(The Root) — One of the most memorable lines from last week’s presidential debate wasn’t about universal health care or even big government — it was about Big Bird.
When Republican candidate Mitt Romney summarily attacked PBS, the political punch lines, of course, practically wrote themselves — from plays on Wall Street and Sesame Street to Big Bird being broke.
But given the frosty educational climate in the U.S., with affirmative action being called into question by the Supreme Court and renewed debates about funding for early-childhood education, Romney’s hard-line stance on PBS is more than problematic, especially as it relates to African-American children.
According to PBS, the network’s children’s programming attracts a higher proportion of viewers from Hispanic, African-American and low-income households compared with their actual representation in the population. Basically, Romney grossly underestimated how many of those 47 percenters would have Big Bird’s back.
New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow was one such supporter.
“Let me make it simple for you, Mr. Romney. I’m down with Big Bird. You pick on him, you answer to me,” he wrote. “We were poor. My mother couldn’t afford day care, and I didn’t go to preschool. My great-uncle took care of me all day. I could watch one hour of television: PBS.”
So here’s what happened. Last Wednesday, when moderator Jim Lehrer asked how each candidate would tackle “the deficit problem in this country,” Romney responded: “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”
And the tiny blue birds tweeting all over the Internet went wild. Big Bird trended for days following the debate. The Twitter account “BigBirdRomney” has gathered more than 10,000 followers in less than one week.
The Obama campaign even seized the moment this week with a satirical political ad starring the “big yellow menace to our economy.”
“Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about,” intones the narrator. “It’s Sesame Street.”
But once all the clever Internet memes — photos of Big Bird down on his luck after getting “fired” — get buried on your Facebook timelines under the next day’s news, the fact remains that Big Bird and his buddies bookmark a turning point in many African-American adults’ childhood memories.
When I conducted an impromptu survey of my friends’ fondest memories, I was surprised at how many of those watershed moments shed light on who they became as adults.
Kellee, a professional actress and singer, recalled the Pointer Sisters’ counting anthem, “The Pinball Countdown,” which aired on Sesame Street in the late ’70s. “I sing that song all the time, and it makes me feel happy.” In minute-long segments, it taught children to count from one to 12. “No matter what I’m doing, I have to say ’11, 12′ in a goofy deep voice.”
My friend Jamyla, the “mixtress” behind the natural skin-care line Oyin Handmade, remembered the science-loving teens of “The Bloodhound Gang,” crime-solving segments featured on the program 3-2-1 Contact, which aired from 1980 to 1988.
“It was like an Encyclopedia Brown book come to life,” said Jamyla of the gang. “These cool teenagers solving mysteries with science and smartness. It was a welcoming and affirming representation of my personal world because Vikki [played by Nan Lynn Nelson] looked like a younger version of my auntie.”
Personally I count not appearing as a miniature book critic on Reading Rainbow as one of the major failures of my childhood. The third-longest running show on PBS, Reading Rainbow, with its black host and multicultural guests, made me believe I could actually “fly twice as high” as my dreams would go.
And longtime host LeVar Burton hasn’t stopped. The Reading Rainbow iPad app is the No. 1 free educational application, according to iTunes.
It’s no secret that a generation of us grew up with PBS as our personal tutor and pocket Jiminy Cricket. The channel taught us how to count and how to be kind, with few commercial breaks in between. And it continues to make headlines for celebrating diversity, from the first HIV-positive Muppet, South Africa’s Kami, to the “I Love My Hair” song aimed at curly-haired little brown girls.
As the campaign for president rolls on, making the requisite pit stops on Main Street and even Wall Street, bulldozing over Sesame Street is more than just a double-take moment.
“You have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird,” Romney said Tuesday in Iowa.
Instead of scratching his head, Romney should put a thinking cap on it and figure out how to tackle the deficit while leaving alone the tiny 0.012 percent slice of the federal budget allotted to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Or perhaps that’s what a lack of PBS does — shrinks the imagination.