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January 16, 2006

Schulz, MLK, and insensitivity

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I must admit that MLK is one of my favorite historical figures, and the Civil Rights Movement was my focus as an undergraduate history major. I wrote many a paper on King's efforts and I just couldn't believe that something so awful as state-sanctioned segregation, voter intimidation, lynchings, and "colored" drinking fountains happened so close to my own date of birth. King quickly became, and still is, a hero of mine.

So, today I read over King's I Have a Dream speech, and I thought about my favorite of all of King's writings, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Powerful, powerful stuff that (and this always amazes me) that my parents actually lived through.

Anyway, after reading over some links concercing MLK day, for some reason I picked up an old Peanuts book. It was a collection of old Peanuts comics, and it contained this particular comic that struck me as ... I don't know "appropriate" for the significance of today, and also shockingly insensitive on the part of Charles Schulz:

Click for larger version

What do you think of this comic? What kind of message does it send? I think we can all agree that we would never see it in a newspaper today because it is insensitive at best and full of prejudice and stereotypes at the worst. I'm very surprised I saw it today. I wonder if this is an example of a comic that Charles Schulz wished he could have back.

Posted by snackeru at January 16, 2006 7:24 PM | Life


I suspect you're right, that Shultz would have wished he could have that one back. Actually, he was kind of ahead of his time, with one of the first recurring black characters in a comic strip, especially where the character was just "one of the characters", without making a big deal out of his blackness (most of the time).

I don't know what year Shultz did this one, but you also have to remember that black hockey players, while still not common, were almost unheard of not that many years ago. That's not an excuse, really, but it is a reason this comic might have struck people differently when it was written.

I'd also be curious to know if this was one of a series (which Shultz did sometimes) or just a one-off. That would clearly affect the message it sends, if in fact it was intended to send any message at all. While Shultz did send messages on occasion, most of the time he simply was trying to be funny. It's hard to do that 365 days a year for all the years he was doing it. As I said, I suspect your last sentence is correct, and that this was just one that didn't come out right.

Posted by: Jeff A at January 17, 2006 4:25 PM

Actually, I disagree with your assessment of the cartoon. It's a fine and timely statement. Besides reflecting ignorant things kids say all the time, (I just read an anecdote of a three year old kid who shocked his mother when he met a black man and said, "You're chocolate") it reflects the ignorant, thoughtless prejudice faced by people thrown into identity groups even today.

I don't think Schulz would take it back. It certainly isn't making fun of Franklin. Rather, while Franklin stands there with the classic Charlie Brown "Good grief" look on his face, Peppermint Patty makes herself look like an impetuous, thoughtless hypocrite.

Peppermint Patty is a notorious tomboy (if not an outright prepubecent lesbian). Normally she refuses to act like a "proper lady." But the minute she freely decides to be ladylike and lace up some figureskates, she has the audacity to blithely criticize Franklin for being an inauthentic black person. The joke is at her expense. She's supposed to be the wise-cracking, free-spirited hippy chick who hates girly things and likes to bust stereotypes. And now that she's daintily figure skating, she's hacking on a black person for acting out of character.

As I said, it's extremely timely. It's something self-described "liberals" do all too often today when they throw Oreos at black Republicans, refer to Colin Powell, Condaleeza Rice, and Clarence Thomas as race-traitors or "House Negroes," accuse studious black kids of trying to "be white," or assert that Donovan McNabb isn't being "black enough" when he acts as a pocket passer. Patty's doing the exact same thing that happens everytime somebody scoffs incredulously and suspiciously when they see black people at Republican political events. It's pathetic and clearly not what MLK intended when he called for people to be judged not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character. This cartoon is indicative of the fact that the next barrier to true freedom for blacks is the freedom to be themselves, without having to validate or affirm to other liberals their adherence to some narrowly-defined authentic "blackness."

Posted by: ss at January 18, 2006 2:51 PM

I should also note that the NHL broke the color barrier when Willie O'Ree, a black man, joined the league in 1958.

Posted by: ss at January 18, 2006 2:58 PM

Interesting take, SS. So you feel that Schulz was actually pointing out a known prejudice in society and subtly suggesting how inappropriate it is? That people should do whatever they want regardless of what society tells them to do based on the color of their skin. I can buy that, although I am a little dubious on whether or not that was really Schulz's intent. And I still say you would never see this comic in the paper today. Way too easy to take it the wrong way.

And Jeff, this was just a one off. There was no series/story behind it. I think Schulz was just trying to make a humorous comic about the lack of black players in the NHL. I don't think he would draw the same comic today. I do think we should give him credit, though, for having Franklin as a recurring character so early.

Posted by: Shane at January 18, 2006 4:24 PM

ss, I was almost completely with you for the first three paragraphs of your analysis. (Except for the 'lesbian' comment - ironic, given the point of your commentary, but hey, that's life.)

Then I got to your last paragraph and had to blink and blink hard. 'Liberals' are the problem? No, *anybody* who perpetuates the stereotype is the problem. There may well be 'liberals' who accuse high-ranking black elected officials of selling out to make it in a white-dominated world. (I personally have heard far more right-wingers decrying the unnamed 'liberals' criticisms than I've heard criticisms, but I'm not omniscient.) But there are also those who call Ice Cube a sell-out for making a family-friendly movie like "Are We There Yet?" rather than another rap album. (For instance, here - http://www.joblo.com/forums/showthread.php?referrerid=21885&threadid=88062)

Now if I wanted to pretend that my personal politics were a mirror of reality, I'd criticize 'conservatives' for posting those critical comments. That wouldn't make it true, of course, but it'd make me feel better about myself, which is all that counts in these arguments, right?

Posted by: David Wintheiser at January 18, 2006 4:28 PM

ss, it's ironic that in your rush to denounce liberals, you indulge in the very sin that you accuse them of: narrowly defining a group of people based on the behaviors of their most media-prominent members.

I also want to respond to your assertion that "outright bigotry is not the scourge it once was." I agree narrowly; on the other hand, closet bigotry is more a scourge than ever, and the modern political climate is ample evidence. Labeling others as unfit members of society and then defining ourselves as opposing that group is a classic response in times of economic or social stress. Our leaders are all too happy to take advantage of it.

Next time you think of things in terms of the classic 'conservative' vs. 'liberal' dichotomy, think about who benefits from that metaphor. It's the talking heads, the GOP, the Dem party, the race-baiters, the sound-biters. It's not the voter, it's not the reasoned debater, it's not the taxpayer, and it's not the person who wants to see a better American society.

Posted by: chapman at January 19, 2006 9:44 AM

chapman. Ironic that you rush to denounce me at all, given that I did not denounce liberals, but rather "self-described 'liberals'" acting illiberally. If you are a true liberal who belives in the freedom of all people to be themselves, unfettered by the bonds of identity politics, then I wasn't complaining about you. This cartoon makes a fine liberal point and I agree with it. Chill.

And I find your belief in some secret rash of closet bigots mystifying. It seems paranoid, in an age where companies place blacks in positions of power for good public relations, where univeristies everywhere are striving to increase (not inhibit) minority enrollment and graduation rates, and where blacks like Colin Powell and Condaleeza Rice rise to positions of authority in the party that supposedly "cares less" about their "plight," to continue to claim that whitey is trying to keep the black man down. This is hardly a scourge. And I have no idea who you think are "unfit members of society."

Whatever. I think the cartoon makes a fine liberal point and I find these wise-ass, defensive comments to be more indicative of the current political climate than anything.

Posted by: ss at January 19, 2006 2:05 PM

ss, agree with you on the comic's take. Closet bigotry: Whitey not talking about keeping the black man down, but pretending that a few blacks in positions of power makes inaction OK. Saying that eliminating 'identity politics' will help ease racial injustices is the worst kind of hand-waving. "Pay no attention to the class warfare behind the curtain, we have a black Secretary of State!"

Posted by: chapman at January 19, 2006 4:01 PM

I don't want to turn Shane's message thread into a flamewar, but I did want to comment on this statement by ss:

"My lesbian statement wasn't a slur."

You don't get to decide that, ss. You can say that you didn't intend the statement to be offensive or a slur, but in the end it's up to the person reading it to decide if the statement is truly offensive.

For instance, there's been similar speculation for years on the relationship between Bert and Ernie on 'Sesame Street'. Yet I'd be an idiot if I thought I could get away with saying something like 'Bert is so much in the closet it's not even funny' and not have some people find it offensive. Whether folks would be justified in taking offense, given the context and tone of my original comment, would be a different argument. Nevertheless, I can't back away from responsibility for my own words by hand-waving it away and saying 'my comment wasn't a slur on Bert'.

And before you dismiss me as paranoid and ask me to 'chill', let me bust out a quote on ya: "When a man ascribes a motive to someone he barely knows, it's his own motive he reveals."

Posted by: David Wintheiser at January 19, 2006 8:36 PM

You guys are the 30100 best, thanks so much for the help.

Posted by: Caty Tota at June 7, 2006 8:45 PM

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