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Black People Can’t Swim

[ 120 ] November 26, 2012 |

In the summer of 1968, Charles Schulz—born today in 1922—decided not to take the path of least resistance.  In the first months of the Presidential race, the politics of Peanuts were as inscrutable as ever:

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The political positions of the birds—one of whom Schulz would christen “Woodstock” two years later—are literally cryptic.  (Snoopy later embraced of identity politics via a nifty collapse of signifier into signified, but let’s not lit-crit these panels quite yet.)  For Schulz, the campaigns of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace were less important than baseball:

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This dead-pan surrealism here is Peanuts at its artistic best, but at a time when America was at war and a segregationist was a viable Presidential candidate, dead-pan surrealism wasn’t the order of the day.  So Schulz sent Charlie Brown to the beach:

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This strip’s a fairly typical example of Charlie Brown’s half-hearted exasperation with an unfair world.  The next?

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Not only does the world cease its relentless, playful torment of Charlie Brown, but the boy who tamps it down is black and can swim.  Because on 31 July 1968, Schulz introduced the world to Franklin.  May not seem like much, but it’s as explicitly political as Peanuts ever ventures.  Until, that is, 1 August 1968:

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The father of Franklin, the black boy who swims, is over in Vietnam.  That second panel neatly illustrates how far Schulz strayed from his comfort zone.  Charlie Brown’s father “was in a war, but [he doesn't] know which one.”  That’s the extent to which contemporary politics typically intruded the most popular daily comic in America.  But for some reason, Schulz felt the need to contradict conventional racist wisdom that summer.

The racists responded in the manner befitting Wallace-backers: “I don’t mind you having a black character, but please don’t show them in school together.”

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It must’ve sucked to be a racist.  Unless, that is, you’re a fan of Dennis the Menace:

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That’s from 13 May 1970, two years after Schulz quietly integrated public schools.  There’s much to admire in the matter-of-factness of Schulz’s racial politics.  Not only is there no meta- to it, there’s no mention of it—Franklin arrives, befriends Peppermint Patty, and plays football.

(Re-posted in honor of Schulz’s birthday. If you want to zoom on the images or save them, you’ll have to click over to that link because WordPress is doing something wonky with the images here.)

Comments (120)

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  1. Dan says:

    Holy shit, that Dennis the Menace strip is awful on multiple levels. In 1970? Wow.

    • Craigo says:

      There were some games for the old Nintendo in the 1980s that were just as bad. They were Japanese-produced, but nobody at the American branch took the time to look at them and think “Maybe this is a bad idea.”

    • Lee says:

      I was born in 1980 but there were all sorts of quesionable things from the 1970s when they really should have known better. Neil Diamond’s blackface in the remake of the Jazz Singer for one thing.

      • Bill Murray says:

        Isn’t that based on Al Jolson though? Sadly, blackface entertainment was one of Al’s popular things

        • Observer says:

          I think Al Jolsen was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant. He had no experience with the North/South thing.

          He was just an entertainer.

        • LeeEsq says:

          Yes but when Al Jolson put on blackface active racism was more openly acceptable. Not that it makes it good but at least Jolson had an excuse not to know better. Diamond had no excuse, his remake was after the Civil Right’s movement.

      • Halloween Jack says:

        I almost immediately thought of the comic book The Man Called Nova. The comic was published in the mid-to-late seventies, originally, and originally it looked like he was being set up to be a space opera-type hero, but instead he went on to fight… the Yellow Claw, a Yellow Peril in the most insidious Fu Manchu tradition. I’d look between the comics page, in which the superhero from an all-white neighborhood in Queens was fighting a guy whose skin was literally the color of a lemon, to my high school classroom with a high percentage of first- and second-generation Asian-Americans, and slowly start to realize how incredibly limited the worldviews of some comic book writers were.

  2. Julian says:

    I am glad for another reason to love Schulz.

    There should be a word for the special feeling you get when something you’ve always fucking hated turns out to have an extra reason to hate it. That is what I just experienced with Dennis the Menace. Thank you.

    • Julian says:

      though in this case, I always hated Dennis the Menace for trivial reasons, and this is a powerful reason. That’s obviously going to require a different neologism from the inverse – e.g. if one were to learn that Mussolini was a bad tipper.

    • Hogan says:

      From Ketcham’s obituary:

      The real-life Dennis was 12 in 1959 when his mother died of a drug overdose. Mr. Ketcham took the boy to live with him in Geneva, where he spent some 20 years before moving back to California in 1977. But Dennis had difficulty with his schooling and was sent to boarding school in Connecticut while Mr. Ketcham remained in Switzerland with his second wife, the former Jo Anne Stevens. The marriage ended in divorce. Dennis Ketcham served in Vietnam, suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and had little contact with his father. “He’s living in the East somewhere doing his own thing,” Mr. Ketcham said in March. “That’s just a chapter that was a short one that closed, which unfortunately happens in some families.”

    • pluky says:

      Exactly my reaction.

    • NewHavenGuy says:

      Exactly. (Good thread too, but I endorse those sentiments 99.44%.)

      (I recently heard that David Koch never tips at 740 Park, despite his many unreasonable and ridiculous demands. Thought “dammit there’s got to be a German word for that”.)

      And damn… thank you Mr. Schulz. Not just for the holiday specials, either. Mad Magazine, Mr. Rogers, and Peanuts were just about the only healthy mass media things I absorbed as a child. Maybe Norman Lear’s TV shows too, but of those three I am sure.

  3. Decrease Mather says:

    There was also the controversial “cut it short and paint it black” DtheM strip from earlier in the 60s. About halfway down, on the left (pdf) (interesting that Grin and Bear It is political on the same day)

    http://fultonhistory.com/Newspaper4/Binghamton%20NY%20Press%20Grayscale/Binghamton%20NY%20Press%20Grayscale%201963.pdf/Binghamton%20NY%20Press%20Grayscale%201963%20-%201523.pdf

    • UberMitch says:

      I imagine Ketcham’s thought process behind this as “Obviously, Dennis would want to become a negro to increase his menacingness. Those negros are quite menacing, after all!”

      • NonyNony says:

        I’m glad somebody could figure out a thought process behind that panel.

        For the life of me I don’t understand that panel at all. I’m gonna go with the fact that I wasn’t born yet when it was drawn, so I’m missing out on cultural context, but the racism in that panel would have slid right past me and it would have generated more of a “WTF? How is that either funny or menacing?” moment. (Which, admittedly, is what Dennis the Menace has historically done for me anyway).

        • UberMitch says:

          Now now, I could be way off here. Really, with that straight hair on Dennis, cutting it short and dying it black would be closer to Asian that African-American. Maybe Ketcham wanted Dennis to embody the menace of the Yellow Peril?

        • rea says:

          Ketcham had lived in Geneva Switzerland for the 10 years preceeding this cartoon, missing out on some major changes. “Out of touch” and “clueless” may have more to do with this disaster than malice. It’s hard for you young’uns to graps how normal this sort of thing once seemed . . .

          • NonyNony says:

            It’s hard for you young’uns to graps how normal this sort of thing once seemed . . .

            I’m willing to believe that I’m even more ignorant of what was going on back then than I think I am (and I think I’m pretty ignorant). I just look at how some of the kids I teach today react to stories about how gays were treated in the 80s and 90s and I know that there’s a lot that I’m missing from the 60s and 70s.

            I’m so ignorant about it that I freely admit that I still don’t get the “joke” that Ketcham was going for there, even with the hint that it’s racist.

          • Lee says:

            Geneva, Switzerland isn’t really that isolated even in the days before the internet. Its a major city in a very rich European country. Ketcham had relatively easy access to developments and changes in the United States. Clueslessness is not an excuse in this case.

            • rea says:

              I’m attempting an explanation, not an excuse. The cartoon is horribly offensive. It’s hard to believe, though, that Ketcham understood how offensive it was– the simplest explanation is that he was trying, in his own muddle-headed fashion, to make a statement against racism (Dennis and his little black friend don’t even understand what racism is; kids have to be taught to hate), but couldn’t manage to draw a black character in a non-racist way…

            • jze says:

              If you think Geneva’s global city status precludes it from racist sentiments, you have never lived in Geneva. Some of the worst racists I met in Geneva were americans who lived there for 10+ years.

        • howard says:

          since i am old enough to remember, i will tell you what passed for a thought process: the belief that black people were naturally better athletes than white people.

          (this, of course, went hand-in-hand with the beliefs that black people had better rhythm and danced better, but were not as mentally sharp.)

          • rea says:

            the belief that black people were naturally better athletes than white people

            That’s a relatively recent development. In the days when athletics were segregated, the conventional wisdom was that blacks couldn’t compete with whites, in sports or anything else. It’s only when sports were integrated, and blacks began to outperform whites regularly, that racist explanations for this fact became fashionable.

              • howard says:

                anon21: perfect.

                and yes, rea, you are right that that wasn’t always the belief, but hell, by 1970 it was long established that even bear bryant had conceded he needed some of “them” to compete….

                • witless chum says:

                  Bryant apologists claim that he wanted to recruit black players earlier than he did, but was forestalled by the university or afraid of the reaction.

                  One of my favorite college football stories is how in the early 60s Charlie Thornhill got to Michigan State. (Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty had built a dynasty at MSU in the 50s and 60s partly by being willing to recruit black players earlier and more than other programs.) Supposedly, Bryant had formed a relationship with Charlie and Duffy had a relationship with Joe Namath who wanted to go to MSU. Duffy didn’t think he could get Namath into school or keep him eligible if he did, so he steered him to Bama in return for Bryant helping convince Thornhill to go to MSU and it worked like a charm.

        • UserGoogol says:

          Well, I’d assume the humor behind the panel is that it’s a stupid pun. That’s about on par with the sort of jokes the comic currently makes. That pun is backed up with some weird racism, but the underlying joke is the double meaning of the word race.

          • NonyNony says:

            Nonononono. I get what the “joke” on this page is supposed to be. It is also such an obviously racist caricature that the kid would almost have to jump off the page and yell “I’m a racist caricature” to telegraph the racism more than it is.

            I mean the one that Decrease Mather posted that has Dennis asking for his hair to be cut short and painted black. That’s the one that I’m just boggled about what it means and why it’s supposed to be a joke.

    • Sherm says:

      Fulton: City With A Future.

    • I don’t get it. On the other hand, the other strips on that page are markedly better than most of the funnies around today. The exception is the BC strip, which I guess makes BC timelessly stupid. I’d like to know how that Juliet Jones storyline worked out, though, and that Kerry Drake strip is notably prescient if it is, as it appears to be, about identity theft. You won’t see that in Mallard Filmore.

      • Decrease Mather says:

        I love old newspapers. Not necessarily the front pages, but the sports, funnies, etc.

        Did you see the 25-years-ago-tdoay section on that page?

        Chicago—Alf. M. Landon told the United Methodist Council today that Christianity, as well as democracies, were threatened by
        “the theory of absolute government
        abroad in the world.”

    • Halloween Jack says:

      I’m not seeing that as racist, but as Dennis realizing that adults can (and often do) have their hair colored. It would have been funnier if he’d asked for green or purple, but at this point in the newspaper strip’s inevitable evolution being funny (or at least sincerely trying to be) isn’t really a thing anymore.

  4. Schulz’s Peanuts for about 15-20 years–say from the early 60s to the early 80s or thereabouts–was simply untouchable. In those years Schulz produced what was probably one the finest expressions of comic literature of the 20th century. His utterly conventional, mainstream Christian, liberal decency was a big part of that achievement.

  5. mark f says:

    No offense, I hope, but having been only vaguely familiar with your other blog I’d never seen this before. It’s great; thanks for re-sharing it.

  6. Linnaeus says:

    Was always a fan of Peanuts. Glad to see this post.

  7. Charles says:

    Anyone over the age of puberty who considered Schultz as anything other than a mediocre drawer of vapid was probably riding on the short bus.

  8. This contains, in the first edition, a really terrific interview with Schulz. It’s worth owning.

  9. Uncle Kvetch says:

    I had dozens of Peanuts paperbacks as a kid and read them all several times over…but somehow I had completely forgotten “I’m upside down.” One of Schulz’s finest moments.

    I can’t thank you enough for the reminder…you just made my Monday a hell of a lot less Monday.

    • howard says:

      uncle kvetch, we are in exactly the same boat (and i’m proud to pass some of those books on to my now 8-year-old, who is also a peanuts fan): i thought i knew my ’60s peanuts, but i had forgotten “i’m upside down” too!

  10. howard says:

    i already mentioned i’m old enough to remember this in real time (i was a fan of peanuts starting around the age of 7 or 8 in 1960 or so, and it turns out, in the fullness of time, that i have since learned that 2 of the first 7 papers to syndicate peanuts were the newspapers of my hometown, the allentown morning call and evening chronicle).

    it’s important to remember that schulz was doing this in the midst of a number of other entertainment world accomodations to a new reality: we had bill cosby first co-starring in “i spy” and then actually the lead in “the bill cosby show;” we had “guess who’s coming to dinner?;” we had people like jackie robinson and bill white becoming regular play-by-play announcers; and any other number of green shoots.

    which doesn’t lessen or demean schulz’s accomplishment at all (and it was widely remarked upon at the time), just puts it into a broader context of a country struggling to come to terms with the changes the civil rights act and the voting rights act had cemented.

  11. GeoX says:

    Man, I sure am curious about that “nifty collapse of signifier into signified,” but that link sure won’t load for me.

  12. ianmorris says:

    i’m voting for pi

  13. Peter says:

    I’m probably going to regret asking as the answer will further erode my faith in humanity, but why’s it such a big deal that Franklin can swim?

  14. adolphus says:

    The father of Franklin, the black boy who swims, is over in Vietnam. That second panel neatly illustrates how far Schulz strayed from his comfort zone. Charlie Brown’s father “was in a war, but [he doesn't] know which one.” That’s the extent to which contemporary politics typically intruded the most popular daily comic in America

    I loved this post, but need to take partial and respectful exception to this quote. In fact, IIRC, and I really am just working from memory as I cannot find the strips in question, there was a whole arc in the late 60′s early 70′s in which Snoopy gives a graduation speech at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm and a riot breaks out among the students who are protesting the fact that too many dogs are being drafted and not returning from Viet Nam. This was an allegory for soldiers and student protests, but also reflected a news item at the time that dogs being “donated” to the cause and were not coming back. I don’t recall the exact thrust of the strips vis a viz it’s official stance on the war, but it was a much more explicit engagement with current political and international events than anything I see here. (again, as I recall. I am still looking for the actual strips.)

    • SEK says:

      If you find it, send me an email at my full name (at) gmail (dot) com. I’d love to see. I’ll admit to only being an aspiring completist of the Schulz canon, due to things like money and the lack thereof. (Those Fantagraphics collections are as expensive as they are beautiful.)

      • FridayNext says:

        SUCCESS!!

        It was a story arc over a couple of weeks between June 29 to July 18, 1970 (excluding Sundays) I have sent some representative samples to our gracious host.

        I should probably get back to work now.

        • adolphus says:

          Just noticed I sock puppeted there. My work computer signed me on as “FridayNext” before I noticed. Adolphis=FridayNext.

          My apologies for the faux pas. I was so excited to find those strips, I guess.

    • S_noe says:

      Sounds too good to be true – not questioning your integrity, Adolphus, just your memory. (I regularly mix up dreams with reality myself.)
      If it does turn up, I think SEK needs to give it a full post.

      • S_noe says:

        I should have googled it first – looks like it happened!

        Alyssa R’s mention
        LMGTFY for more

        Sorry to doubt you, Adolphus – gonna try to track the strips down

        • adolphus says:

          Doubt away. Wisdom through skepticism is my motto.

          I have found other people referencing the strips, so I know my memory is not completely warped, but I cannot find the strips online. I stayed up way too late last night looking for these, so I have to set aside my search.

          Sorry.

  15. rm says:

    In that last strip with Peppermint Patty, Franklin gets the role of the nonplussed straight man, which further normalizes him — he’s the one the readers share the experience of bewilderment with. He’s the audience-identification character.

    I used to think of Franklin as a token, because after all, it seemed obvious to me that if he was the only black character, that was pretty weak inclusive gesture. Coming of age in the ’80s, post-desegregation, I had no idea how recent this history really was (the kids today think the ’90s were forever ago). So maybe he was a token, but in the context of 1968, a really meaningful one. Like Uhura was a token on Star Trek, but her presence was so important Martin Luther King convinced Nichelle Nichols to stay.

    • SEK says:

      In that last strip with Peppermint Patty, Franklin gets the role of the nonplussed straight man, which further normalizes him — he’s the one the readers share the experience of bewilderment with. He’s the audience-identification character.

      Nicely done.

    • witless chum says:

      My dad was a big believer in the importance for racial unity of the fact that him and his all-white teenager friends all wanted to ogle Diana Ross and the Supremes and various other Motown stars. He was a man who both read a lot on all sorts of subjects and was a religious viewer of both “JAG” and “Baywatch.”

  16. [...] posts at LGM: SEK looks at Peanuts strips from the summer of 1968, and a guest post by Jonathan Powell about the DRC and [...]

  17. Jeremy Fantl says:

    Schulz also engaged with the racist attacks on Hank Aaron when he was approaching Ruth’s home run record: http://wezen-ball.blogspot.ca/2009/02/rod-aaron-and-snoopy.html.

  18. Joe says:

    His friendship with the Pearls Before Swine cartoonist alone makes Schultz worthwhile.

    http://www.personal.psu.edu/btd5030/assignment6.html

  19. NewHavenGuy says:

    Thought crossed my mind, is this another Magic Negro thing, that 7/31/68 strip?

    .004 second later I thought No, this is almost a revolutionary act in 1968. No fanfare, no bullshit, no tsuris, no drama, Charlie Brown meets a kid named Franklin. They talk about unknown wars and Vietnam the next day. Funny, when I started reading this this my first thought was “Oh, Franklin, Peppermint Patty’s football buddy.”

    Clearly, I have been propagandized by the Lamestream Media. I’d like to thank Mad Magazine, Norman Lear, Mr. Rogers and one other guy for polluting my fragile, young white mind with the idea that people who are not just like me are people too. (Along with many other terrible subversive ideas, bless them.)

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