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'A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving' turns 50 this year. How has it held up?

The <em>Peanuts</em> gang celebrates Thanksgiving, but why is Franklin by himself on one side of the table?
Allstar Picture Library Limited/Alamy
The Peanuts gang celebrates Thanksgiving, but why is Franklin by himself on one side of the table?

The 50th anniversary of the classic Peanuts holiday special, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, has arrived. These days, the show, which first aired on CBS in 1973, feels like a bittersweet relic from the era of the Vietnam War.

Its age creeps through the soft watercolors of its autumnal landscapes and in the tone of some characters. ("Sally, Thanksgiving is a very important holiday," Linus drones in what we now commonly recognize as "mansplaining.")

Poor Charlie Brown, who wants to go to his grandmother's for dinner, has to manage his bossy friend, Peppermint Patty. Today, many viewers celebrate the athletic, confident character as a beacon of non-normative girlhood; she is swaggering and subversive.

Peppermint Patty invites herself over to Charlie Brown's for dinner, along with her very best friend, Marcie, and Franklin, the only Black character in Peanuts. Franklin was added to the strip in 1968, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at the suggestion of a schoolteacher. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz later said at least one newspaper editor in the South balked at running comics that showed a Black child attending school along with the rest of the Peanuts gang.

Schulz had very little to do with the animated television specials. During the dinner scene in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Franklin is seated alone in a sagging lawn chair at one side of the table. To our eyes today, it seems jarring.

"It's so very easy to get offended or upset ... but we have to remember that at that time, that actually represented progress," said Robin Reed in a 2021 MSNBC interview. He voiced the character of Franklin when he was only 11. Reed said he's still proud of the special and the character.

"I'm glad he's at the table!" Bryant Keith Alexander told NPR. "Does it matter that he's sitting in a lawn chair, isolated on one side of the table? Yeah, because that's symbolic of the time. ... His positionality at the table is secondary to the fact that he's at the table."

Now, dean of Loyola Marymount College of Communication and Fine Arts, Alexander says he adored Franklin as a child growing up in Louisiana.

"Dear Franklin, you have always been my hero," Alexander wrote in an essay in the 2022 collection Performative Intergenerational Dialogues of a Black Quartet: Qualitative Inquiries on Race, Gender, Sexualities, and Culture.

"Oh, how lonely it must have been as the first, and only Black Peanut on the Charlie Brown cartoon series, being the perpetual other. But you always presented with such style, grace, insight and character. I wanted to be you when I was growing up. You gave me great joy. A boy with few words but great presence. "

As someone who often finds himself the only Black man sitting at the table, Alexander says Franklin was the first to show him what it's like and modeled that position with dignity.

The widow of Peanuts' creator addressed the dinner scene in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving in her blog, which is on the Charles M. Schulz Museum website.

"While it can't be known now which animator drew that particular scene, you can be sure there was no ulterior motive," Jean Schulz wrote in 2019, reflecting on how her husband created Franklin's character out of sincerity and an intention of inclusiveness.

"I fall back on Peppermint Patty's apology to Charlie Brown, explaining she meant no harm when she criticized his poor Thanksgiving offering, which goes something like: 'There are enough problems in the world already without these misunderstandings.' To suggest the show had any other messages than the importance of family, sharing, and gratitude is to look for an issue where there is none."

The takeaway from this Peanuts Thanksgiving, adds Bryant Keith Alexander, should be that we're learning how to make room at the table for everyone. And he's especially grateful to Franklin, he says, for taking space at the pop culture table.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving can be streamed for free on Apple TV+.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.