When thinking of Thanksgiving, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving comes to mind for many. Originally airing in 1973, the animated special features Charlie Brown enlisting his dog Snoopy to help him create a Thanksgiving feast after being strong-armed by Peppermint Patty to host her and a few friends. While seeing Charlie Brown struggle to create a proper Thanksgiving dinner is humorous, for many Black fans of the special, it is Franklin, the sole Black character in the Peanuts cast, who is a standout.
As he rarely speaks, Franklin is a bit of a mystery. Even in the Thanksgiving special, he’s nothing more than a body at the table, which is segregated with Franklin sitting alone on one side and the white characters sitting together on the opposite side. The optics of the scene might have flown in the late 1960s, but later audiences have questioned why Franklin is sitting alone. In 2018, Twitter users even went as far as to call the special racist. But a modern audience has to put the special, and Franklin’s appearance, into historical context. During that era, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving was viewed as making strides.
The Washington Post reported in 2015 that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz told his publisher, United Feature Syndicate, about wanting to feature his newly-created Black character in his comic strips after being compelled by adult readers who were concerned about children growing up in a racially-charged society. Thus, Franklin was introduced to the Peanuts comic strip in 1968.
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Schulz was contacted by a retired Burbank school teacher named Harriet Glickman. According to The Washington Post, she “felt the need to act, and reach out, in some small way, searching for a ray of hope in the darkness of racism and political violence.”
She told the Post that King’s assassination was “a culmination that was so painful that I needed to do something. So I decided to write.”
“…My feeling at the time was that I realized that Back kids and white kids never saw themselves [depicted] together in the classroom.” So she wrote to several cartoonists, including Schulz, about including a Black character. Schulz was unsure about doing so because, as he wrote to her, “…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.”
His reservations and the eventual solution can provide a roadmap for creators who also want to be more diverse in their storytelling. First, like Schulz, one must be as sensitive to the situation and be willing to acknowledge their shortcomings. Also, there must be a willingness to create positive diverse characters by getting educated, whether independently or with help from others. The latter is what happened for Schulz. Glickman shared Schulz’s letter, with his permission, with her Black friends who were also parents themselves. Those parents, Ken Kelly and Monica Gunning, wrote to Schulz and eventually convinced him to create Franklin. When faced with opposition, Schulz demanded his publisher, United Feature Syndicate, to “run it the way I drew it, or I quit.”
If it wasn’t for Glickman, Gunning and Kelly, Franklin wouldn’t exist, and there would be no debate over where he sat at the Thanksgiving table. Also, if it wasn’t for Schulz, who happily accepted the challenge of creating a Black character after he was told he wouldn’t be offending Black readers, there wouldn’t be any representation in Peanuts at all. However, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t room for improvement. As NPR details, Franklin’s entrance into the Peanuts world was widely praised except in the south, where his inclusion was protested. As reported, “Schulz kept Franklin but never developed him into as nuanced a character as the other Peanuts.”
Perhaps, in the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, the reason why Franklin is on the opposite side of the table isn’t because of Schulz, but because of the powers that be, who still weren’t ready to see a Black character treated the same as the white ones. The same year that Franklin debuted in the comic strips, Star Trek faced its own censorship battles with the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which featured the interracial kiss between Lt. Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Captain Kirk (William Shatner). If a large chunk of the country was protesting live actors kissing on screen, it’s no stretch of the imagination to believe that they might have protested an animated Black boy sitting among his white friends, even if in 1972, prior to the Thanksgiving special, Franklin was seated at a dinner table on the same side as his friends in Snoopy Come Home. It’s possible that viewers in certain parts of America didn’t like that when they saw and this contributed to Franklin’s segregation in 1973.
This is conjecture, though. Unfortunately, there’s no clear explanation for why Franklin is sitting alone. However, this incident can be used as a way for people to have tough conversations about representation and discrimination, both intentional and unintentional kinds. As pop culture writer Jeremy Helligar wrote for Medium in 2018, the cartoon can act as a starting point for relevant conversations regarding racial attitudes in our current time.
“I’m not outraged by Franklin’s seat at the table in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, but I’m enraged by real-life people in 2018 who would rather pretend that racism is a figment of the liberal imagination because feigning ignorance makes it easier for them to enjoy their turkey,” he wrote. “Should we boycott A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving next year? No way. I think it should continue to be essential holiday viewing. If people don’t watch it purely for its entertainment value, they should watch it as a reminder of how much and how little America has changed since 1973.”