Author François Clemmons (“From the Beginning,” NER 39.2) kept us spellbound for an hour as he sat in the NER offices and regaled us with his sweeping story. That story, told to editorial panel member Gretchen Schrafft, is excerpted below.
If you enjoy the story, pour yourself a cup of coffee and listen to the audio in its entirety as François tells us how he got from the Alabama of 1945 to Oberlin College, then to playing the role of Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and ultimately to being the Alexander Twilight Artist in Residence and director of the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir at Middlebury College, from which he is now retired—and busier than ever.
You have to tell your story sometime or another so the initial feeling was that I would write it but no one would ever read it. I began to write and lo and behold the truth started coming out. Everyone is gonna know I’m gay and that was a frightful thought in 1967, ’68, ’69. At that time, I worked with Fred [Rogers] and there had been some private discussions about my sexuality. Subsequently I had gotten married. That had not worked. I had gotten separated and I was spending time alone—I had a lot to think about and I decided to start telling the truth, and the writing was a very big part of telling the truth. Stop hiding. You have one place where you can tell the truth and it was in my writing.
I began to think about the things that formed me—what were the things that contributed? Once I’d sat and thought a lot, as I traveled, and observed “slavery” was the word that I realized I had avoided. It was embarrassing. Slavery was embarrassing. It was a subject that I had never felt comfortable discussing with my peers or white people, non-black people, Asians, native Americans. I could not discuss slavery comfortably so I thought I need to go back and read about slavery because I realized that’s who I am. I am the product of slavery in this country. I had to go back to Africa. The singular most painful knowledge was the collusion between black leaders in their communities who many times kidnapped their political rivals or their enemies and sold them into slavery. That took a long time—I mean maybe two or three years—to make it my own. It just seemed so unembraceable. We sold our own into slavery? That was one of the hardest things I ever embraced. I just couldn’t get my arms around it for the longest time and so once I began to accept that, I relaxed. I went back to what I was writing but always there was that feeling of going back and getting that unpleasantness, that foul, spoiled thing and saying, “that’s a part of you too.”
I had a horrible childhood—and the cruelty that was visited upon me was by black people. What conflict I had! My mother, my father, my stepfather were brutal. That’s the only word to describe the monster of my father and the monstrosity of my stepfather. I don’t know which was worse, and so the people around me I couldn’t trust. I thought, I’m trying to learn about the black people who are abusing me and it made me a false introvert. I’m not really an introvert but I fled the brutality. There was no place to go but inside, so I kept reading and writing and watching and wondering. Then I read about slavery and then I read about Africa and I thought, oh my god, everybody is cruel. This cannot be true. There must be some good people in this world and yes, I began to find them—but there again was a huge conflict: they were white. Well they got slavery, they raped our women, they segregated our schools, our houses were redlined, our wages were low . . . There were so many instances of overt everyday cruelty that I was living in conflict. And then my parents were telling me: you can’t trust this one or that one, be careful. But the ones I wanted to get away from were black. Where do you go? In that process I began to develop my own philosophy. I had to test every single person. Much to my surprise the stranger was the kindest. I began to say they’re not right; my parents and relatives who were cruel were not right. They did not have the definitive answer for me. I kept this to myself but I began to build a wall between us because of the cruelty, and whoever came to me with kindness I opened up to and I began to build my family. I said I don’t care if they’re Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, white, Irish, black . . . whoever it was, I was gonna make them part of my circle.
Along with that, I discovered I could sing. Singing was the key out of the ghetto. This little voice I had when I got to Youngstown, Ohio, and the people who liked it were white. I was in kindergarten. When I went to church the preacher liked it. The preacher he was black, thank god. So the preacher and the deacon say, oh that little boy—Buttercup—he can sing. So my key became anyone who liked my singing was my new friend and that key took me out of the ghetto. I would go to church, I would come back. I went to their flower clubs and I came back. I went to their Kiwanis club. Those things took me out of the ghetto. When I got into first grade . . . “ooh François what a sweet voice you have, come over here sing this.” I’m getting attention. It wasn’t like at home. It was my boy realization that I spoke two languages: I spoke one language at home and another at school to teachers. I was the teacher’s pet and the kids teased me and I learned to accept that they’re teasing me but I never forgot that if I sang a song, that I didn’t have to go back to the dungeon. I walked on the street—which language should I speak for these people? How should I talk for them? I began to realize that with my peers I had to speak ghetto. If I started with the other language they’d say who do you think you are? So, alright so I began to define that there were two worlds.
One day I was called to Ms. Crison. She was our guidance counselor. She said, “You didn’t sign those papers to go to the vocational school, young man, you didn’t sign them. What’s the matter with you?” I said, “I think I’m gonna go to Oberlin.” I had met a social worker, Mary Lou Davis, and she heard me sing and had said, “I will pay for your voice lessons as long as you attend the lessons and don’t mess around and don’t go unprepared.” I was at the episcopal church in Youngstown, and the music teacher’s name was Ron Gould.
Q: Had you even heard of Oberlin at that point?
No. He was the first one who mentioned it. I was in 10th grade and I started studying voice with Ron. Ron was a bit of a task master but I was totally up for the job. I learned Handel and Bach and Schubert. I don’t know how I learned that German, French, it was brand new to me, a ghetto boy coming up there to his house in the white neighborhood and then going back to the ghetto. My parents didn’t want me to go [to Oberlin]. So, my high school teacher conspired with me and we drove to Oberlin. He said “I’ll pay for it, I’ll take care of you.” We didn’t tell my parents. I auditioned. I did very well. Daniel Harris said you’ll be hearing from us. I gave him my music teacher’s address instead of my address. We went out to lunch and we went back to Youngstown. We were mum. We never said a word about it. While I was waiting at the high school, Mrs. Crison said “why do you think you want to go to Oberlin, you’re not one of them?” One of them? What is that? “You’re not one of them, you’re not gonna survive there, you’re a ghetto boy. Don’t you want to be a cook or a bricklayer or a carpenter where you can always make a living? You’re not gonna make it.” “I’m on the honor roll, I’m gonna study hard.” “It doesn’t matter, it’s nonsense, and how are you gonna pay for it?” She was so arrogant.
Diva Clemmons was born right at that moment. I stood up and I said, “how dare you tell me where I’m gonna go. I’m gonna go where I want.” I stood up to her woman to woman. “You don’t have a right to tell me where I’m going to go. I’ve already talked to my voice teacher and the music teacher and I know I can do very well. I’m a good student.” It just rolled out of me. “I’m never coming back here again.” I walked out without an apology. I was so proud of myself. The principal is gonna call you. Well, it took about two or three days, and then the loudspeaker:“Francois come to the office, the principal wants to talk to you.” I’m gonna get killed. I’m gonna get thrown out of school. Of course when I got there he was busy so I had to sit and wait. He calls me and he stood up and came around. “Well well well, young man, I hear you want to go to Oberlin. That’s my alma mater. Guess what? I’m gonna help you.”
You coulda dropped a lead balloon on my head. I was so shocked. “You’re gonna help?”
“You got money?”
“Well you’re gonna need some help.”
“I don’t even know if I’ve been accepted.”
“I have an idea. Mrs. Crison told me about the conversation—I’m proud of you. You stood up to her, didn’t you. Where’d you get the nerve to talk to her like that?! She told me everything you said.”
I was ready to die. I thought I was going to wilt away.
Well to make a long story short, those guys conspired behind my back and they knew before I did—they talked to the alumni club and they knew before I did that I was accepted. I hadn’t gotten the acceptance yet, and they talked to the Oberlin alumni club—and they literally paid for my first year at Oberlin. When they saw that I did very well by January, the club worked out an arrangement with Oberlin where they would give Oberlin the money and Oberlin gave me a free ride. That’s how I got to Oberlin and that’s how I stayed there—on a full ride.
It was 1969. I was in the closet because I didn’t want to hurt [Fred Rogers] or lose [my role as Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood]… I knew the value of what I had. 95-7% of people who belong to SAG are not working [actors], they are waiters and waitress. They’re computer helpers. They do housework, and I was acting. I had a job on a platinum platter and I knew it. The other thing I’d like to say—but I have to say this in a nice way because I don’t want to say it in the wrong way—Fred was entitled and white, he had stature in the society. He was a blue blood. And so, when he makes a suggestion it’s always considered. Nobody takes [my advice] even today. I could have all the money in the world. But when a man like that makes a suggestion and he makes it to a poor boy to the other side of the tracks, we on that side know which side of the bread the butter is on. Fred made the suggestion to be officer Clemmons and come on his program. I said, yes. It’s like asking me to dance on needles. I thought, how am I going to do this? You don’t say “shit no find something else.” You don’t do that—you say wow… you stall for time. I stalled for time to try and get him to make another offer. Can I be a doctor? Lawyer? Professional music teacher? Something that had community and societal respect? Something that a person that comes from slavery through the south, the incredible de facto and segregated laws that you know and lived by, to getting to Youngstown where my parents worked in the steel mills to Oberlin to Carnegie Mellon. Isn’t there something else I could do? But not a policeman?
Fred did guest appearances. He took lady Aberlin, me, Mr. McFeely, Johnny Costa, and many times, Joe Negri. We were a package deal, and I would always start warming up with the orchestra. I’m a morning person and I warmed up first. Well I walked into the theater where the orchestra was rehearsing and I was getting ready. I said “Maestro, I’m ready.” He said “Who are you? What are you doing here? Get off of my stage. I don’t know you—we’ll do whatever I say we’re going to do.”
Everything stopped. I was humiliated. “You will not sing with my orchestra if I say you will not sing. Just get outta here. I don’t know what you’re doing here.” Well, everybody swallowed. Johnny Costa got up from the piano. I went downstairs to get my coat—I was gonna leave. Lady Aberlin came into the dressing room. Mr. McFeely came, Joe came in, and I was getting ready to leave, Fred came through the door and said “What’s going on here? What happened?” Everybody’s telling him at once what happened. I was quiet because I was pissed. Then Fred said “Let’s go back upstairs and see what’s going on.”
We went back upstairs and back to the stage. The orchestra was livid and they were shocked that this new conductor had spoken this way. They were so excited about Mr. Rogers’s concert. They knew we were coming for weeks, months. And for them to see him go off like that. So as Fred is leading us in, this ragged bunch of people, “Ooh Mr. Rogers, I’m so happy to see you!” and Fred just stood. “Excuse me, we can have our greeting later. I think you and I need to talk. What happened this morning? I understand Officer Clemmons was going to rehearse with you but you felt differently. What is the problem?” “Oooh that’s Officer Clemmons? Oh, he’s supo—” “Yes, and you said some things to Mr. Clemmons that were not very nice. Do you mean those things?” “I didn’t realize . . .” “Well I think you owe him an apology and it has to be now. Otherwise we are going to close up shop and cancel this concert now.” “Oh, Mr. Rogers please don’t cancel. I’m so sorry,” and he started fawning over me and I don’t want him to touch me—don’t touch me after what you said to me, and so he said he was sorry. I know he didn’t mean it and I didn’t want to hear it. It just was a horrible experience. It was so humiliating I wrote about. It was a horrible experience.
So those are the things I write about, including how Fred has another dimension. You don’t see it in the movies. If you want to know who Fred is you’ve got to read my book because there’s another side to him.
Read the first chapter of François’s memoir, published in NER 39.2.