Brainy, black & pint-sized
An animated, globetrotting role model is born
HE'S THE valedictorian of his kindergarten class.
He travels to South America to learn about the rain forest and its importance to the cycle of life.
And he follows his parents' advice to "ask questions, seek answers."
Teddy P. Brains is his name, a bookish, curious, eyeglass-wearing kid who lives in Metroville, U.S.A.
But Philadelphia is really his home.
See, Teddy is a 3-D animated character who came to life right here in a Port Richmond studio from the brain trust of two Mount Airy producers.
The bespectacled kid with a love for entomology also happens to be African-American.
He and a cast of characters star in the newly released DVD "The Adventures of Teddy P. Brains: Journey into the Rain Forest," aimed at children ages 5 to 8. The DVD can be found in Barnes & Noble, at Amazon.com and at www.teddypbrainstv.com, among other outlets.
Public television has featured multicultural casts since the debut of "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" in the '60s and '70s. Diversity still reigns on PBS educational shows such as "Cyberchase" and "The Magic School Bus," which ran from 1994 to 1998. These days, a young Latina is "Dora the Explorer."
But the Philadelphia creative team behind Teddy P. Brains may have come up with the first children's cartoon to focus on an African-American child in an intellectual setting.
Five years ago, Eugene Haynes and Joseph L. Lewis III, co-founders of Fourth and One Productions, came up with the idea of Teddy P. - the middle initial may stand for "powerful" or "positive" - because they're dads who didn't see programming starring characters who looked like their kids.
Haynes, 42, said Teddy champions "education and knowledge and culture."
"There was a need to show African-American kids doing something that is educational," said Lewis, 42. "He's not Urkel and not a geek or a weirdo. He's just smart."
In addition to Teddy, there's his contrarian cousin and travel buddy Tempest Wits, parents Dexter (a jazz musician) and Belinda (a basketball player), cool babysitter M.J., and his dog D'Artagnan, who sounds a little like Sammy Davis Jr.
What makes the program stand out, Lewis added, is that it's entertaining. He finds shows like "Barney" bland and says "Barney" fails to speak in the cultural language of an African-American youngster.
"The Electric Company" and "Sesame Street," two shows that Haynes and Lewis consider classics, did resonate for African-American kids. Haynes, an adjunct professor at Temple University, and Lewis, a former TV documentary producer, grew up watching those shows.
"I don't know how much longer I can watch 'SpongeBob SquarePants,' " Lewis said. That type of show "doesn't lead to discussion afterwards."
The image of a curious, smart and hip African-American youngster is much needed in a media landscape overloaded with negative portrayals of black youth, say academics and community leaders. Efforts such as "The Adventures of Teddy P. Brains" are more than welcome.
"I was really excited by it," said Marc Lamont Hill, an assistant professor of American studies and urban education at Temple. "There are very few multimedia texts like this that are culturally relevant and interesting and engaging and informative."
The use of African-American Vernacular English sprinkled throughout the DVD - one character, Tempest, says she's laughing so much "I'm about to throw up" - is key to the story's cultural relevance, Hill said.
"It's not jive talk. Everyday, sophisticated, smart black people speak in African-American Vernacular English," he said.
"You can feel connected to her [Tempest] culturally."
Bilal Qayyum, president of the Father's Day Rally Committee and a longtime community activist, has not seen the DVD, but was enthusiastic about the story and the character.
"The larger society has a tendency to consistently paint a distinct picture of the African-American male," Qayyum said. "The larger society then draws conclusions that that's the way black men are."
If more positive images are portrayed, then society will be allowed "to see the real African-American male," he said. *