Charles M. Schulz, Civil Rights, and the Previously Unseen Art of Peanuts
By Maria Popova
For half a century, Charles M. Schulz (November 26, 1922–February 12, 2000) made an art of difficult emotions while delighting the world with his enormously influential Peanuts. The 17,897 comic strips he published between 1950 and 2000 are considered, in the words of cultural historian Robert Thompson, “the longest story ever told by one human being.”
In Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts (public library), beloved graphic designer Chip Kidd offers a guided behind-the-scenes tour of Schulz’s genius. With tremendous reverence and unprecedented access to the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, Kidd delves into the raw material of Schulz’s creative process — his sketches, his correspondence, rare early editions of his comics, a wealth of previously unpublished artwork, and various never-before-seen ephemera that emanate the singular spirit of this irreplaceable creative force.
Kidd writes in the preface:
If bringing joy to other people is proof of a meaningful existence, then Charles M. Schulz led one of the most meaningful lives of the twentieth century.
From the heartening origin story of how teenage Charles Monroe “Sparky” Schulz had his first drawing of the family dog published in the popular Believe It or Not! in 1936, to the evolution of his pre-Peanuts characters, to the stratospheric success of Peanuts, this glorious tome is equal parts museum and monument, a masterwork of curatorial rigor and an affectionate homage.
Jeff Kinney writes in the introduction:
In creating Macbeth, William Shakespeare embodied a single character with a full and often contradictory range of human traits — ambition, weakness, gullibility, bravery, fearfulness, tyranny, kindness. A character as complex as Macbeth could only be created by someone with a complete understanding of what it means to be a human being, and suggests that Shakespeare himself shared many traits with his most famous literary character.
In the same way, the characters in Peanuts reflect the multiple dimensions of their creator. Interviewers asked Schulz if he was really Charlie Brown, expecting, perhaps, an uncomplicated confirmation. But Schulz was all the characters in Peanuts — Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Pig-Pen, Franklin, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, even Snoopy. Each character represented a different aspect of Schulz, making Peanuts perhaps the most richly layered autobiography of all time.
But Peanuts was in many ways a cultural biography as well, speaking in ways both subtle and profound not only to the abiding complexities of our inner lives but also to the singular concerns of the era. Nowhere is this osmosis of timelessness and timeliness more pronounced than in the story of how Schulz’s Franklin character was born.
In April of 1968, exactly two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and on the cusp of the era that would beget such cultural milestones as Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s spectacular conversation about race, Schulz received an immensely thoughtful letter from a woman named Harriet Glickman, urging him to consider incorporating characters of color into the Peanuts strip. It was the kind of sympathetic suggestion offered not as an act of criticism aimed at tearing something down but as an act of construction aimed at building up an important new direction of growth.
Mrs. Glickman writes:
Dear Mr. Schulz,
Since the death of Martin Luther King, I’ve been asking myself what I can do to help change those conditions in our society which led to the assassination and which contribute to the vast sea of misunderstanding, fear, hate and violence.
As a suburban housewife; the mother of three children and a deeply concerned and active citizen, I am well aware of the very long and tortuous road ahead. I believe that it will be another generation before the kind of open friendship, trust and mobility will be an accepted part of our lives.
In thinking over the areas of the mass media which are of tremendous importance in shaping the unconscious attitudes of our kids, I felt that something could be done through our comic strips, and even in that violent jungle of horrors known as Children’s Television.
You need no reassurances from me that Peanuts is one of the most adored, well-read and quoted parts of our literate society. In our family, teen-age Kathy has posters and sweat shirts … pencil holders and autograph books. Paul, who’s ten and our Charlie Brown Little Leaguer … has memorized every paper back book … has stationery, calendars, wall hangings and a Snoopy pillow. Three and a half year old Simon has his own Snoopy which lives, loves, eats, paints, digs, bathes and sleeps with him. My husband and I keep pertinent Peanuts cartoons on desks and bulletin boards as guards against pomposity. You see … we are a totally Peanuts-oriented family.
It occurred to me today that the introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters could happen with a minimum of impact. The gentleness of the kids … even Lucy, is a perfect setting. The baseball games, kite-flying … yea, even the Psychiatric Service cum Lemonade Stand would accommodate the idea smoothly.
Sitting alone in California suburbia makes it all seem so easy and logical. 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.
Lastly; should you consider this suggestion, I hope that the result will be more than one black child… Let them be as adorable as the others … but please … allow them a Lucy!
Although Schulz was barraged by ideas from readers, which he dismissed in the service of his own creative integrity, Mrs. Glickman’s point spoke to him and a correspondence ensued. He wrote back the following week:
In a handwritten letter penned the following day, Mrs. Glickman responded:
Dear Mr. Schulz,
I appreciate your taking the time to answer my letter about Negro children in Peanuts.
You present an interesting dilemma. I would like your permission to use your letter to show some Negro friends. Their responses as parents may prove useful to you in your thinking on this subject.
Schulz wrote back reiterating his concern about appearing patronizing. But permission was apparently granted, for he soon received a letter from a man named Kenneth C. Kelly, one of Mrs. Glickman’s black friends, who wrote:
Dear Mr. Schulz:
With regards to your correspondence with Mrs. Glickman on the subject of including Negro kids in the fabric of Peanuts, I’d like to express an opinion as a Negro father of two young boys. You mention a fear of being patronizing. Though I doubt that any Negro would view your efforts that way, I’d like to suggest that an accusation of being patronizing would be a small price to pay for the positive results that would accrue!
We have a situation in America in which racial enmity is constantly portrayed. The inclusion of a Negro supernumerary in some of the group scenes in Peanuts would do two important things. Firstly, it would ease my problem of having my kids seeing themselves pictured in the overall American scene. Secondly, it would suggest racial amity in a casual day-to-day sense.
I deliberately suggest a supernumerary role for a Negro character. The inclusion of a Negro in your occasional group scenes would quietly and unobtrusively set the stage for a principal character at a later date, should the basis for such a principal develop.
We have too long used Negro supernumeraries in such unhappy situations as a movie prison scene, while excluding Negro supernumeraries in quiet and normal scenes of people just living, loving, worrying, entering a hotel, the lobby of an office building, a downtown New York City street scene. There are insidious negative effects in these practices of the movie industry, TV industry, magazine publishing, and syndicated cartoons.
Schulz skipped the black supernumerary but on July 31, Franklin — Charlie Brown’s African American friend — made his debut. A month before the publication of the first Franklin comic strip, Schulz sent Mrs. Glickman a personal note:
But Mrs. Glickman’s prediction of pushback was correct. Two decades later, Schulz recalled in an interview that United Feature Syndicate didn’t like scenes in which Franklin plays with the other children. One editor even complained that Franklin shouldn’t be seen sharing a desk with Peppermint Patty, telling Schulz: “We have enough trouble here in the South without you showing the kids together in school.” Schulz recounts:
I never paid any attention to those things, and I remember telling Larry [Rutman, president of United Feature] at the time about Franklin — he wanted me to change it, and we talked about it for a long while on the phone, and I finally sighed and said, “Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?” So that’s the way that ended.
Schulz’s strip penetrated culture so powerfully that its influence transcended Earth and reached for space. In 1968, as the Apollo 10 mission was about to launch, NASA commander Thomas Stafford named the command module “Charlie Brown” and the lunar reentry module “Snoopy.” To mark the occasion, Schulz created a series of Snoopy posters for the Apollo program and was paid $25 each.
Complement the marvelous Only What’s Necessary with the story of how Schulz made a space for the quiet pain of childhood, then revisit this wonderful vintage children’s book from the same era, which envisions a female African American astronaut decades before the first black woman launched into orbit.
All images © 2015 Peanuts Worldwide LLC courtesy of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, Santa Rosa, California
Published November 3, 2015