Sunday, February 13, 2000

Schulz drew on compassion in letter to boy

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Charles Schulz
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        Charles Schulz gave me an explanation. His answer came a little later.

        Shortly before turning 9 years old in 1968, I wrote Mr. Schulz to ask him why no black characters (the term “Negro” remained in use then) appeared in Peanuts. I cannot recall whether I included my age in my letter, though I think I did. That's relevant to mention, given Mr. Schulz's reply. If he knew I was a kid, he wasn't at all condescending. Of course, he never treated Charlie Brown or Peppermint Patty like mere children, either.

        Mr. Schulz wrote:

        Thank you very much for your kind letter. I appreciate your suggestion about introducing a Negro child into the comic strip, but I am faced with the same problem that other cartoonists are who wish to comply with your suggestion. We all would like very much to be able to do this, but each of us is afraid that it would look like we were patronizing our Negro friends.

        I don't know what the solution is.

        Sincerely yours . . .

Put the Peanuts gang on your desktop. Click here for bigger image, then right click to Set As Wallpaper
        As I remember, I was thrilled to receive a personal response. Given the profession I ultimately chose, I guess it was the first question I ever asked a celebrity. I also remember that I had no earthly idea what “patronizing” meant. The content of the characters did not diminish my love for Peanuts, which I continued to read faithfully in the San Francisco Chronicle.

        Later that year, Franklin, an unmistakably Negro/black/African-American youth, joined the Peanuts family. Charles Schulz knew what the solution was after all. @subhed:Turbulent times @body:

        I used to wonder whether I had helped prompt Mr. Schulz to create Franklin. I now consider that to be an egotistical, presumptuous notion. The real impetus, I believe, can be traced to the date typed atop Mr. Schulz's letter: June 17, 1968.

        Martin Luther King was murdered about 21/2 months earlier. Robert Kennedy was killed two weeks before Mr. Schulz wrote to me. Every day in America was a primal scream. I imagine many cartoonists at the time might have feared their work was trivial. But nothing ever has been trivial about Peanuts, which has expressed our humor and angst. Charles Schulz knew his readers. He must have sensed that if they were ready to meet Franklin, he should introduce him.

        We've heard the praise heaped upon Mr. Schulz as he retires, and it's all deserved. As I reread his letter, I detected the same sensitivity and intelligence that imbued Peanuts for almost a half-century.

        A couple of friends of mine said his response sounded like a form letter. I prefer to believe that if there was a smoothness to his reply, it was because he had confronted this issue and given it careful thought. He wasn't the only decent man in that era to waffle on race-related matters before committing to act. @subhed:Integration part of life @body:

        I wasn't trying to goad Mr. Schulz toward integrating Peanuts. But integration was part of my life, because black students formed the majority at my school, Willow Elementary in Menlo Park, Calif. Being around people different from me always seemed normal, as I conveyed to Mr. Schulz.

        He obviously understood.

        Chris Haft, 40, covers the Reds for the Enquirer. His favorite baseball player, Willie Mays, is among the few non-fictional characters whose name has appeared frequently in Peanuts.

        'Peanuts' creator dies Continuing coverage from Associated Press

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