You’re a Racist, Charlie Brown?
On the belated controversy over a 45-year-old cartoon.
I’ll never forget the time someone disinvited me from a party because I’m black. It was back when I was a seventh-grade student at Denn John Middle School in Kissimmee, Florida. One of my white classmates invited me to a party she was throwing at her house, but days before the event, she told me it was cancelled.
Shortly after she broke the news, another friend, who also was white, gave me a disturbing piece of intel. According to her, the party was still on, but the classmate throwing the party was too embarrassed to tell me that her mother didn’t want a black kid in her house. She demanded that her daughter disinvite me or call it off.
My classmate chose door number one, and I never told her that I knew. I was pretty sure I didn’t miss much, but the rejection stung.
I recovered fairly quickly and went about my tween life (to this day, I remain friends with both classmates), but I thought about that old sting this Thanksgiving when I read about the latest racism uproar. It concerned the 45-year-old seasonal animated special A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and the secondary character Franklin, the only black friend in the Peanuts bunch.
Suddenly eagle-eyed viewers noticed that during the dinner scene, Franklin was seated alone on one side of the table, in a lawn chair, while four were on the other side in proper dining chairs. Even Snoopy got one of the good seats!
Outcry ensued. Some apparently felt that the children’s cartoon was racist for segregating the black character. It’s the sort of controversy that could exist only in these times of deep racial division. Belated though it might be, there’s no statute of limitations on outrage.
I, however, don’t count myself among the outraged. Perhaps it’s desensitization. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that even if it was a deliberate move by Peanuts creator Charles M. Schultz, it was also a reflection of the times. I was disinvited to my classmate’s party a decade after A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s TV debut, so, if nothing else, it accurately reflected America’s black-and-white culture in 1973.
(A relevant aside: During the farewell dinner about one hour and five minutes into 1972’s Snoopy Come Home, Franklin was seated on the same side of the table as Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Frieda — in a regular chair.)
Racial, racist retro humor
While I don’t read any racism into the Peanuts specials of the time, the ’70s was indeed an era of racial, and sometimes egregiously racist, TV humor. Lately, I’ve been watching old episodes of the classic sitcoms All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons (an All in the Family spin-off) on YouTube, and I’m frequently astonished by the racist comments that Archie Bunker, a white bigot, and Fred Sanford and George Jefferson, both black bigots, got away with spewing.
As excellently as the characters were portrayed — by Carroll O’Conner, who won four Emmys for his take on Bunker, and Emmy nominees Redd Foxx and Sherman Helmsley, who played Sanford and Jefferson, respectively — I can’t imagine that any of them would be welcome on television today.
All three, however, offered perceptive and relevant, if often uncomfortable, moments of dark humor (no pun intended) for their time. One standout was the tense exchange between Bunker, Jefferson, and Jefferson’s mother in the 1974 All in the Family episode “Lionel’s Engagement.”
Near the beginning of the scene, George yells at Mother Jefferson after she admonishes him for ordering his third scotch and soda. Then Bunker steps in.
Archie: “Hey there, Jefferson, that ain’t very nice, talking that way to your little mammy here.”
Mother Jefferson: “Who are you calling ‘mammy’?”
Mother Jefferson: “Well, don’t you dare call me ‘mammy.’ I’m nobody’s mammy. I’m his mother. Now if you’ve got anything to say to me, you call me ‘Mrs. Jefferson.’”
Archie: “Jeez, Mrs. Jefferson…”
Mother Jefferson: “Don’t talk to me.”
After Mother Jefferson storms off, Archie tries to explain himself.
“I didn’t think I was doing nothing wrong. I thought all colored people called their mothers ‘mammy.’ Well, I did, Jefferson. That’s what I always heard. Jeez, Al Jolson called his mother ‘mammy’ for years.”
George: “See that, Louise? You See? That’s what you get for inviting whitey.”
The room is practically overflowing with racism in the clip below.
Thankfully, white and black TV characters have come a long way since then, but sadly, America hasn’t. Not really. I was far less outraged by the seating arrangement in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving than I was by the outrage over the outrage on Twitter (click on the Twitter link below for a sampling). Most of the tweets I read decisively damned those who dared to utter the R-word yet again. Many were singing the same tune they’ve been singing all year whenever anyone brings it up.
People get offended over everything these days…. Relax, it’s just a cartoon…. Damn the liberals…. Damn the Democrats…. Blah. Blah. Blah.
It’s a chorus that has become as predictable as it is infuriating. Rather than engaging in a civilized discourse about the history of racism and how it continues to fester and affect those who still spend lifetimes fending it off, the first impulse of too many people (non-blacks as well as blacks who think if they’re not offended, no-one else should be) is to get defensive and dismissive.
Some diminish valid feelings by turning every mention of racism into a left vs. right showdown, as if people are no longer capable of non-ideological thought, as if racism is now merely an inconvenient political issue.
It’s easy to scream “Get over it!” from a safe, privileged distance when the threat has never really threatened you — or when you’re the threat. But for many of us, especially those who know what it’s like to be banished to the fringes for being black, or disinvited for being black, it’s not so easy to shrug and shake it off.
I’m not outraged by Franklin’s seat at the table in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, but I’m enraged by real-life people in 2018 who would rather pretend that racism is a figment of the liberal imagination because feigning ignorance makes it easier for them to enjoy their turkey.
Should we boycott A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving next year? No way. I think it should continue to be essential holiday viewing. If people don’t watch it purely for its entertainment value, they should watch it as a reminder of how much and how little America has changed since 1973.