Saturday, December 10, 2011

Klingons, Muppets, and Race

Okay, this is all going to be heavily theoretical, possibly annoying, and maybe even misguided, but I've been thinking about this a lot and I need to try and verbalize this. And just to get the trigger out of the way, this is going to be some thoughts about racism, intentional and unintentional, in pop culture.

This started the other day with this guy. Some of you might recognize Roosevelt Franklin from the earlier days of Sesame Street. Apparently, he was once considered one of the main characters on the show, but that's before my time. I was born in 1976, and by then he'd been dropped from the main cast. I honestly can't remember consciously when I first started watching the show; my first word was "Ernie," so it was pretty damn early, but still too late to be acquainted with Roosevelt.

I've been downloading old Muppet and Sesame Street records, and the other day I was listening to The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, and was utterly charmed by it. I decided I had to do some research to find out why this joyous, vibrant character had been dropped from the show.

Roosevelt Franklin was created and performed by Matt Robinson, who played Gordon for the show's first three seasons (1969-1972). According to Muppet Wiki: "The precocious Roosevelt Franklin attended Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School, where he taught the class as often as not. He taught concepts like family, pride, respect, geography and not drinking poison. Roosevelt was a cool kid who loved to scat, rhyme and sing the blues. His mother was proud of him. In addition to his elementary school, he had his own stadium, Roosevelt Franklin Stadium, where he coached Headball. Roosevelt has a younger sister, who wishes that she could go to school like he does."

Sounds like a neat, positive character to me. He certainly is on the record, The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, which easily ranks as one of my favorite Sesame Street albums.

Robinson, by the way, wasn't hired as an actor for the show. Originally a playwright, he was producing black-oriented public affairs segments for a local station in Philadelphia when he was hired to supervise filmed segments on Sesame Street showing the lives of children in other countries. He took the role as Gordon because the Children's Television Workshop was having a hard time casting the role of a strong African-American father figure. Robinson said later: "Somewhere around four or five, a black kid is going to learn he’s black. He’s going to learn that’s positive or negative. What I want to project is a positive image."

What turned out to be an issue between Robinson and others was language. Specifically Robinson's use of "black" English in some scenes. Robinson felt this was an important way for kids who lived in the inner cities to relate to the character. But, he elaborated: "On Sesame Street I'm in a lot of trouble because I try to retain as much of the vernacular as possible. When kids are comfortable, they speak whatever way is natural, and I respond on that level. For instance I think that grammar's often a big hangup. I majored in English (at Penn State), so I respect the language, but I don't think I'd correct a child on the air, or anywhere else. If you say, 'Your grammar is incorrect,' what you are saying is that his parents, his environment, all the people he associates with, are wrong. That can cause all kinds of psychological problems. What you can tell a child is, 'There's a different way to say that.' What concerns me is making value judgements... The safe but dull norm isn't natural. A standard is imposed, a definite kind of propaganda for certain values. 'Black English' involves all sorts of things. Tone, inflection, pacing. I think we should communicate with children in whatever way they understand."

[Quotes from Muppet Wiki, but emphasis mine.]

I have to say, I think he's absolutely right. I've had talks about this both as a teacher and as a student. When I was in Grammar 101 at NIU, I got into an enormous debate with another student on the idea of "creative spelling" at schools in Naperville. She was offended by the idea that anyone would let a child spell something wrong, creating a "false world." My counter-argument was Santa Claus; where fantasies like Santa Claus are used as a buffer to real world pain until the child is more experienced and better equipped to handle the demands of the world, so "creative spelling" can be used as a buffer into correct or standard or whatever-you-want-to-call-it grammar. My main point was that sometimes children who aren't grokking the world around them need to find a way to relate to it on their own before being told that everything they're doing is wrong. That created an amazing argument in class that day.

I've encountered this as a substitute teacher, as well. I had a first grade student who was obviously going to be behind one day; the kid who couldn't follow directions and who just wanted to goof off and mess around and who had major spelling and math problems (he even wrote some numbers backward). The key with this kid wasn't to tell him that he was wrong and to be a disciplinarian about it, but do try and guide him while being encouraging about it. To say things like "You could also write the number 7 this way, and then everyone else can read it." It worked for him.

But apparently it didn't work for Roosevelt Franklin, and despite his album carrying endorsements on the sleeve from Mayor John Lindsay, Barbara Walters, Ed Sullivan, BB King and others, Roosevelt was the subject of a lot of criticism for being "too black" or "not black enough." A major criticism was that the black dialect used on the show was tokenism and not legitimized. Another was that the rowdy students at Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School set a poor example for African-American students. In 1975, the character was dropped, and though Matt Robinson had already stopped playing Gordon, the loss of Roosevelt was his final break with Sesame Street.

Now, I understand the issues here. And I have to preface this by saying that, again, as a white guy, I don't have much experience being discriminated against on the basis of my race. So I'm trying not to make sweeping generalizations in my opinion on this. But I think the loss of Roosevelt Franklin is disappointing. On one level, it's because I just loved the character on the album; Roosevelt is fun. He's a neat character. And, also, I think a black voice is something missing from Sesame Street. I'm not going to accuse Sesame Street of being racist, because that would be ridiculous. But even though the show's biggest Muppet star, Elmo, is portrayed by Kevin Clash, a black man, Elmo's not really a black character. Roosevelt Franklin certainly was, and that's the character that gets shown the door.

But here's one of the parts that sounds slightly racist, and I don't mean it to... But in 1975, another great record was released: Merry Christmas from Sesame Street. It's a wonderful record, and though Roosevelt Franklin doesn't appear on it, two of his classmates--Smart Tina and Hardhead Harry--pop up in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." On the album, Luis and Maria get to sing two songs in Spanish; "Arrurru," a Spanish lullaby, and "Saludo," a traditional Puerto Rican holiday song. So my question is this, and yeah, it's going to sound nasty: Why is it important and sensitive to include and celebrate Latin cultures on Sesame Street, but wrong for black people to not talk like white people?

I'm just asking here... why does Roosevelt Franklin have to disappear for not speaking "proper" English, but Elmo's third-person speak is somehow adorable? It's a triumph now to have a Hispanic Muppet, Rosita, but a black Muppet was somehow inappropriate, no matter how many kids could identify with or delight in the character. I don't understand where the line is, honestly.

But I see it in pop culture a lot; the idea that celebrating one's heritage is important, and then portraying it as somehow negative when black people don't act like white people.

This brings me to Star Trek, and particularly to the problems I had with the Deep Space Nine episode "Sons of Mogh."

It's obvious to anyone watching that the major Trek villains are analogues of Earth politics. As I've maintained, the Borg represent fears of the major aspects of modern Japanese culture and technology (as I've joked, they even fly through space in a giant computer chip). The Cardassian-Bajoran conflict is Israel and Palestine. The Romulans seem to represent modern Germany in a lot of ways, especially as peace seemed to become possible towards the end of DS9's run.

What do the Klingons represent? Obviously, on the original series, they stood in for the Soviet Union. But that changed in the series that took place 80 years in the future, when Communism had fallen (or nearly fallen). What were the Klingons meant to represent when a member of Starfleet's greatest enemy was now standing on the bridge of the Enterprise?

I've seen it suggested in a number of places that the Klingons on Next Generation and beyond represented the black experience in America, specifically a post-slavery integration. I think that has moments where it jibes; certainly Worf's major character conflict, being caught between the worlds of Starfleet and the Klingon Empire, is reflective of that. Worf is essentially derided as a token, almost a pet, by other Klingons. I want to say that Worf's deep spirituality and strong sense of family and tradition plays in, but I'm not sure if that's a stereotype or not.

So, let's get to where this troubles me: specifically, "Sons of Mogh."

As you may or may not remember, this was an episode of Deep Space Nine that I found deeply offensive. The plot revolved around Worf's brother, Kurn, and how he was unable to deal with life after losing his place on the Klingon High Council and having his house disgraced after Worf refused to back Gowron's invasion of Cardassia.

Kurn, unable to live with the stigma, decides the only way to reclaim his honor is to have Worf kill him in a Klingon ritualistic death. Worf is stopped by Jadzia Dax, and afterwards Captain Sisko becomes angry and says, in words I can't believe they put in his mouth, that he's had all he can take from Klingons in the way of cultural diversity. So right there, Sisko (and the show itself) make the conscious decision that there's something "wrong" with the Klingon culture. What we see there is, I think, the same mentality that goes into criticizing Roosevelt Franklin's way of speaking. Essentially, it's saying that it's somehow wrong for black people to not be more like white people.

I see this a lot in the attitude towards Klingons on Star Trek. Taking Deep Space Nine as an example, look at how well the series handled the Cardassians. They weren't just evil; there was a concerted effort made to show them through a prism of cultural objectivity. Though they committed atrocities, the producers and writers made an effort to show that these actions were carried out by a government--not a race--that equated peace with order and order with a rigid racial hierarchy. The series ends on a note of hope for relations between the Cardassian people and the Federation. We also see on the series how Bajoran culture is respected, even to the detriment of their relationship with the Federation. We see how sensitively the Founders can be approached through understanding, even when Section 31 decides genocide is the answer. Constantly we see on Deep Space Nine how other races and cultures can be bridged through simply reaching out and trying to be understanding and sensitive and simply open to not judging other cultures. Hell, the show managed to redeem the Ferengi, taking them from simply failed villains and lame comic relief, and turning them into a rich culture.

But with the Klingons, too often the Federation (and by extension, the series) approaches them with fear and caution. There was this sense that the Klingons weren't good enough; that their culture was too rooted in violence and ritual to really be at peace with the Federation. And I think there are a lot of episodes of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine that approach the Klingons as if they were children, or a useful ally that was condescended to. I think a lot of that changed on DS9 when the show started focusing more on General Martok, an unapologetic but tolerant Klingon who gave the culture an approachable personality. He wasn't warm and cuddly and Federation (read: "white"), but he was fully-realized. He was representative of the Klingon culture and way of thinking without being someone that we had to see looked down on.

But "Sons of Mogh" still steps out for me as a moment of science fiction racism. And worse yet, this moment of supreme racism is presented positively.

After Kurn's attempt at ritual suicide is stopped, Worf attempts to get Kurn a job at the station. Kurn, feeling more useless and disgraced than ever, tries once again to kill himself, this time without the ritual, but rather attempting to get killed in a fight, so he'll at least die in battle. Kurn really wants to die; for him, it's the only way to regain the honor that he's been robbed of. He would rather die with honor than live without it.

So the great offense to me is that Worf makes the decision for Kurn to essentially have him lobotomized. To remove Kurn's personality, his memories, his identity, and to tell him he's an amnesia victim and create a new identity for him. This turn of events is reprehensible. Kurn's agency is removed, and he's reduced to a shell and forced to accept that he's someone else simply to cleanse Worf's conscience. Where is the honor in this decision? It's a cowardly move; it's like if McMurphy's lobotomy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was played as a happy ending on its own.

And to me, it smacks of racism. It's a show celebrating the identity of fictional cultures, but when it comes to one specific fictional culture, they are simply condescended to for not being more like "us." Would Sisko and Worf and Bashir have considered a similar course of action for a member of any other race? Would a troublemaking Bajoran or an inconvenient Ferengi been dealt such a fate? Like the Klingons, those races aren't members of the Federation, but unlike the Klingons, those races are allowed their free agency. When it comes to Kurn, he's not allowed to die in his own way, a way ritualized by his own cultural traditions. Instead, the decision of his life's direction is simply taken out of his hands. He's viewed as unable to reasonably make his own choices, and I have to believe it's simply because we view suicide as something icky. This flies in the face of everything the Federation, and Star Trek, is supposed to stand for. Here we are seeing someone forced to change simply because his way isn't our way.

I call bullshit on that, and I see in Kurn's lobotomy the same casual condescension that I see in removing Roosevelt Franklin from Sesame Street. It's the weird way pop culture will celebrate other cultures, except for African-Americans. So it's okay for Gordon and Susan and David to live on Sesame Street, but we didn't much see them speaking in an inner city dialect (despite the fact that the show took place in the inner city), because that's "incorrect." And we can't have a Klingon suicide ritual on Star Trek because a culture that is comfortable with--and even celebrates and ritualizes the aspects of life we're most terrified by (violence, blood, etc.)--is also "incorrect." Because "we" don't want our children to speak "wrong" English, and because "we" don't want to send the message that there's honor in death, people are punished for not being, you know, white.

I don't know, am I wrong? Am I overreacting? It would be politically incorrect, not to mention ignorant, to suggest that Luis and Maria speak only English and forget their Hispanic heritage in order to be more "normal" or whatever racist word you want to throw in there. So why is it politically correct to decide that black kids need to learn to speak "correct" (read: "white") English? It's especially galling today, in light of the distinctive way Elmo speaks, and in an age when I see educated adults using text-speak. Everyday online I see the constant battle fought by people who rigidly ignore that the history of the English language is a very fluid, ever-changing one, and insist that there is one proper way to speak.

I just don't see how a smart, curious, confident, school-loving, hard-working character could be a bad role model just because he spells his name with "a L."


Autumn said...

2 cents!

The decision to make hispanic characters more authentic came years later when it was more trendy to stay politically correct. And the only reason they went with hispanic characters instead of black is because they are what it's currently trendy to portray.

So I think the issue of Roosevelt Franklin is entirely different. I think they made a bad decision then and have made a good decision now. I was too late to see Roosevelt on Sesame Street until I was older, but I always liked him and had no idea why he left. So so so much more then Elmo.

As for Star Trek, I have had a huge issue with the way the series treats Klingons for a long time. They are portrayed as somewhere between ridiculous token samurai and violent aborigine, but always without the depth of either of those cultures. Which is surprising for Star Trek, I always expected they would eventually but it never happened...

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

Wow, that was terrific. Way to hit the pop culture connections so perfectly. I was going to make a cheap joke at Franklin's expense but you made me rethink that approach to my comment. Posts like this are why I never miss anything you write, my friend.

Roger Owen Green said...

Well, I wasn't watching SS by then. But I think Autumn's general point is right.

I will also say, generally, that the too black/not black enough paradigm, while still present to this day, was WAY more present in the 1960s and 1970s than it is now.

Some of this too is how much one veers from the majority culture depends on history. So a mixed marriage of, say, an Asian and a white would be less an issue, even to this day, than black and white, though it's changed A LOT.

Maybe more...

Anonymous said...

Even though, talking about Sesame Street, I don't remember Franklin Roosevelt, I do remember Gordon, and I don't remember being phased by him. However, I am speaking as a white Australian, one who had minimal contact with English dialects other than Australian English.

On a more general note, i agree that we should embrace the existence of the totality of Englishes out there. There is no "one" English, because if there were, whose would it be? one among the many British Englishes? One of American Englishes? Let's not forget the Canadian, Australian, Indian, Malaysian, Aboriginal, and all the rest of the Englishes out there: whose English is, supposedly, the "one true English?"

Let's not forget that there are many levels of dialect, accent, and the reality of every person's idiolects. We who speak English speak as individuals, yet we speak the same language, and just as there is diversity in our unity of language, there is that similar diversity in our shared humanity.

The Pretentious Know it All said...

Apologies in advance about the length of this response, but...Gah! You verbalized so well something that's been on my mind. Growing up black, I found that your your self-identity comes in distinct stages. There's the neutral phase, where you don't realize you're "different." Then school starts. Then you're taught, if you are smart, that it's somehow in spite of your race, like it's something you overcame.

I grew up in Canada and I remember teachers telling me how smart I was in elementary school. At first I enjoyed it, like any kid enjoys praise, but then I started to notice the hint of shock and surprise it was always said with. It's like they had an idea about me before I opened up my mouth. An aside: every time I hear anyone talk about how Canada is somehow "above" racial conflicts and more evolved than America, I want to punch said person in the face. Especially if said person is Canadian.

It's true that the deeper you get into education (I just got a Master's) the more you're subconsciously taught that there's something wrong with black people not acting like white people. We need to learn their literature, their music, their history in order to thrive. They are the standard we're taught not to deviate from. They are the mean that everyone must regress to in order to create a sense of parity.

Another stage of self-identity is the "I don't talk white, I talk right" phase. If you're really confused and misguided as a black person, you grow out of this phase and realize how self-loathing and offensive that statement is. Alas, many often don't. I know many people who have yet to and it's kind of sad because they were taught somewhere along the way that there was something wrong with them and people who look like them.

Rant over.

DrNobody said...

I was born in '81, but I think they were replaying old episodes when I was younger... I vaguely remember the character for some reason... I've read many different articles/pages on the subject, and I actually think they may have retired the character due to Robinson's leaving the show permanently... From what I've read, Robinson's health was declining due to issues with MS, so he stopped being Gordon and focused instead on writing the show... And apparently doing the voice of Roosevelt... By the time they got rid of Mr. Franklin, I think he had left the show all-together so perhaps they just retired the character... It would seem foolish to get rid of what appeared to be a fairly popular character at the time... Wish they would bring him back, as they are definitely okay with having black Muppets on the show now (see the Sesame Street viral video about the black girl that "really loves her hair").

zach said...

I loved your article, I'm still working through it - I did a search on muppets and race and your blog was one of the few things that came up - I'd be interested to know what you think of a post I just put up about re: race (specifically white male identity) in Disney's latest version of The Muppets (2011).