All this talk about the definition of natural hair got me thinking about my own hair journey. I thought way back to my childhood, before I got my hair straightened for the first time. That brought back memories of my very first hair idols. When I was six, I wanted to be Diana Ross as I remembered her from her Live From Central Park concert, or Chaka Khan in the video for I Feel For You. But even before that, I remember identifying with Dr. Loretta Long, who played Susan on Sesame Street. Susan was the matriarch of a strong, loving black family in a program that redefined color-blindness.
Back in the Seventies she had a gorgeous fro, and she rocked retro patterns and polyester flares. She was a foxy mama, and the third Gordon, played by Roscoe Orman, was a pimp in a Blaxploitation classic back in the day.
Like she says in this awesome PBS interview with Tavis Smiley (scroll 3/4 way down the page to find it), “In 1969, I looked more like Angela Davis than I looked like Joan Baez…I had big hair, short skirt, and show tunes.” In other words, Susan was fly!
It’s kind of strange to explain to my American friends how Sesame Street obsessed many Trinis of my generation are. Up to now I still remember old skits verbatim, like The Alligator King, Me and My M, and The Ladybug’s Picnic, and Billy Joe Jive, Super Crime-Fighting Ace (my partner Smart Susie Sunset and I are on the case)!
Put it this way. If I were to call my older brothers Dominic and Patrick and say I had to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread, a container of milk… they would be able to complete my sentence (a stick of butter). My husband finds the whole thing quite puzzling and amusing.
The main focus on Sesame Street was always on the muppets and the animation, with human characters taking less and less of a role as the show evolved.
Although the segments with humans were always slower (and less interesting to a kid’s mind) than the cartoons, I distinctly remember Susan always being there as a calming presence, a mother and nurse who was always there to help a confused muppet. One of my clearest memories of Susan is of her stepping up to the plate to explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper wasn’t coming back. (warning: if you’re a big softie like I am, that clip will make you cry like a six year old).
She played the voice of Roosevelt Franklin’s mother in some early sketches, but those were mostly before my time. A fantastic new DVD of classic episodes, Sesame Street Old School, Vol 1. (1969-1974) offers a view of Loretta in her early years. This DVD is totally worth the purchase for any die-hard fan, and it would make a great Christmas present for any parent who wants to enjoy really good educational television with their little ones.
In addition to being one of only two human cast members to be on Sesame Street since the first episode, Dr. Long has also written children’s books and she shares her wealth of educational experience in conferences and on the lecture circuit. Sesame Street seems to have cut back on the use of their human characters, but Susan’s still a part of the show.
Loretta Long doesn’t sport the fierce fro anymore, so in remembrance of hairdos past, I offer this 1969 clip. Susan helps an early version of Big Bird to read a very long word, Abcdef… you know what, just watch it and let the warm memories wash over you.