Franklin Armstrong, the African American character from Peanuts turns 50. We celebrate Schulz for being groundbreaking, but how much has media changed?
History tells us this: The United States, 1968. Segregation and integration were controversial topics and these were just taking their course. People were still struggling to get used to the fact that black and white people could live together; share the same places, have the same possibilities and rights. Martin Luther King Jr, civil rights activist, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968. Riots, concern, and despair were part of the mood of many in the country.
Harriet Glickman, a school teacher, wrote to Charles Schulz, creator of the iconic Peanuts comic strip, about her thoughts and proposed solutions in response to this historical moment: an African American character should appear in the comic strip. And so it happened. On July 31st, 1968 and against suggestions and efforts of his editors to convince him not to, the creator of Charlie Brown decided to present Franklin, an African American boy that finds Charlie Brown at the beach and who ends up playing with Snoopy’s friend. Public opinion was divided.
History made Glickman put that letter together. She recalls in an interview the iconic photo of Ruby Bridges, the only black girl in an all white group at an integration event of her school in New Orleans in 1960, as one that shocked her and motivated somehow. She wrote in that letter that “In thinking over the areas of the mass media which are of tremendous importance in shaping the unconscious attitudes of our kids, I felt that something could be done through our comic strips and even in that jungle of horrors known as Children’s Television”.
It was crucial and revolutionary to have such a character in a visual medium like this, since depictions of African Americans had been mostly as servers or as negative stereotypes; mediocre, aggressive and dumb as Narissa Punyanunt-Carter states in an essay concerning the representation of African Americans in media. Yet, here we have a child that will become an often present character in the squad, one that shares school, table and activities with white children.
It wasn’t the first time a character like Franklin appeared in the comic. Jose Peterson, a half latino half Swedish character, made his first appearance in 1967. However, the whole Civil Rights movement made Franklin’s appearance more controversial. But, was that good enough?
It’s been 50 years since Franklin appeared as a response to the lack of racial integration in media in the US. However, it is rather concerning to see that half a century has passed and yet we cannot see them and ourselves, minorities in general, in American media. Minorities and their media representation is still a topic that shocks those in control: editors, executives, directors, writers. Though we love Franklin and what he means and represents as a pioneer in his field, it is still just one character. One and only one. We are many, in shades and colors in the land of the brave and we must find ourselves in cartoons, advertising, film, television…media in general: to see ourselves in order to find ourselves.
“If you see it you can be it”
Franklin receives his last name as a result of the relationship between cartoonist Robb Armstrong and Charles Schulz. Armstrong, creator of JumpStart, stated in an interview that to see someone that look like him influenced him to become a cartoonist himself. He was 6 years-old when he first encountered Franklin. In the 1990s, as a consolidated cartoonist, Armstrong was asked by Schulz himself if he would lend his last name to Franklin, since the character had none. Talk about complements.
Also, a friend of Glickman wrote to Schulz how important and meaningful it was to see Franklin on the strip. How it felt like hope in order to normalize the friendly coexistence of black and whites. Franklin was just one of the many beginnings to change the constructs in which minorities were developed as characters. But it was just a start. African Americans, Latinos and other minorities have begun to have, little by little, meaningful presence in media. Though we love the latest representation of minorities and ethnic groups in films and series like Black Panther, Atlanta, Coco… it is still not enough.
“I believe it will be another generation before the kind of open friendship, trust and mobility will be accepted part of our lives” wrote Glickman in his letter in 1968. And here we are, fifty years later with films and tv shows that have a small percentage of black and latino characters. Here we are in front of media culture that depicts minorities stereotypically still. Here we are in presence of a nation which leader believes in walls rather than friendship.
I do not intend to generalize and simplify experiences of each minority as a single one. Each group has its story. Each group has its voice. But truth is we all share a common ground: lack of representation. As a latino, since I cannot see myself on screen most of the times, I turn to see “the other”. Their experiences and stories, though not mine, make me realize that inclusion matters, that it shall happen now and that, at the end of the day, we all deserve to see ourselves so we can be ourselves. Anyhow, thank you, Franklin and Jose. It’s not that we don’t like you. Not that we don’t love you. It’s just that kids, just like statements and ideas, also need to grow up.
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