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By Stephane Dunn


Tuesday, January 18, 2011.


After my son’s teething had resulted in yet another long night, we sat down for a late morning breakfast. When my son waved a usual favorite away – oatmeal and applesauce – I knew I needed some safe distraction help; I didn’t have any dance or inspired performances of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” left in me after the sleepless night, so I turned on the television and settled on one of his favorite channels, Sprout.

As he listened intently to everything from the ‘Your Baby Can Read’ commercial to the Sunny Side Up show up, I concentrated on stealthily smuggling spoonfuls of oatmeal into his mouth. The programming continued until a new addition to the channel “What’s Your News” came on. It was our first preview of the show. Two young boys, one holding a moose puppet and the other a snake puppet, entertained a girl named Claire, who sat on a couch with a broken leg. From behind another sofa, the boys had the puppets engage in battle with each other. It was merely background chatter to my son’s father and I until suddenly, one of the puppets, the moose it appeared, warned the snake, “This is your last chance . . . nigger.”

My son’s father and I jumped up and looked at each other, questioning if we’d heard right. Due to the miracle of modern technology we paused and hit rewind ten more times, each of us trying hard to come up with other words that it could be. Never, my son’s father suggested hopefully. Not even close. It sounded like that same familiar big bad word. I got hotter and hotter, hearing it and worrying when my son seemed to be trying to mimic the puppet as he raced around us trying to figure out why Mommy and Daddy kept crowding around the TV. I had just enough calm to hit pause, record the audio of the scene, and email it to myself. We still hoped and cautioned ourselves about jumping the gun. Maybe what we halfway jokingly had nicknamed our black radar (antenna for racism) was so sharp, we were overly primed to hear the word. Besides, we also cautioned, you know how children’s enunciation can often be unclear. After hitting the computer rewind and replay tabs more than a dozen times, there was no mistaking what it still came out sounding like. Surely, it wasn’t supposed to have come through as that but it was coming out like the infamous N-word out of the mouth of a young boy in moose puppet disguise.

Children’s television channels have helped to ease ours and other parents’ concerns about our young children watching television and getting infused with inappropriate material. As much as I have longed for my late morning CNN fix or occasional lazy, pajama day indulging in flipping back and forth endlessly between grown folks' channels to my heart’s content, I have been especially grateful for PBS Kids and Sprout. Between such shows as Super Why, Sid the Science Kid, and of course Elmo and Sesame Street, we’ve applauded a lot of culturally savvy moves – Sesame Street’s recent cool nod to little black girls’ hair, for example, and the bilingual and cultural diversity emphasis infused throughout the programming of channels such as Sprout and PBS Kids.

We couldn’t DVR record the sequence after viewing so we have only this disturbing audio clip which opens the door to negating the seeming slip on the part of an esteemed kids’ network. The initial quick email response I received from Jenni Glenn, Sprout’s VP of Communications & Marketing on Sunday, declares that the matter has been “escalated . . . to the highest levels at Sprout’ and that they are “working diligently and quickly to identify and resolve this issue.” A day later, Sprout offered its final email response: “it is . . . impossible that such repellant and offensive language would get past all the experienced professionals who watch the footage and listen to the sound for each and every episode” and further that the word said was “Never.” We have no doubt that such a slip is rare and should always be impossible but don’t believe that was the case in this instance. The email also explained that the episode has been edited so as not to leave the possibility for ‘misinterpretation’ open.

We aren’t interested in a ‘we say it did, they said it didn’t’ debate with the channel. More important is the fact that on the first Sunday of the New Year we got a much needed reminder: we can’t afford to stop listening or watching carefully to those babbling puppets and learning sequences that are the hallmark of educational television for young children. We can’t let it merely fade into background noise amid the too much to do at once busyness that most of us parents have to contend with as we try to vigilantly raise and nurture our little ones. Sprout and its prestigious co-owners (Comcast, Sesame Workshop, HIT Entertainment & PBS) can’t be left to make sure our child is only exposed to appropriate, educational material via television.

We have renewed our resolve to be continuously responsible too, listening and watching no matter what other crucial task is on hand. In his seventeen month, my son’s learning lesson for the second day of 2011 was a little bit about uttering inappropriate words like nigger.

With thanks to New Black Man.

Stephane Dunn, Ph.D., is a writer and assistant professor at Morehouse College, Georgia. She specializes in film, popular culture, African American Studies and creative writing. She is the author of Baad Bitches and Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (University of Illinois Press 2008) and her work has appeared in such publications as Ms., TheRoot, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Best African American Essays. She can be reached at stephane@theloop21.com


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