A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving' at 50: Why the classic 'Peanuts' special is accompanied by a side helping of controversy
Fri, November 17, 2023
Fifty years ago, the Peanuts gang tucked in for a Turkey Day feast to remember. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving made its primetime debut on Nov. 20, 1973 and instantly joined its predecessors — 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas and 1966's It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown — as a perennial holiday favorite. Like those timeless Charles Schulz-penned specials, Thanksgiving is currently streaming on Apple TV+, which owns the streaming rights to the Peanuts franchise.
But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has lately been accompanied by a side helping of controversy. At issue is a sequence from the half-hour cartoon where Charlie Brown and his friends sit down for their version of Thanksgiving dinner, featuring toast, popcorn and jelly beans in place of turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.
During the meal, though, one friend seems distinctly left out in the cold: Franklin, the only main Black character in Peanuts, is seated in a beach chair by himself on one side of the table. Even though he's part of the group, he's still distinctly separate from them. It's an image that increasingly bothers modern-day viewers of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, several of whom have expressed their complicated feelings on social media platforms like X, formerly known as Twitter, over the years.
Schulz's widow, Jean Schulz, addressed the debate over Franklin's role in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving with Yahoo Entertainment in 2020, months after George Floyd's death shone a renewed spotlight on depictions of race in American media. At the time, she noted that while her husband wrote A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, he wasn't involved in the animation process. That fell to director Bill Melendez, who first collaborated with Schulz on A Charlie Brown Christmas. The duo continued to work together on animated Peanuts specials for decades, alongside producer Lee Mendelson. (Schulz died on Feb. 12, 2000, one day before his final Peanuts strip appeared in newspapers.)
"The scene would not have had anything to do with Sparky, because it was purely the animators and the directors working on it," Jean explained. ("Sparky" was Schulz's childhood nickname.) "The director parcels out the scenes to the animators, and the animators who drew that scene aren't alive anymore or we don’t know how to find them."
"The [controversy] first popped up a couple of years ago," she continued. "I've probably watched the special a dozen times, and I hadn't noticed it. But I wouldn't notice it: It's to be noticed now."
Schulz expanded on those thoughts in a 2019 blog post published on the official website for the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, where she serves as the president of the board of directors.
"While it can't be known now which animator drew that particular scene, you can be sure there was no ulterior motive," she wrote. "I fall back on Peppermint Patty's apology to Charlie Brown explaining she meant no harm when she criticized his poor Thanksgiving offering, which goes something like: 'There are enough problems in the world already without these misunderstandings.' To suggest the show had any other messages than the importance of family, sharing and gratitude is to look for an issue where there is none."
Even if the animators didn't intend offense by isolating Franklin, the special’s critics feel that it reflects an insular point of view about inclusion. "Having [Franklin] on this long side by himself, you could interpret it that no one wanted to sit next to him," Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and African American studies at UCLA, told Yahoo Life in 2020. "Today this would not be acceptable. It really does speak to the need for more inclusive creators and storytellers behind the scenes who produce these images."
In a virtual panel discussion organized by Schulz Museum in November 2020, a group of Black cartoonists directly addressed the Franklin question. "I can't believe how accurate that drawing is — I feel like I'm that dude on that side of the table to this day," remarked Robb Armstrong, the creator of the comic strip Jump Start and a close friend of the late Peanuts creator.
In fact, in the 1990s, the older cartoonist asked Armstrong for permission to give Franklin his last name. "I know people are like, 'That's racist!'" Armstrong remarked during the panel. "First of all, Charles Schulz named that dude after me — he is not a racist. He was a wonderful, wonderful human being who decided to put Jesus on a CBS Christmas special... Franklin is still an underdeveloped character as far as I'm concerned... but the guy knew his limits."
For her part, Schulz admitted that her husband struggled to find ways to integrate Franklin into the core Peanuts crew when writing both the comic strip and the animated specials. "People would say, 'Franklin doesn't have the personality quirks that the others have — he doesn't have Lucy or Linus's or Peppermint Patty's quirks.' It goes back to Sparky’s approach: He wrote what he knew in his strip. Franklin is a limited character, and it's not for any particular reason except that he was not in Sparky's familiar childhood [experiences] that he pulled his themes from."
At the same time, Schulz was also keenly aware that Franklin occupied an important place not only in the world of Peanuts, but the world of comics in general. In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in the spring of 1968, schoolteacher Harriet Glickman wrote a letter to the cartoonist urging him to introduce a Black character into his widely-read comic strip. "Sparky pondered it, and eventually agreed it was something he could do," Jean recalled.
Franklin made his first appearance on July 31 of that year, encountering Charlie Brown at the beach. Interestingly, that strip predates the famous 1969 episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, where Fred Rogers invites Black police officer Officer Clemmons (François Clemmons), to share a wading pool foot bath. In both cases, Schulz and Rogers are using an ordinary summertime childhood moment to illustrate to young audiences how we're more alike than different. In their gentle way, they may also have been challenging the segregation of American pools and beaches overseen and enforced by white adults at the time.
According to Jean, the beach setting was most likely a narrative choice rather than a political statement on her husband's part. "Sparky thought, 'I want to do this — how on earth do I do it in a way that’s natural?'" she explained. "The easy thing would have been to have Franklin be a new kid who moves to town and lives across the street. But instead, he had them meet in a very neutral place, and then it's revealed that he goes to Peppermint Patty's school across town."
"I wish he was here now, because it never occurred to me to ask him how he hit on that idea," she added. "I always say that in all the years I was married to Sparky, it seemed like he created the strip so effortlessly. It’s my penance now to study all the things I took for granted then."
" A 1973 cartoon being examined and torn to shreds by a younger generation, the same generation that found Lou Rawl's song "Baby it's Cold Outside" offensive. I'm tired of everything being offensive, and the insinuation that those of us that watched the cartoon or listened to the song were "out of touch" for not screaming back then! Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon and a song is just a song!
" Why do we feel the need to find racism in EVERYTHING? Even when there is no real proof, people feel the need to make everything divisive. What good is to come of looking at a 50 year old cartoon and having arguments over it when Schulz put Franklin in for the whole purpose of having him when he was told not to. Also, if you look at the panel, the table is full, someone had to sit by themselves on that side. To try to start an issue when it cannot be proved it was "on purpose" is so ridiculous. If he was put at another table alone or something, then I could see the discussion, but at this point, who cares. Just enjoy the show for what it was.
Liberals offended by everything these days, Need to find any way to push the racist card in everything, including the past. Pssy liberals !!!!!!