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The Hard Conversations
On July 31st, 44 years ago, Franklin was introduced to the Peanuts comic strip family. Franklin was probably 9 or 10 when he came on the Peanuts scene, so in some ways, Franklin and I are perhaps (give or take a few years) around the same age—at least from the same generation. I don’t remember it—the first time Franklin appeared. I read the Peanuts comic strip, though. The reason had more to do with Snoopy than any of the other characters. Okay, I admit it. Kermit, Garfield, Marmaduke, and yes, Snoopy, are favorites of mine. And yes, I sometimes imagine that dogs and cats, for instance, are saying, “I wouldn’t have a human’s life for all the dog biscuits/cat nip in China.” Can’t say I blame them, but I digress.
Recently, however, as I prepared for this panel discussion and for a discussion on the hard conversations that seem to be lacking in our interfaith/peacemaking work and efforts, someone sent me a poster via Facebook of the whole Peanuts gang. The poster’s title was “RACISM” in all caps, with a subtext of “Sometimes it’s subtle.”
First, I am not looking forward to discussing race, nor do I intend this to be the entire focus of what I have to say today because it is only one of many elephants who/that take a seat on the floor of our gatherings each and every time we meet. It doesn’t matter if it is a very diverse group or not. These elephants are crowding us here today as I speak. It’s amazing how adaptable we are because most of us are pretty comfortable where we sit today. Truth is, I haven’t been comfortable for some time now.
You see: I am or have been Franklin for a good portion of my life. I’m usually or often the only or one of a few black people (I’m talking American blacks) at some of the most dynamic and some of the largest peace gatherings in America. Of course those who know me, know that I served on a huge international board, but I have also served on several prominent National religious and social justice boards. However, for the first ten years of my life, I was mostly Franklin, going to school with mostly white children. I was pretty comfortable, too.
Then I moved to Texas. Upon crossing the Texas border after a long hiatus from the state (I was born in Texas, but had not lived there since a toddler), my father exclaimed, “You know you’re in Texas because people here are friendly,” just as we were driving by a white family in a car who waved. I think it was one of the reasons he decided to come back to Texas rather than Oklahoma or somewhere else in the South because he wanted his children to have what he thought of as an equal chance. We lived in Prairie View, Texas, a rural area where my father taught mathematics and drafting. Here, my father pursued his doctorate at Texas A&M, and it was here that I first witnessed his vulnerability as a black man. My father, for the first time in my life, used words like peckerwood and other racial slurs I won’t repeat. He moved us out the rural Texas a few years later to Houston and on my first day of school I was called the “N” word in front of a host of students and teachers. Nothing happened to the guy by the way. No admonishment. No support for me.
But, again, I’m only setting the stage for what are the real lessons. It wasn’t that bad being called the “N” word by the boy, whom I understood to be the peckerwood my father spoke of—in reality more of the “N” word than I could ever be. Anyway, I hadn’t internalized that word to reflect who I was, so I walked away. Still, there were other incidents and truth be told, most of them were quite subtle, but just as hurtful. The only thing the experience at James Madison High School did for me was made me want to be around more people who looked like me. I graduated from a predominantly black high school where I had black teachers and counselors who valued, appreciated and respected me. I am so grateful to them, some who have passed on, but others who still mentor me today.
Back to the Peanuts comic strip and Charles Schulz. Mr. Schulz was once asked if any of his comic strips worried publishers. He spoke of the one where Linus’s blanket comes to life and attacks Lucy. Larry Rutman (one of Schulz’s publishers) thought that attacking blankets would frighten children, so Schulz finished up the strip and let it go. (By the way, any therapist worth his or her salt knows it wasn’t the blanket, but Linus himself who attacked Lucy—but again I digress).
Franklin, who finally debuted the year Dr. King was assassinated and on my birthday, nonetheless, did raise eyebrows. Schulz says that he could have added Franklin long before he did, but didn’t because he didn’t want to step on the work of others. One editor told Schulz that he understood why he added Franklin to the comic strip family, but was adamant that Franklin not be drawn going to school with white children. When asked by Rutman to change a strip with Franklin and Peppermint Patty at school, Schulz responded, “print it or I quit.” Still, Franklin was never featured prominently and Schulz said the reason why was that he didn’t do race things, explaining that not only wasn’t he an expert on race, he didn’t “know what it’s like to grow up as a little black boy.” He added, “I don’t think you should draw things unless you really understand them, unless you’re just out to stir things up or try to teach people different things. I’m not in this business to instruct; I’m just in it to be funny.” He felt that somebody else should do that.
I agree that he wasn’t the one to instruct us, but we learned some valuable lessons from him anyway. I wonder what Schulz would say about his comic strip being used as a discussion on race today? Because even though he did not intend to instruct us, instruct us he has. And what have we learned?
Well, I can’t really answer that for anyone else but myself. I can tell you this; that I both admire and resent Franklin—or should I say Schulz, for creating Franklin. Like in the first strip—where Franklin saves Charlie Brown’s ball—Franklin is drawn as the good Negro. I assume he was smart and for a comic strip character, pretty good looking. A few times he had a supporting role, but never a leading one. In the party picture shown here, Mr. Schulz draws a passive Franklin. That Franklin sits in a rickety chair different from the others, sitting alone on one side of the table—separate but equal? I don’t think so. Sure they gave him ice cream and cake, but anybody remember the “let them eat cake” response to starving? And guessing that the reason he seems passive and that he doesn’t complain might be because if he does, he won’t get to be at the table at all.
Right now I have to ask myself, what would I like you to understand? One might think that I want “you” to be empathetic to some aspect of the story I just imparted. But the truth is that I have had that kind of empathy as well as discussions and it has accomplished nothing. Instead I have found that it created a very uncomfortable relationship, which is why Franklins or Frankettes often remain silent. It is easier to leave than to work it out, a dangerous proposition if one really tries to his or her mind to it. If a Franklin does respond, usually it is with anger or sadness, neither of which solves much.
But, I want you to see what I see (or don’t see) in this picture. Obviously the few times that Franklin appears, he is liked. I believe that. These children are friends, but they are being taught a subtle lesson by the ones you don’t see. Is anyone following me here?
What isn’t obvious in this scene (or for me what is obvious) is that the children didn’t separate Franklin from themselves, the grownup did. The grownup is Schulz. Schulz is doing what he is guided to do I believe, but it isn’t enough because he doesn’t do race and it isn’t his job.
See, Charlie Schulz, you teach us something after all.
People—the biggest elephant in the room is the room itself. The system we live in needs and has to change, but can only change when we talk about it. I also want us to understand that while the example I’ve cited is about race, there are so many other issues that we fail to talk about as it relates to systems of racism, classism, sexism—name me an “ism” and I’ll show you quickly I can clear a room. And the main reason, the reason that leaves me challenged to participate is when we believe that the job belongs to someone else.
Personally, I don’t want the job—anymore. I leave it up to those who call themselves peacemakers to bring me to a safe place and open the doors to a new world. For that, I say, thank you, Rachael. The ball is now in the court of all other peacemakers.
Peacemaking is the planting, cultivating, and harvesting of the garden—a metaphor that resonates with me because in this picture a seed is being planted. It was planted the day it was drawn because Mr. Schulz, admittedly, wasn’t an expert on race, he still planted a seed that is growing exponentially. Someone sees it. They called it what it was, but not with hate or accusations—a simple statement Racism: sometimes it’s subtle.
How it grows depends on a number of things—things we don’t see, but can intuit. What is here in this picture of past, present and future is that Franklin doesn’t just represent me or any black person, but all of the people “isms” we have yet to discuss or choose to ignore.
When will be ready? It’s up to each of you. Thank you.
This speech was given at the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Monday, July 16, 2012