites every year on their birthdays, which are, respectively, January 1, and February 17.) I was proud to have found out that the little girl whom I used to make laugh in the recording studio became a big TV star and married a big-time athlete.
Speaking of big-time stars, I know people can change. But when I started looking up what Easy was now saying….Well, he had left The Company and now became “Morgan Freeman, Negro Actor.” I remember finding his first movie, where he was playing a pimp scaring the s — t out of that white-bread Superman dude. But the more prestigious he became, the more bulls — t he was saying about Black people — how we didn’t need Black History Month, etc. I have no idea what happened to him. But I’ll never forget what Easy taught me about love of self.
I enjoyed watching America get a Black president but I had gone through all of this with Mandela in South Africa. It’s the same script all the time, just different actors. I have quite a thing for his wife, though, and I wish she had been president.

(I watched The Street use an actor to portray me in its 50th anniversary special a while back! I giggled. He did a better job than those losers who made all that loot.)
Sonia finally retired in 2015. I really liked her memoir; I’m glad she purged all of that. With what happened to Northern, I wasn’t surprised that Maria married Luiz on the show and not David. I watched the wedding on TV and enjoyed it. I’m not sure what happened to everybody but I still talk to longtime Street crew members on the down low. When Elmo got his own segment a few years ago, I was like “Ha, ha, you slow.” I heard a Black man helps Elmo the way Matt helped me! Baby Breeze of course knows him — I think he said his name was Kevin Clash. Can you imagine?

It’s 2024 and my hair is gray. The Street is now an American institution, as establishment as the guest-stars that are now on it. I mean, even First Lady Michelle Obama! That’s a step forward and maybe five steps back from young, radical Jesse, but that’s another story.

What I’ve really been shocked by is how “Roosevelt Franklin” lives on YouTube! Boy, there are a lot of clips of our Elementary skits there! Our Africa one is real popular among certain people. And wow… there are several postings of the album — both the original and the re-issue! Boy, would Matt, Tony and Rosalind be proud of that! I never lost my hard-on for Rosalind, even when I went to her funeral! Just biology, I guess!
I don’t really care that I’ve become a historical trivia question: “Was Roosevelt Franklin a Black Power stereotype who got buried by Black respectability politics?” In fact, I can see a whole game or at least a buncha journal or magazine articles asking s — t like, “Is Kotter’s Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington Roosevelt Franklin grown-up (or his big brother?)” “Is Michael from Good Times the ‘respectable’ version of Franklin?” “Is Roosevelt both Huey and Riley from The Boondocks?” “Is Baby Breeze Riley’s father?” And on and on. As long as there’s no more bad imitators, I’m fine.
I really don’t give a s — t.
I’m really glad I learned how to be self-determining. My own person. No longer a puppet, performing in the service of America’s myths.


I really like my latest, sustained disguise — being old and forgotten is an excellent way to hide in plain sight. When I look in the mirror, I think of the last few pages of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and how I’m both alike and the opposite of him. Alike in that I’m now unknown by the general public but not like him in that I’m not waiting to emerge, I’m recovering from emerging. I read the biography of Ellison written by Arnold Rampersad. Too bad Ellison was such an asshole, but he did write a great story of a lost identity found. I guess I think about that, too.
The remaining Panthers have done their time and rebuilt their lives. I’ve been to several public events with Dhrouba bin Wahad and Jamal Joseph and I’m glad to see that their time on the inside made them more strong to deal with stuff on the outside. I saw Jamal on that Tupac/Afeni doc series on FX. I still think about the few remaining political prisoners and how they are not still out. I’m glad for those who do and will continue to go to their public events as long as I’m able and I think I’m not being followed.
Since I use all, uh “new” identification papers and I’m the answer to a trivia question, no one notices me. The kids sure as hell don’t know me — hell, Elmo is ancient to them! Sometimes I will be talking to a parent and at a parent-teacher conference and they will look at me funny — as if I remind them of someone they once knew. I’ve learned to ignore that. “One or two have even asked me, “Do I know you from somewhere?” I just shake my head no and say some bulls — t.

I’m certified to teach history, and that’s been a real challenge for teachers around the nation in the post-Trump era. So I don’t know what is left for me, but I know what I have left. I have to join the fight against the right-wing attempted destruction of our history. The White Lady was nothing compared to what we are dealing with now. The fight is really deep — everything from K-12, and even college. It’s an old attack, updated. We still have Black bookstores, thank God, so Mr. Michaux’s legacy is maintained. As long as “Mr. Jefferson Thomas” can stay discreet, off-camera, I’m gonna do what I can.

I have it a little easier in Jersey, where I’ve lived and worked for 20 years now, because the state actually has the Amistad program that requires Black history to be taught in the schools. If I wasn’t Undercover Brother, The Real Version, I’d be right on the front line with Larry Hamm and the People’s Organization for Progress and all those other folks, demanding they leave us alone. I once heard Hamm, who I think is in his late ‘60s, say that he couldn’t believe that we were fighting problems he had remembered struggling for since he was a teenager! I get the Right Uptight thing — look what education turned me into! I was once what the Nation of Islam would have called “The Lost-Found.” Thanks largely to Easy, Beasey and the Professor and the craziness of those days, I found myself so much that my mind, as the gospel song said, had stayed on freedom! And when we are found, we look for the people pointing intellectual and real guns at us, and call them out!
I’ve been a teacher for at least 20 years now in this identity. Whenever someone asks me a challenging or profound question, I quickly think about what the Professor or Beasey would say and answer that way. I work at a charter school — the charter kids are really well-behaved and some are quite inquisitive — so no one is worried about what I’m sayin’. In fact they liked it!
I get to use a lot my picked-up-on-the-way Spanish since my students come from all around the world. I teach 8th grade, all subjects. It’s hard to compete with their problems and their obsession with tech, but I try my best.
I tried to engage the students. Music is a wonderful way to bridge the generations. Early in 2023, I gave them some jazz to listen to. Bored. Old R&B. Crickets.
Okay, so I tried modern hiphop since I had seen a documentary series on Hulu about Tupac. Back when I was running the street and then on the other Street, I remembered hearing about this mom Afeni. So I was mesmerized by his life and how it matched so many others. I thought of Mil, who the streets had claimed, and Baby Breeze, who, thankfully, stayed in that security job until he retired.
I asked them, “So what do you know about Tupac?”
One student answered, “You mean that old guy who got shot?… You’re stuck in the 1900s, Mr. Thomas.”
It was sad I had to turn down a school trip to Tanzania a couple of years back because I was afraid that once government finger printers and photo takers and such would discover my birth identity, my cover would be blown and I either wouldn’t be able to leave or wouldn’t be able to come back!

It’s really sad that Harlem has become gentrified. So much soul has left. The danger of the old days will remain in my blood forever. I’m about to leave Jersey City for Newark ’cause it’s the only place left for old Black Power-ites like me.

I still hold on to the things that shape me. I go to Source of Knowledge bookstore in downtown Newark and Revolution Bookstore in Harlem and to look around. I feel real comfortable there. I still pick up The I’ll-Be-D — n News when I see it, but mostly I read it online. I remain a faithful listener to Imhotep Gary Byrd weekly on WBLS. I watched Gil Noble on Like It Is until his death and the end of that show in 2011. (I tried watching the show Channel 7 put on to replace it, Here and Now, but I found that I could make an anagram out of a show that really didn’t do anything for me — “Nowhere.”) I go to Black plays and exhibits around the tri-state area whenever I’m bored.
I use my contacts to find out what happened to everybody, the old gang — the ones that are still around. Rev. Beasey died in the early ’90s, when I was away. Ever since I come back I visit his gravesite in Newark on his birthday. I’ll never forget his words of encouragement at key moments. Newark is funny now; that old militant, LeRoi Jones/Immamu? His son Ras is the mayor!
As for Daisy, I was told she married a lay minister who was a well-paid construction foreman and they moved to North Carolina. They are still married in 2024 and have four grown kids. That’s great. I’m really happy for them.
My favorite TV show is still Soul! I watch it on Prime. I loved the documentary on Ellis Haizlip that his niece made a few years back so much I showed it to the whole school. Soul! makes me think of Vicky, the show’s cool intern who kept us all laughing in our albums’ recording booth. She died in 2013. I went to both of their funerals, doing my thing, sitting in the back row so no one would recognize me.

I went in full disguise to Baby Breeze’s retirement party last year! I needn’t had bothered — pretty much everybody was retired or dead but Loretta! Man, The Street looks exactly the same! Oscar is still grouchy, Big Bird is somehow still four years old, Snuffy is now seen by everyone, and Ernie and Bert are still whatever they are. Elmo, not surprisingly, is the life of the party! And they have been movie stars for decades now!

I like that there are more different types of children and Muppets— different races, at least one with a disability. Sonia showed up as a surprise guest to wish Baby Breeze well! I tried to stay discreetly in a corner, praying Baby Breeze wasn’t going to make a mistake and drop a “My Mello!” on me. I had a sneaky suspicion Loretta knew who I was but if she did, she kept it to herself. She gave me a knowing wink when she hugged me goodbye.
I know I changed a lot since our street-running days, but I think Baby Breeze got me beat. Everyone — every kid, every writer and producer, every star, everybody knows him by name — his real name! For decades, the kids, monsters and adults on the show celebrate his birthday with a special party on set! Tears welled up in his eyes as he thanked everybody this one last time. It just shows you how love and purpose can change someone. If you had asked me back in the 1970s his fate, I thought he would have ended up dead like Mil. But he was a company man who loved the Workshop and loved his job protecting the children, staff, producers and stars of The Street. He told me he cried real tears when The White Lady, Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) and Jim Henson died. The brother found a family he hadn’t been looking for and, once discovered, held onto it for the rest of his life. Meeting him now, you would never imagine that he had ever been involved in The Life. He and his wife are now in Florida, living in a house that used to belong to one of the Lieutenants, who actually gave it to him as a pre-retirement present a few years back!
I was part of the last group to leave. Discreetly, Baby Breeze walked me to my car.
“Mr. Thom-ass….”
“Okay, yuck it up!”
“How could you choose this name after Clarence? He spoiled it for everyone!”
The decades melted away as they always do when you are around people who are like family. I’m really glad Loretta and Sonia left early or she would have seen us old farts bulls — ting and would have seen through this Clark Kent bulls — t!
“But seriously…I wanted to thank — ”
“Why? You’re the one who showed up to work every day.”
“No, thank you…for everything.”
He gave me a long hug. We both cried and then quickly let go of each other in that embarrassed way men do.
He looked at me so seriously I had bad memories of how that stare always preceded a knife pullout. “I will always remember what you have done for our people.”
Me: “Man, get outta here.”
So he did. I don’t think he ever told my wife about what had happened to me, and that’s a good move for both of them.

This is the part of the book where I’m supposed to impart some deep life lessons. Because life is so varied, so complex, I really don’t have any to offer. Like so many of my generation, I’ve been so many different things and seen so many changes as the decades, centuries and even millenniums turned over! D — n, if living in interesting times is a curse, call me the Wolfman!
I believe in the Black community. I believe we are the straw that stirs the drink, like Reggie Jackson said. When we start something, the world beats it to death, it whether it’s fashion or phraseology.
I once believed in the power of television. I now believe in the power of YouTube and whatever is going to come after it. I’ve been very happy to see so many Black people on YouTube really debating political ideas, interviewing people, the whole nine. I like how we’re doing it as if it’s only us on YouTube. Black people get so caught up in what Whitey is going to say we don’t say much of anything. These folks on YouTube are talking as if their jobs are secure and their rent is paid up. It reminds me of the Habari Gani People plus what some of us were about, but with more analysis.
The power of education has proved itself. Education always proceeds a revolution, anywhere, anytime. Political education is always going to be relevant because the people on the other side are so intent on destroying that process, from slaves learning to read to that Critical Race Theory jazz. During the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of life at a place I would have called The Land of the Dead — those HBCUs all those bougie people who were too dumb to get into Harvard and Yale talk about all the time. There’s been a lot of activity at Morgan State, Howard, Hampton, Morehouse. I think Trump has shown them they are only going to stay on the sidelines collecting checks for so long. They’re going to have to create a balancing act where they pay the bills and speak on and act on the truth. Because at its best, education is anti-puppetry.
Even though my soulful version of the alphabet song didn’t take off, I’m glad me and Susan got the ball rolling for many urban youngsters. But now Black people are going to have to take control over the education of their children whether or not white people want it — or fund it. We have to stop depending on White Ladies to make up ideas and hire us to use our children as guinea pigs. I’m afraid that so many Blacks imitate so many whites that one day Blacks will do that without even understanding how they’re playing right into Whitey’s/capitalism’s bag!
One thing I’ve seen around the world is that when people want power they take it. Castro took Cuba. Maurice Bishop took Grenada. South Africa could have gone better, yes, but without the People’s Movement even the small transitions that happened there would not have happened. Black people here have been taught to want access, not power. I love Barack and Michelle, but they set the wrong idea in our kids’ heads. The goal is not to manage Whitey’s bag but to disrupt it so that freedom will seep through like grease through the bag of a pulled-pork sandwich bag.
Sometimes seepage occurs. I remember Eric Holder, Obama’s former attorney general, was running for something. He repeated Michelle Obama’s now-famous phrase, “When they go low, we go high.” Very optimistic s — t coming out of the mouth of a woman who knows one-third of the country is calling her family n — — s behind its back. She made a big hit when she said that at the 2016 — or what is 2020? — Dem convention. Well, Holder had me standing and cheering with my eyes wide open and my right fist in the air when he repeated the phrase but added a twist: “When they go low, we hit ’em in the knees” or something like that. I read somewhere he got in trouble for saying that, and never said it again.
What seems to happen is that we are about to change this thing, and then they call somebody in to stop it. Too many times that’s been Obama, whether it’s Bernie Sanders on the verge of winning the 2020 Dems nomination or LeBron James threatening a boycott of the NBA. Containment is only going to work so much, particularly when Earth gets three degrees warmer.
Yeah, I really don’t have a lot to say to you, other than skip the street bulls — t part and do what I did. Which was, kind of in order, the following. Learn new things. Find a social-justice church or mosque. Read. Study. Find a mentor or two or three. Read all of the books they have in their house. Make a real friend, but one that is going places. Then go with him/her/they until that journey’s end. Then use everything you’ve got to create your own. Most importantly, go from theory to action. Be strategic about the action, but not so much so that you don’t do it. It would have been real easy for me to talk myself out of supporting Assata. But her freedom was going to take real actions, real acts of faith, the way the people in those history books did. I’ve been skipped over by those books, and that’s a good thing because it means I didn’t have to go to jail for 40 years.
But the 21st-century history is only one-third in. Many of the pages are still empty. So whatcha gonna do? How you gonna fill them?
Outside of your professions and education, what act will you take that will not only define you, but the community and the times you live in? I keep thinking of that young sister who took the video of George Floyd. She could have gotten scared and put her phone away. But she didn’t. And because of that, we saw a groundswell around the world. Whether you and I live to see it or not, some kind of revolution is going to happen. And we’re gonna need sensitive, educated kids who are going to be willing to stand in front of a tank like that guy did in China or at least risk arrest and harassment by recording and broadcasting an injustice, a lynching or something similar.
From what I’ve seen on YouTube, my generation has provided as much guidance as it can. There is little of our history that is lost now. The question now is what do we do with this information? As you know, I kept waiting and waiting for the moment to use my newfound knowledge, and I was able to with maximum impact. So I don’t know what is next for you and anyone who tells you they know is lying. I was watching this documentary on Max about colonialism and the narrator, Raoul Peck, kept saying throughout the whole thing, “it’s not knowledge we lack.” Yep. Now it’s about what folks are willing to lose.
The least we can do is ally with some similar-thinking whites and stop Whitey from trying to take control of the entire world. We have to stop being part of invasions of other countries because *ahem* somebody told us to do so. I can’t believe how relevant my little song is now in 2024.

So, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve not only written this but revealed my real name to the world. Well, it’s simple: something is growing within me that has spread, now inoperative. I can finally relax and tell the truth to you, using time as quickly as I can like some sort of Black version of the guinea pig in Flowers for Algernon (Charly if you prefer the movie version). I have nothing more to hide anymore, and America really can’t do anything to me that’s going to matter less than a year from my typing these words in the middle of the night.
I think that, if these were my final words of this token who transformed himself into a doubloon, I would say this. You can spend your entire life hiding from struggle, but sooner or later it’s coming for you. You will either be defending yourself or your kids or your wife, but it’s coming. If you’re afraid to show this reality publicly, at least do us the dignity of working with us quietly while you try to fool whomever. Freedom, in the end, is as fundamental as any alphabet or numbers. The very idea of it, once you get attached to it, will make you want to sweep the clouds away, to demand a future place and space where the air is indeed sweet.



“First of all, there’s Matt Robinson. He sings all of the boy voices and he wrote all of the words to all of the songs. And, along with another guy that I’ll tell you about later [Joe Raposo], Matt wrote all the music to all of the songs. Now, I guess you could call him a singer and a lyricist (that’s a song word writer) and a composer. I don’t know. I don’t think he knows either, because he also acts the role of Gordon on Sesame Street, so maybe he’s an actor and a singer and a lyricist and a composer. But that wouldn’t be right because he was one of the first producers of Sesame Street and he produced lots of other shows for CBS in Philadelphia, where he comes from, so you can add ‘producer’ to all those other things, but he just calls himself a writer because he writes grown-up plays for the movies and the stage and television and he just wrote a whole bunch of stories just for children about Same Sound Brown, The Rhyming Man, and Y.A. Turtle and Milk Pail Peters and people like that, so I don’t know what to call Matt Robinson. Maybe he’s just a playwright-producer-lyricist-actor-screenwriter-composer-singer-short-storyteller. I don’t know. I don’t think he knows either.”


“….Now, myself, I was born on a train that Matt Robinson was riding and it was a Penn Central train coming from Philadelphia where Matt lived. Well, it was late — not the hour, the train — so Matt was just sitting there thinking about what Sesame Street needed most, and the first thing I knew, I jumped out of his mind and was sitting there beside him. Well, I was almost ready to move in on Sesame Street, because you know I’m fast — I was even fast asleep on that train — but Matt told me to wait until Joe Raposo could really get my music together, and then he got me to Jim Henson for some eyes and hair and stuff, Muppet-style, and by then I had my whole self together, and I blew in on The Street.
“One day I asked Matt how come he brought me here, and he told me he wanted me to carry a message for him. I told him that was cool with me, and I asked him what was the message. He started to tell me about there being a lot more to learning than letters and numbers and he started to say something about different kinds of people, but then he just said, ‘Never mind, Roosevelt, you and your brother and sister and everybody. You just sing. It’s somewhere in your songs.’”

— Matt Robinson, writing as Roosevelt Franklin, in the liner notes of The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, Gordon’s Friend From Sesame Street, 1970


“In re-casting Gordon, Jon Stone knew precisely what he wanted — someone like Matt Robinson, the producer-coordinator of live-action films for Sesame Street. Robinson joined Stone on the studio floor during auditions, prepping actors with writers’ notes about Gordon’s motivation, attitude, voice, and demeanor. ‘Matt would quietly give them hints by saying, ‘No, that’s not the way to do it. Try it this way,’ said Dolores Robinson, Matt’s then wife. ‘He was by nature shy, and he knew that they were having a difficult time casting Gordon. And the people overseeing the taping upin the booth, peering at the monitors, kept saying, ‘Matt knows what to do. He should be Gordon.’
“The camera loved Robinson’s naturalness and affability. With his Walt Frazier-style muttonchop sideburns and soft, crowning Afro, he was a near-perfect blend of urban cool and Downtown sophistication. ‘Ultimately the production staff decided, ‘He’s the one, Dolores Robinson said, “the only problem is Matt didn’t want to be ‘the one.’ He wanted to be a writer.’
“Robinson’s genial exterior belied his politics. ‘The private Matt was militant,’ Dolores said. ‘He grew up in a racially stirred household. His mother was very middle class and bourgeois, a schoolteacher. His father, who had been a writer for The Philadelphia Tribune [a major Black newspaper], was a Martin Luther King before his time. He belonged to a group of poets and Black renaissance people who were revolutionary in their thoughts. They had so much pride in their Blackness. In Philadelphia, his father was involved in a network of Socialists, who believed as he believed.
‘When Joseph Stalin died, he wrote, “Stalin is dead, peace be to his ashes.” The Tribune sent him a telegram that said, “RETRACT YOUR STATEMENT OR ELSE.” He sent them back a telegram that said ELSE. That was the end of his job at the newspaper. Matt’s father went to work in the post office after that and was never a happy man. Matt was embittered by what happened to his father, and he, too, was never a happy man.’
“A family tragedy may account for some of his torment. ‘Matt had a sister who basically died from racism,’ Dolores said. ‘She caught scarlet fever when she was five or six, and her parents took her to several Philadelphia hospitals, where they were turned away because they were Black. In all the traveling around to hospitals, she got pneumonia and died. If they had admitted her, she’s be alive today. And that affected Matt’s father for the rest of his life. His father was just furious with hospitals, with the system, with racism in America. And it affected his life and it affected his children’s lives. Matt carried that stuff around with him.’
“Stone prevailed upon Robinson to take on the role of Gordon, a science teacher who owned a brownstone with his wife, Susan. Robinson reluctantly accepted, originating the role in a manner that established Gordon as a dutiful husband and steady provider, a well-liked and respected figure in the neighborhood. In Episode 1, Scene 1, Gordon is the first character introduced.
“‘When Matt was on the set, I think he rather liked being Gordon,’ Delores Robinson said. ‘But when he left that studio, he never was comfortable with the attention. Some people love the recognition; he never did. I remember going in public with him and women and children running up to him. He just didn’t seem to know how to handle it.’”
— From Michael Davis’ book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, 2009


“Which Gordon you know instantly dates you. Roscoe Orman wasn’t the first actor to take on the role of Gordon, although he’s the Gordon most people remember today. The test-show Gordon didn’t make that critical connection with audiences, so producers searched for a replacement. No one who auditioned proved the perfect conversational foil to both children and Muppets, so just before the first true episodes of the show were due to be taped, they turned to Matt Robinson. Matt was already in place as a writer and producer on the show and had proven a natural with kids on the set.
“Matt accepted the role, taking it for two years despite maintaining his behind-the-scenes roles. He also created the character of Roosevelt Franklin, for whom he provided scripts and a voice. (Loretta voiced Roosevelt’s harried mom.) This was something very rare in Muppetdom….
“’Matt was one of a kind, really terrific,’ recalls Bob McGrath. ‘A very, very different approach to the part of Gordon…Matt had a little bit of an edge, he was very “street,” and at the time, he had big lamb chops down to here. He was also a wonderful writer.’
“Matt wrote for The [original, 1969–1971] Bill Cosby Show, among others.
“Despite initial reluctance to take the part, Matt proved to be a perfect Gordon. He preferred behind-camera roles, however, and gave up the part, leaving big shoes to fill.”
— From Louise A. Gikow’s book Sesame Street: A Celebration of 40 Years of Life on the Street, 2009


“Technically, Roosevelt Franklin’s skin was magenta, as anyone with a color television during the early years of Sesame Street could tell you.
“But the innards of this Muppet — who had a wild explosion of Don King hair and often spoke in rhyme — was joyfully, exuberantly, indisputably Black. Roosevelt was added for Season Two to answer criticism from some members of the Black community that the Muppets of Sesame Street lacked soul, in the James Brown sense of the word. They also argued that any show directed at the inner-city would be negligent — and perhaps, fraudulent — without a share of Black humor, idioms, and vernacular.
“And so, with a push of Matt Robinson, who created the character, a series of classroom scenes were fashioned around a child so clever and advanced they named the school after him….
“Dolores Robinson: ‘Matt loved Roosevelt Franklin and was extraordinarily proud of that character. Roosevelt was what he really was, an alter ego. In private, Matt was never that shy. He loved to sing and imitate Ray Charles, and there is a little bit of Ray in Roosevelt.’
“At the height of the character’s popularity, however, objections began to arise over the portrayal. ‘Matt’s pride in his race and his anger with racism all came out in Roosevelt,’ Dolores Robinson said. ‘That’s what those people heard and objected to.. He was too Black for them.’
“There was often considerable conservative pressure with the Workshop,’ Stone said. ‘Several African-American executives, particularly Evelyn Davis, a CTW vice president, and Lutrelle Horne, an administrator in the International Department, decided these characters fostered a stereotype and insisted on terminating them.’
“[Sesame Street creator] Joan Ganz Cooney was caught in the middle. ‘There was an argument about whether he should speak Black English or not, whether children should be taught the King’s English,’ she said. ‘I loved Roosevelt Franklin, but I understood the protests. If Matt said it was okay, and the community said it was okay, and white people said it was okay, then it was okay with me. I wasn’t wholly comfortable, but I was amused. You couldn’t help but laugh at him. We knew it was going to be a bit controversial, and it seemed to go away for a while, but then we heard from the Evelyn Davises, from the upper-middle-class of the Black community.’
“Though small in number, the naysayers ultimately carried the day, despite was Stone said was ‘vigorous opposition’ from the show’s Black performers. ‘The conservative faction prevailed, and Roosevelt Franklin bit the dust,” he said.
“Dulcy Singer, Stone’s right hand, saw the decision for what it was: a cave in that threatened the integrity and independence of the very creators who gave the show authenticity and a comedic sensibility in tune with the times. ‘At the beginning we could take so many more chances because nobody noticed us,’ she said. ‘We were the new kid in town. Then once the show became successful and more and more people were watching it, we were getting more and more mail. Management began to veto things that they wouldn’t have the first season. And more and more people were entering in and giving their opinions. It was always, “No, this isn’t good,” not “Yes, let’s do more of it.”’
“’I suppose that’s the way of the world,’ she said. ‘You become more cautious as you become more successful, and it came just as we were in a position to take more chances.’”
— From Street Gang


Meet the First Black Woman Puppeteer on ‘Sesame Street’
Megan Piphus Peace, 29, plays a 6-year-old Black girl named Gabrielle

Megan Piphus Peace with Gabrielle ©2022 Sesame Workshop / Photo by Zach Hyman / All rights reserved.

By Jacquelyne Germain
Staff Contributor
October 5, 2022

Over more than 50 years, Sesame Street has been introducing children to a diverse ensemble of characters, cast members and puppeteers.
Megan Piphus Peace is one of them: In late 2021, she became the show’s first full-time Black woman puppeteer, playing a 6-year-old Black girl named Gabrielle. Last month, she celebrated her one-year anniversary as a member of the team — and officially left her real estate career, which she had been pursuing as she tried to establish herself as a puppeteer.
“I always dreamed of working in television, but I never imagined myself being at Sesame Street,” she tells NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe and Michael Radcliffe.
Piphus Peace, now 29, grew up watching Sesame Street. As a young child, she considered the puppets to be her friends, not realizing until she was older that they weren’t real, she tells The Washington Post’s Sydney Page.
She has been pursuing puppeteering since then. When she was a high school senior in Cincinnati, students knew her as the “Ventriloquist Valedictorian.” At Vanderbilt University, where she studied economics, she was known as the “Vanderbilt Ventriloquist.” She even appeared on The Tonight Show in 2012 and America’s Got Talent in 2013.
One of Piphus Peace’s mentors, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, who debuted the Sesame Street character Abby Cadabby in 2006, tells The Washington Post that Piphus Peace is a gifted storyteller and natural leader.
“To say that I was intrigued by Megan would be an understatement,” says Carrara-Rudolph. “Megan’s sheer talent as a singer, actress, writer and performer is incredible on its own, but I was instantly inspired by her loving heart, strength of character, humor, humanity and what an energetic creative force she is.”
Although Piphus Peace submitted her first video audition to Sesame Street in 2017, she didn’t hear back until 2020, when Matt Vogel, the puppet captain of the show, reached out to her, reports Ebony’s Rashad Grove.
“She comes from a different kind of puppetry background than most of us other Sesame Street Muppet performers,” Vogel tells The Washington Post. “Some of us went to college to learn puppetry, or acting schools, etc., but Megan is a self-trained ventriloquist — something none of us have done.”
After going through an extensive audition process, Piphus Peace first performed as Gabrielle on Sesame Street in 2020 for a children’s town hall called “Standing Up to Racism” in partnership with CNN.
Piphus Peace commends the show for tackling difficult topics and presenting them in a way that children can process. “One of the lessons that we have was on using your voice. It speaks subtly to equity,” she tells NPR. “You know, we didn’t have Gabrielle go into the camera and say, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ She says that we all have a voice that matters and we can use our voice.”
Sesame Street got its first Black male puppeteer much earlier: Kevin Clash started working on the show in the 1980s, playing Elmo in addition to various other characters.
The show, broadcast in more than 150 countries, has roots in Black culture and was heavily influenced by New York City’s Harlem. In its early years, the show intentionally featured a range of Black guest stars — including actor James Earl Jones and singer Nina Simone — to help teach numbers and letters to a target audience that included young Black viewers. More recently, Gabrielle has been featured on the show alongside tennis player Naomi Osaka and poet and activist Amanda Gorman.
Season 53 of Sesame Street, recorded earlier this year, will stream on HBO Max this fall and then air on PBS Kids in 2023.
Jacquelyne Germain is a reporter and former intern for Smithsonian magazine.


Psychiatry, Racism, and the Birth of ‘Sesame Street’

How an African-American psychiatrist used an early TV show as a radical therapeutic tool to help minority preschoolers.
WHAT I LEFT OUT is a recurring feature in which book authors are invited to share anecdotes and narratives that, for whatever reason, did not make it into their final manuscripts. In this installment, Anne Harrington shares a story that didn’t make it into her latest book “Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness,” (W. W. Norton & Company).

IN THE WAKE of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, a newly formed group called the Black Psychiatrists of America began to challenge their white colleagues to think about racism in a new way. Its members had been discussing for some time the possibility of creating an organization that would address their lack of representation within the key bodies of American psychiatry. But now, as one of these men, Dr. Chester Pierce, later put it ”we anguished in our grief for a great moderate leader,” and it seemed that the time for moderation on their side was also over. In Pierce’s words: “As we listened to radio reports and called to various sections of the country for the on-the-spot reports in inner cities, our moderation weakened and our alarm hardened.”
Racism had led directly to King’s assassination, and not only had white psychiatry consistently failed to take racism seriously; it had, in ways both subtle and overt, enabled it.
The decision was thus made to organize black psychiatrists into an independent body that would use tactics of the civil rights movement to force American psychiatry to acknowledge both its own racism and its professional responsibility to address the scourge of racism in the country.
On May 8, 1969, representatives from the Black Psychiatrists of America interrupted the trustees of the American Psychiatric Association while they were eating breakfast, and presented them with a list of demands. These included a significant increase in African-American representation on APA committees, task forces, and other positions of leadership; a call for the APA to commit itself to desegregating mental health facilities; and a demand that any individual member of the society who was found to be guilty of racial discrimination be barred from practicing psychiatry.
The most fundamental demand made that morning, however, was that the profession begin to think about racism differently than it had in the past. Racism did not just happen because some bad people had hateful beliefs. Unlike many of their liberal white colleagues, who were fascinated by the potential mental pathologies of individual racists, the Black Psychiatrists of America (drawing on new sociological work) insisted that racism was built into the systems and structures of American life, including psychiatry itself. For this reason, as some of them put it in 1973, “institutional change (as opposed to personality change) are needed to root out and eliminate racism.”
Chester Pierce — the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America — was most concerned about the pernicious influence of one institution in particular: television. By 1969, virtually every American family home had at least one set. As one commentator at the time observed: “American homes have more television sets than bathtubs, refrigerators or telephones; 95 percent of American homes have television sets.”
Small children of all ethnicities were growing up glued to TV screens. This worried Pierce, because he was not just a psychiatrist but also a professor of early childhood education. And from a public health standpoint, he believed, television was a prime “carrier” of demeaning messages that undermined the mental health of vulnerable young black children in particular. In fact, it was Pierce who first coined the now widely used term microaggression, in the course of a study in the 1970s that exposed the persistent presence of stigmatizing representations of black people in television commercials.
It seemed to Pierce, though, that the same technology that risked creating another generation of psychically damaged black children could also be used as a radical therapeutic intervention. As he told his colleagues within the Black Psychiatrists of America in 1970: “Many of you know that for years I have been convinced that our ultimate enemies and deliverers are the education system and the mass media.” “We must,” he continued, “without theoretical squeamishness over correctness of our expertise, offer what fractions of truth we can to make education and mass media serve rather than to oppress the black people of this country.”
Knowing how Pierce saw the matter explains why, shortly after the founding of the Black Psychiatrists of America, he became personally involved in helping to design a new kind of television show targeted at preschool children.
The show had originally been conceived as a novel way of bringing remedial education into the homes of disadvantaged children, especially children of color. Pierce, though, saw a different kind of potential for a show like this: one that could directly counter and counteract the racist messages prevalent in the media of his time. The issues for him were even more personal than they might otherwise have been: at the time, he had a 3-year-old daughter of his own. He thus agreed to serve as a senior advisor on the show, working especially closely with the public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney, one of its two creators (the other was the psychologist Lloyd Morrisett).
In 1969, the show aired on public television stations across the country for the first time. It was called “Sesame Street.”
It was not only the most imaginative educational show for preschoolers ever designed: it was also, quite deliberately, populated with the most racially diverse cast that public television had ever seen. All the multi-ethnic characters — adults, children and puppets — lived, worked, and played together on a street in an inner-city neighborhood, similar (if in an idealized way) to the streets in which many minority children were growing up.
Each show opened with scenes of children of different races playing together. Episodes featured a strong black male role model (Gordon, a school teacher), his supportive wife, Susan (who later is offered the opportunity to develop a profession of her own), a good- hearted white storekeeper (Mr. Hooper) and more.
Within a few years, Hispanic characters moved into the neighborhood as well. As Loretta Moore Long (who played Susan) later reflected: ‘“Sesame Street’ has incorporated a hidden curriculum … that seeks to bolster the Black and minority child’s self-respect and to portray the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural world into which both majority and minority child are growing.”
The radical nature of this “hidden curriculum” did not go unnoticed. In May 1970, a state commission in Mississippi voted to not air the show on the state’s newly launched public TV network: the people of Mississippi, said some legislators, were not yet “ready” to see a show with such an interracial cast. The state commission reversed its decision after the originally secret vote made national news — though it took 22 days to decide to do so.
“Sesame Street” would go on to become the most successful children’s show of all time. Over time, though, the radical mental health agenda fueling its creation was largely forgotten. Later critics would instead increasingly suggest that the show, as a straightforward experiment in early education, benefited white middle-income children more than its primary target audience of disadvantaged minorities, and in that sense had arguably partly misfired.
Chester Pierce, however, never lost sight of the hidden curriculum that, for him, had always been at the heart of “Sesame Street.” “Early childhood specialists,” he reflected in 1972, “have a staggering responsibility … in producing planetary citizens whose geographic and intellectual provinces are as limitless as their all-embracing humanity.”
What mattered most about “Sesame Street” was not the alphabet songs, the counting games or the funny puppets. What mattered most was its vision of an integrated society where everyone was a friend and treated with respect.
The program had originally been a radical experiment in the use of mass media to give the youngest generation of Americans their first experience of what Martin Luther King Jr. had famously called the Beloved Community: one based on justice, equal opportunity and positive regard for one’s fellow human beings, regardless of race, color or creed.

Anne Harrington is the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the history of science and medicine at Harvard University, director of undergraduate studies in her department, and faculty dean of Pforzheimer House, a 400-strong undergraduate community on the Harvard campus. She is the author of four books and numerous articles.


Black Power Movement, “My Name Is Roosevelt Franklin” album, “Soul Train,” “Soul!”, “The Electric Company”, “The Year of Roosevelt Franklin” album, 1190 WLIB-AM, 1600 WWRL-AM, 1971 albums, 1974 albums, Black fiction, Black fictional biography, Black fictional memoir, Black historical fiction, Black memoir, Black music, Black Panther Party, Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, Black parody, Black Power, Black Power autobiography, Black Power fiction, Black Power history, Black Power memoir, Black public affairs television, Black satire, Black television programming, WCBS-TV’s “Black Heritage”, children’s programming, children’s television programming, Children’s Television Workshop, Easy Reader, Ellis Haizlip, Fan Fiction, fiction about television, fictional autobiography, fictional biography, fictional memoir, Gary Byrd, Gil Noble, Gordon on “Sesame Street”, Harlem, HBO, historical fiction, Jim Henson, Joan Ganz Cooney, Lewis H. Michaux, Loretta Long, Luther Vandross, Matt Robinson, Melba Tolliver, Morgan Freeman, PBS, public broadcasting, Public Broadcasting Service, Roosevelt Franklin, Sesame Street, Sesame Workshop, Soul music, Susan on “Sesame Street”, The House of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda, The Muppets, WNET, WNET’s “Black Journal,” WNET’s “Soul!”, WNEW-TV’s “Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant”, Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets


TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J. He has taught at Howard University and Morgan State University. A professional journalist since 1985, he has written for The Source, ColorLines, Black Issues Book Review and The Crisis magazines, websites such as BlackAmericaWeb.com and TheRoot.com and newspapers such as The New York Amsterdam News, the New Jersey edition of The Afro-American newspaper chain and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper. He served as an editor, contributing columnist and national correspondent for the NNPA News Service (nnpa.org; BlackPressUSA.com), the nation’s only newswire for Black newspapers. Burroughs, a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, is a lifelong student of the history of Black media. He is the author of Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells, and Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, both published by Diasporic Africa Press. His audiobook, Son-Shine On Cracked Sidewalks, deals with the 2014 mayoral election of Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist and writer Amiri Baraka, in Newark, N.J. He is the co-author with Herb Boyd of Civil Rights: Yesterday and Today and co-editor, with Jared A. Ball, full professor in the Africana Studies Department of Morgan State University, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X. In 2020, Burroughs has written a full draft of Talking Drums and Raised Fists: Mumia Abu-Jamal, A Biography of a Voice and is the editor of The Trials of Mumia Abu-Jamal, A Biography in 25 Voices, a biographical anthology also published by Diasporic Africa Press.



Todd Steven Burroughs

Public Historian, scholar, journalist, author, comicbook geek.