Why this scene in 'A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving' prompts allegations of racism

Rachel Grumman Bender
A CHARLIE BROWN THANKSGIVING - The Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Television Network will celebrate the start of the holiday season with the classic special, "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," MONDAY, NOVEMBER 20 (8:00-8:30 & 8:30-9:00 p.m., ET), on the Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Television Network. In the 1973 special "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," Charlie Brown wants to do something special for the gang. However the dinner he arranges is a disaster when caterers Snoopy and Woodstock prepare toast and popcorn as the main dish. Humiliated, it will take all of Marcie's persuasive powers to salvage the holiday for Charlie Brown.  (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
One particular scene in the 1973 special A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been stirring up controversy in recent years. (Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

Charles Schulz’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is a classic Peanuts special from 1973 that airs during the holidays. But one particular scene has been stirring up controversy in recent years.

In the scene, Franklin, who is the only Black character, is sitting by himself on one side of a Thanksgiving table, while most of the other kids sit together on the other side (Linus is seated at the head of the table). Some people consider the scene problematic and even racist, arguing that Franklin is separated from the rest of the characters, who are white.

Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and African American studies at UCLA, tells Yahoo Life: “Having [Franklin] on this long side by himself, you could interpret it that no one wanted to sit next to him.”

Hunt, who remembers “feeling included in ways I hadn’t before” when he first saw Franklin in a Peanuts comic strip, says that Schulz “probably thought he was doing a good thing by including the character at all.” But Hunt says it’s a “classic example” of what can be missed “even when you’re trying to be inclusive.”

“Today this would not be acceptable,” says Hunt. “It really does speak to the need for more inclusive creators and storytellers behind the scenes who produce these images.” He adds: “That’s why it’s so important to have people in the writers’ room and in production who might be more sensitive to these issues.”

But not everyone views the scene as problematic. On Nov. 20, the Charles M. Schulz Museum hosted an online event with Black cartoonists Robb Armstrong, Darrin Bell, Elizabeth Montague and Bianca Xunise during which they discussed the controversy over A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

Bell, who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, said that a lot of cartoons are like Rorschach tests, in which people have their own interpretations of certain scenes. “When I saw that image [of Franklin], my first thought was Charles Schulz really wanted Franklin to be seen and Franklin was really important,” Bell said. He added that Peanuts was a “kind” and “inclusive” comic strip.

Armstrong, who created the comic strip JumpStart, said that he relates to the scene of Franklin sitting by himself based on his experiences at school. But he says that Schulz, who died in 2000, was “not a racist,” calling him his “idol” and “a wonderful human being.” Schulz, who knew Armstrong professionally, reportedly asked for permission to use Armstrong’s last name for Franklin’s character when Schulz realized Franklin needed one in the 1990s.

The character Franklin first appeared in the Peanuts comic strip on July 31, 1968. A retired teacher named Harriet Glickman convinced Schulz to add a Black character to the strip that year. According to the New York Times, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Glickman started thinking about mass media’s influence in “shaping the unconscious attitudes of our kids” and “felt that something could be done through our comic strips.”

Glickman wrote a letter to Schulz: “I’m sure one doesn’t make radical changes in so important an institution without a lot of shock waves from syndicates, clients, etc. You have, however, a stature and reputation which can withstand a great deal.”

She added: “I hope that the result will be more than one black child.”

Schulz responded to Glickman’s letter, according to the New York Times, saying that he appreciated her suggestion of including a Black child in his comic strip. But he said that he was “faced with the same problem that other cartoonists are who wish to comply with your suggestion.” He added that “we all would like very much to be able to do this,” but said that “each of us is afraid” it would look like they were “patronizing” their Black “friends.”

According to the New York Times, Glickman shared Schulz’s response, with his permission, with a Black friend of hers. That friend, Kenneth Kelly, suggested that a Black character be introduced “in a casual day-to-day scene” — rather than making a big announcement about it — to “suggest racial amity.”

That was apparently all Schulz needed to hear. Franklin joined the Peanuts comic strip a few months later. But it reportedly wasn’t without a fight: When the cartoon’s publisher, United Feature Syndicate, allegedly questioned adding a Black character, Schulz is said to have responded, “Either you run it the way I drew it, or I quit.”

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