I am writing this on the fiftieth anniversary of a significant cultural event.
Fifty years ago today, a white cartoonist responded to a request from a white woman who was concerned about the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., by a white man.
Like Jane Elliot, another white woman, Harriet Glickman used her response to the death of King as an opportunity to reflect on the persistent racism in the United States. Glickman wrote several cartoonists, including Charles Schultz, about including black characters in their cartoons.
Schultz responded by introducing Franklin, a black character, to his extremely popular Peanuts strip.
This was undoubtedly significant. For the first time, a large portion of the white population saw a black child in a comic strip, doing things that all children do. In the simple strip, Franklin returns Charlie Brown’s beach ball. Charlie comments on how he’s known as a failure. That’s all.
To be sure, it was culturally important to see a black child in such a bland context. The country was roiling over the issues of civil rights. This was the year after a swath of Detroit had burned for nearly a week over racial unrest.
But the depth of its significance reflects an even deeper problem of voice, representation, and privilege.
Franklin was not, in fact, the first black child in a syndicated comic strip. Morrie Turner’s “Wee Pals” pre-dates Franklin by several years. Indeed, Turner asked Schultz why there were no black characters in “Peanuts,” and Schultz responded by advising Turner to create his own strip.
Turner’s first attempt was an all-black strip called “Dinky Fellas,” but when he could only get picked up by one newspaper, Turner diversified to a racially mixed cast. The result was “Wee Pals,” which was officially syndicated but only ran in five papers.
I’m not trying to criticize Schultz. In his first response to Glickman, he said that he didn’t want black readers to think he was patronizing them. He appeared to be concerned about giving proper voice to black characters.
His suggestion that Turner, a black man, should take it upon himself to break through to the national consciousness was a sound one.
The criticism is on the white publishers and audience that resisted having positive black characters.
1962 saw the publication of the first major children’s book with a black protagonist: “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Keats.
The book is significant in its banality. It’s simply about a little boy in the city enjoying the snow. The boy happens to be black. Just like Franklin’s boring appearance in what was a culture-crashing moment, Peter is just a little boy going about his day and his life.
“The Snowy Day” was a hit with the critics; it won the 1963 Caldecott Award, given to the best children’s picture book. It continues to be a favorite among children and parents and earned a US postage stamp series in 2017.
And yet, six years later, black children were still conspicuously absent from the comics page. Peter’s snowy day harmlessness had barely dented the overall erasure of black children from the consciousness of White America.
On one level, “The Snowy Day” and “Wee Pals” are culturally important because they provide representation and voice. Black audiences can connect with the characters.
A significant part of white privilege is the ease with which I can find stories featuring white people. I know if I turn the TV on tonight and surf through ten channels at random, at least nine of them will have a white character, and most of them will have no black characters at all.
Peter plays in the snow; Franklin returns a beach ball. Neither of these are things white characters don’t do. But the fact that black characters even existed in these contexts was earth-shattering for the era.
These days, while whiteness still dominates, it’s easier to find examples of characters of color. The top-grossing domestic movie of 2018 so far is “The Black Panther”; last year’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” featured Finn and, to a lesser extent, Rose. “A Wrinkle in Time” featured a black girl as protagonist.
And yet, we still have a long way to go to reach cultural equity, and progress seems painfully slow (fifty years to get to this point?).
Glickman could have sought out strips by black cartoonists and urged her newspapers to carry them. Granted, it was a different era, where it was more difficult to find these things out, but she could have written to cartoon syndicators.
I don’t know if she was aware of “Wee Pals” or if it occurred to her to try to get a strip like “Wee Pals” in more papers. In the wake of King’s murder, “Wee Pals” syndication did increase by tenfold.
What she did do was ask a white cartoonist to represent black people. She had to have known that the primary readers of “Peanuts” were white. I believe she wanted white people to see a black child and realize he was harmless.
People who see more diversity in their lives are generally less bigoted. The worst bigotry we get comes from isolated communities who have little exposure to people who are different from them.
I have made the commitment recently to read books by and about people who aren’t like me. Right now, I’m reading “The Hate U Give,” about a black girl who witnesses her friend getting killed by police. Before that, it was “George,” about a girl coming out as transgender.
For 1968, I think Glickman had the right strategy. Trying to get white readers of 1968 to read “black” strips might have been too large a request. Meanwhile, Schultz’s hesitation to both Turner and Glickman was founded on a flawed presumption.
And some of us haven’t moved that far in fifty years. A few years ago, Mary Engelbreit, who is known for fun harmless cartoons of white children, drew a tribute to Ferguson. While she got a lot of support, she also got a lot of hateful messages.
Overall, though, I think it’s well past time for white people to be actively seeking out black voices and perspectives. Representation matters not just for children of color to see positive role models like T’Challa, but also for white children (and adults) to realize that our toxic cultural narratives are bigoted and false.
My challenge to you, if you’re white: Fill your Kindle or your Netflix queue with movies made by and about people who aren’t white. Fill your social media with groups like The Root, The Grio, and Atlanta Black Star… then read, but don’t comment.
In other words, listen. As much as you can.