*Edited 12/24 to correct Hank Ketcham’s Name*
Lately, I found myself once again in a social media debate that long tires me: “Charles Shultz is a racist.”
Why does this tire me? Well, the only backup people have for this claim is a) an inaccurate anecdote from a comedian, either Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, and b) a screenshot taken out of context. People seem to want to assume malicious intent of the man without knowing the whole story.
First of all, the screenshot in question is from the animated Thanksgiving special, from which Shultz had little input. Second, Those animated adaptions are the only exposure to anything Peanuts most people have. Third, Franklin is a product of the 1960s, yet he and the image he features in is being judged by the values of 2015 and pop culture osmosis. Very few have actually seen Franklin Armstrong in the comic let alone know his character history and Shultz’ well-documented reasons for creating him. If they want to criticize the character or his creator, some research would be appreciated.
A Little Backstory
Franklin Armstrong was created in 1968 at the insistence of a schoolteacher, Harriet Glickman, who felt the strip needed to keep up with the newly integrated society. Shultz was hesitant to do so at first for fear of unintentionally insulting his black friends and colleagues. In the end he went through with the suggestion.
In Franklin’s introductory strip, he meets Charlie Brown on the beach. The two exchange stories about their families and themselves, allowing a bit of humanity for Franklin in doing so.
Sequential strips reveal the backstory and personality Shultz invested for Franklin. We see which members of the gang we prefers to socialize with (Peppermint Patty, Marcie and Chuck) and whom he chooses to keep a distance (oh, Lucy).
Where Shultz Went Wrong
So he gave Franklin personality. Do I believe Shultz to be a saint?
As Shultz anticipated, Franklin’s interactions often had questionable intentions seen by 1960s standards. Too often, Its Patty who provides the equality lecture to Franklin, never the other way around.
In other panels, he’s seen off to the side of the group. But, again, this is the result of a white artist who doesn’t get input from the people he’s trying to represent. But Shultz did admit to being fearful of making such mistakes. In comparison, Shulz received criticisms for petty details such as having Franklin sit in front of Patty in the class but ignored them. I doubt the producers of the Animated Specials shared his feelings, leading to more unfortunate moments.
And as dubious as that is, Shultz still did a better job. Take this comparison: a few years later, Hank Ketcham of Dennis The Menace tried to ape Shultz’ success by drawing his own race relations cartoon. To call it an epic fail is putting it lightly:
Does that mean Franklin stands the test of time? Well, not anymore. The character was well needed to get media to include more minorities in their stories. However, overuse of this characterization by media up into the 1990s lead to the classic “token” black kid who has nothing more to his personality than a love for sports. Due to this development in media representation, Franklin is now lumped in with the archetype he unintentionally influenced.
To Be Frank
If anyone should have a problem with Franklin, it should be the sad fact that he’s becoming as outdated in 2015 as Ketcham’s blackface creature was in the 1970s. Nonetheless, Shultz did a noble thing for a middle aged white man in the 1960s. He fought criticisms to bring blacks on equal footing with whites. If anyone actually expected Shultz to straight up see the world with black people’s eyes and predict the future, then I say those people are reaching.