Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown and Racism? Part 2

If you missed Part 1 of this Thanksgiving blog post, click here.

So how did the Peanuts’ Franklin’s character come about? In 1968 a white schoolteacher by the name of Harriet Glickman was upset by Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination and the racial turmoil gripping our country. Being a mother of three, she knew her children enjoyed comic strips. She decided to write to some cartoonists to ask if they could add some African American characters to their work – so black children can see themselves in a comic strip. To her surprise, she received two letters in response. One cartoonist wrote that he could not do so because he feared cancellation of his strip. The other response was from Charles Schulz, who was reluctant for another reason. He feared adding a black character would appear to be patronizing.

Harriet didn’t give up. With Schulz’ permission she shared his letter voicing his concerns with some of her African American friends, who wrote to him expressing their support of adding a black character to the Peanuts gang. This swayed Schultz’ decision. Despite a question from United Features Syndicate asking if he was sure he wanted to do it, to which Schulz replied, “either you print it as I draw it, or I quit,” Franklin made his debut on July 31, 1968. And you know what? Not only did Peanuts survive, it thrived.

I guess some people will read this story and still feel appalled that our country was once in a place where adding an African American character to a comic strip was a potential threat to a comic strip’s survival. But as I read this story, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of pride in my country and how far we’ve come. As a children’s book author and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrator’s, I know there is a huge demand for stories that feature ethnically diverse characters. There’s even a campaign, #weneeddiversebooks. The very thought that featuring a character of color in a comic strip or a story would lead to cancellation or backlash is a foreign concept these days. Isn’t that something to celebrate?

Charles Schulz had the courage to do what he thought was right, despite the potential backlash. And while there was some backlash, it wasn’t as much as many feared, and in fact he got a lot of support. Also, someone ordinary was moved to make a difference - an average schoolteacher who wrote the cartoonists not expecting a reply, and look what happened.

So back to Franklin and Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving Dinner. Do you watch the clip and choose to see racism? Or do you watch the clip and choose to feel good about America and the progress it’s made? Or do you watch the clip and see a bunch of round-headed kids eating a Thanksgiving feast that can only be prepared by a second-grade boy and a beagle that is way too smart for his own good?

I think I know what Martin Luther King, Jr. would want you to see. What do you think?

For more on this story, click here.

And have a Happy Thanksgiving!!!!!

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