By Tony Knight
Like most people in America I’ve watched the Peanuts gang on TV and seen them at some point in the newspapers, but I never looked for much with respect to social injustice or racism. It was just entertainment. Now there’s been a clamor in social media about the Peanuts franchise being racist against blacks, and a call to boycott it. Fair, or unfair? Let’s look at Peanuts as a whole and decide together.
Peanuts emerged in 1950, the brainchild of Charles Schulz, and it was both written and illustrated by him. The strip centered around a group of kids who got along most times, sometimes not, and they seemed very relatable in that they were not without their trials. They touched on themes such as anxiety, harsh realities of everyday life as a kid, and for this they developed a very successful brand. It might not enjoy the same successes it had decades ago, but it’s still an American icon.
It has recently been suggested that Charles Schulz was a racist because of a scene from “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” which originally aired in 1973. In this scene the show’s only black character, Franklin, was portrayed sitting alone on one side of table where a feast was planned. He was also in a “rickety old lawn chair” while four characters sat opposite of him on the other side. Franklin’s chair eventually breaks as well, more racist attacks on Franklin? I think it’s important to get a historical context on Franklin to explore this.
1968 was an extremely volatile time in American history specifically pertaining to race relations. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated earlier in the year, and the very unpopular Vietnam was raging on. Franklin came to be because of a letter writing campaign from concerned black individuals who were hoping to stem the tide of division in the country by including a black character in the Peanuts comic strip. Schulz obliged with the inclusion of Peanut’s first regular black character, Franklin (yes, there were black characters depicted prior to Franklin’s introduction). He didn’t have to have a regular black character in the strip, but after much dialogue and reflection Schultz saw the wisdom and necessity of the move. Schulz was a brave pioneer in facing reprisal himself for breaking the Peanuts color barrier in a social-political climate that in large part was not ready for this move. Famously he once threatened to quit when he received some push-back from United Features President Larry Rutman to change a scene showing Franklin’s integration into school.
You might say Franklin was a shallow character who was only periodically featured, maybe subtle racism to marginalize blacks? I’d have to disagree. Of all the Peanuts characters Franklin was the most “normal.” I know people on the left hate that word, but it’s fitting for Franklin. He was a good student, a concerned and thoughtful friend, athletic, and rose above the other misfits in Peanuts whenever things turned odd – which was invariably. Good-looking, clean cut, from a military family, a 4H club member, and he played an instrument. Hardly seems like Schulz was attacking the only black character in Peanuts. Was Franklin a dynamic and exciting character? Sadly, no…but at least he wasn’t Pig-Pen!
So to sum up let’s get back to the table scene in “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” I’ve gone over and over this scene in my head, watched it a few more times, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why Franklin was on a side of the table opposite of 4 other Peanut’s characters – including a dog! I wish I had a good answer for you, and I wish Schulz had addressed it as well but he never did. Schulz died on February 13, 2000, 27 years after the famous Thanksgiving table scene. I might be mistaken, but this is the first time anyone has really voiced the accusation that Schulz was a racist in seating Franklin alone on one side of a table. So why the outrage now? That’s easy. There seems to be a small, noisy group of professional agitators who like making crises out of nothing. If no racism, sexism, agism, misogyny, or phobia exists they will conjure some up for you. It takes a real talent to decide what we as Americans should be outraged about and a dedicated army of social justice warriors to carry the banner of outrage for those who previously weren’t outraged. Was this scene depicted the way it was because Schulz was a racist and wanted to segregate and insult blacks? I’d say emphatically no, despite the bizarre seating arrangement in that scene. Schulz’s life and works do not suggest he was a bigot.
My advice whenever someone waves the banner of faux outrage? Examine the questions carefully. Don’t let people draw conclusions for you. We are at a wonderful time in history when almost the entire sum of human knowledge is at our fingertips. And if someone tries to divide you, or tell you why YOU should be mad at something, make an informed decision on your own. We are meant to be more than sheep. Or if you want to be a sheep, make sure you’re following a Shephard and not a sheep herder.
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