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When Franklin Armstrong went to school

‘Peanuts’, one of the most popular and influential comic strips in history, made a big statement 50 years ago by introducing a black character

Gulf News

‘Is this your beach ball?” These were the first words spoken by Franklin, addressing Charlie Brown as the latter stared glumly out to sea. And this is how Charles M. Schulz integrated his comic strip, Peanuts, on July 31, 1968. Franklin’s initial three-strip arc unfolded quietly and gently, with the boys building a sand castle together while chatting.

Franklin stayed quiet and gentle, taking his place in the Peanuts gang as a steady but low-key presence over the next three decades — sometimes to the chagrin of African-Americans who found him to be anodyne at best and a token at worst. In a 1992 Saturday Night Live routine, Chris Rock complained, comically but pointedly, that Schulz had deprived Franklin of the kind of signature traits he had assigned the other Peanuts kids.

Franklin’s careful rollout and nice-guy equanimity were very much by design, as ‘50 Years of Franklin’, a new exhibition at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, in Santa Rosa, California, reveals. The exhibition opened last week in conjunction with the observance of Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday on Monday.

Dr King’s assassination, on April 4, 1968, played a direct role in Franklin’s creation. Eleven days later, a Southern Californian named Harriet Glickman wrote to Mr Schulz, introducing herself as “the mother of three children and a deeply concerned and active citizen”. In her grief, Glickman explained, she had been pondering “the areas of the mass media which are of tremendous importance in shaping the unconscious attitudes of our kids”. She then proposed an idea: “The introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters.”

“I was acting on the feeling that maybe there was one little thing I can do,” Ms Glickman, who is now 91, told me in a recent interview. A civil rights and anti-war activist, she was shrewd to petition Mr Schulz. Peanuts was at the peak of its popularity at the time, running in a thousand newspapers, with a devoted daily readership approaching 100 million. Schulz, as unassuming a man as he was, was a veritable godhead, revered in those divided times by Americans of all stripes.

Schulz wrote back to Glickman within two weeks, but only to tell her he couldn’t fulfil her request. He and his fellow white cartoonists, he said, were “afraid that it would look like we were patronising our Negro friends”. Undaunted, Glickman sent another note, asking if she could share his letter with black acquaintances. Mr Schulz assented, though he again expressed reluctance to introduce a black character into Peanuts.

Glickman wasted little time in enlisting her friend Kenneth C. Kelly, a black father of two, who told Schulz, essentially, to get over his anxiety.

“An accusation of being patronising would be a small price to pay for the positive results that would accrue!” he wrote. Kelly suggested that Schulz begin with a “supernumerary” black character, a de facto extra, who “would quietly and unobtrusively set the stage for a principal character at a later date”. This cautious approach would serve the dual purpose of not burdening Schulz and Peanuts with the duty of making a Major Social Statement and presenting friendship between black and white children as utterly normal.

But in the context of the late 1960s, Franklin’s debut was indeed a Major Social Statement. Inevitably, a few newspaper editors in the South of the United States made noises of protest, but by and large, the reaction to Franklin was positive, particularly among black readers.

Morrie Turner, whose Wee Pals, introduced in 1965, was the first widely syndicated strip by an African-American cartoonist, told Schulz in a letter that he found the “handling and the treatment of the character excellent”, adding, “The day Little Orphan Annie has a black boyfriend, we’ll really have it made.” More earnestly, a young black Army sergeant in Vietnam, Franklin R. Freeman, wrote to Schulz to express how gratifying it was to find “a new character in the strip who shares my name”.

For Barbara Brandon-Croft, who in 1991 became the first African-American woman to have a nationally syndicated comic strip in the mainstream press, Where I’m Coming From, the simple fact of Franklin’s addition to the mix was downright exhilarating. Brandon-Croft was 10 years old in 1968, and she told me: “I remember feeling affirmed by seeing Franklin in Peanuts. ‘There’s a little black kid! Thank goodness! We matter’.”

In the long run, Franklin ended up existing in a space somewhere between supernumerary and principal, most reliably serving as the academically proficient straight man to Peppermint Patty’s perpetually D-minus-pulling goofball. Like a lot of Peanuts fans, I wish Franklin had been given greater depth and more to do. In that very first series of strips, he mentioned that his father, like Sergeant Freeman, was away in Vietnam. Franklin and Peppermint Patty (and Marcie) attended a school on the other side of the town from the strip’s core characters.

I’ve always been fascinated by the faint intimation that this was the neighbourhood where the less-privileged children lived. Whereas Charlie, Sally, Lucy and Linus were the children of nuclear families, Peppermint Patty was being raised by a single father, and Franklin (at first, anyway) was being raised by a mother in a similar situation. Were the lives of these children harder? Was there a higher ratio of students to womp-whomping teachers in their school? It was a path that, alas, went unexplored.

But Schulz, who died in 2000, was generally wise to stay within his lane. He correctly intuited that he could go only so far in portraying a black child’s experience. More auspiciously, Franklin served as proof that there was room for more black characters in the comics, their stories to be told this time by black cartoonists.

“It was ‘Here comes Franklin,’ and then it was ‘Here comes Luther, here comes Quincy,’” Brandon-Croft said, referring to the title characters of the syndicated strips created in 1968 and 1970 by, respectively, her father, Brumsic Brandon Jr. and Ted Shearer.

Fifty years after Franklin recovered Charlie Brown’s beach ball, we’re still living through times when representational firsts are newsworthy and cherished by fans: The first kiss between Asian and African-American characters in a Star Wars film (Rose and Finn in The Last Jedi), the first Marvel Studios movie headlined by a black superhero (next month’s Black Panther). Franklin might not have been the most fascinating fellow ever to populate the comics universe, but as his story shows, a first like him is necessary to advance the march of representation.

When I asked Glickman if she was at all disappointed by Franklin’s relative blandness, she laughed at the very thought. “Never! Are you kidding me?” she said. “I was so pleased with Charles Schulz. He did what he could do at the time.”

— New York Times News Service

David Kamp is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair.

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