I picked up a hardcover of Officer Clemmons when it came out several years ago, but I just never got around to reading it. I was looking for a change of pace and picked up the audiobook a couple of days ago, and the audiobook is the right choice for this book. I am highly in favor of authors reading their nonfiction books in most cases. And this is an excellent example of why. Francois Clemmons knows his own story, and he can narrate it with the right emotion and inflection. He occasionally (not as much as I would prefer) sings when discussing one of the songs in the book. The story comes alive in a way that I do not think would have happened for me in print.
I have read many books by or about Mister Rogers, as did Clemmons. He says in the opening that when he decided to tell his own story of Mister Rogers, he read every book he could find and determined that his contribution could be telling the story as a Black Gay man because none of the other books had that perspective. Officer Clemmons is primarily a book about Francois Clemmons, not Mister Rogers—several reviews I have seen complained about that point. Francois and Fred Rogers met when Francois was in graduate school in Pittsburg and had a job as a singer at the Rogers’ church. It was Fred Rogers wife Joanne that Francois came to know first. And she and the music director at the church made sure that he met Fred. But that part of the story does not come until more than halfway through the book.
I am glad that there are many memoirs of people that were of the age to be in the civil rights era. People of that era are passing away quickly, and we must pay attention to their stories. Francois was born to a sharecropper family. The early violence, both racial and domestic violence, matters to his story. Early in the book, he tells the story of how the local landowners pressured his grandmother for sex for years. She complied because the threat of violence and repercussion were real. She was protecting her family and doing what the culture expected. At one point, her husband said she was not there when the landowner came to get her, and the landowners just shot him in cold blood. There was no legal intervention. No police came, and no inquiry was made. And this was not counted in any of the counts of lynching. At this point, Francois’ grandmother had never lived anywhere other than that home, a home that had not been painted in her memory. There is more to the story that is also tragic and important, but the proximate cause of Clemmons’ family to move from the south to Youngstown, OH, was ongoing domestic violence from his father. His grandmother tried to protect Francois’ mother and siblings from the violence, including shooting and wounding his father when his father attempted to force them to move back home.
In many ways, Youngstown was better, but it was not perfect. Racism was still prevalent even though the schools had been desegregated. And domestic violence was still a factor in his life. Eventually, after his stepfather beat him quite severely for going to a concert, he moved out into a friend’s home, a local pastor’s family. His parents attempted to go to the school to force Francois to move back home about a month after that last beating, but Francois resisted. In front of the principal and his parents and the pastor, and his wife, that was allowing him to stay with him, he took off his shirt to show the scars and bruises of the beatings. The (white) principal negotiated for Francois to continue to live with the pastor and his wife and for his parents not to interfere with the threat of reporting the violence to the police.
There are too many stories to tell here about racism, poverty, and grappling with his sexuality. But I want to talk about the discussion of sexuality in the book. The book opens with the ongoing sexual assault of his grandmother. That story matters, even though it is a harrowing story to hear. And throughout the book, Clemmons’ sexuality matters. It was not just that he was a black man coming of age in the 1960s; he was a black gay man coming of age in the 1960s. Discussion of his grappling with the desire for men and not women, and how his conservative Christian church influenced that understanding of sexuality matters. He discusses his sexual awakening, love for other men, and the need to hide that from the public. And he discusses how Fred Rogers told him he could not be openly gay if he were going to remain on the show. Sex is not discussed to titillate, but culturally some find the discussion that gay sex occurred to be inappropriate. And if that is you, you do not want to pick this book up.
It is also worth noting that while Clemmons accepts Christianity as a whole, he did move toward the Unitarian/Universalist community as an adult. I would have liked more about that, but all the reader gets is the acknowledgments where he thanks his church community. The Christianity of his childhood, while loved for its support of him and giving him the spirituals, does deserve the critique he gives. His stepfather and mother are prime examples. They oppose his coming out as gay and push him into marriage with a woman because of their understanding of Christian sexual ethics. But his stepfather literally forces him to go to a prostitute to try to “change” him straight, and Clemmons has to escape out of a bathroom window and run away. His mother again is concerned about his sexuality, but not about enough about his personhood to stop the violence against him. There are many Christians in the book that show Francois love and care. But there are also many people who rejected Christianity that also showed him love and care.
The book is heavily oriented toward Clemmons early years. About 2/3 of the book covers his first 25 years or so. There is very little about what it was like to be on the show. The portions about Fred Rogers were about Fred Rogers as a person and mentor, not really Fred Rogers as a tv personality. I would have liked more about his later years, but I also hate to complain about what authors focus on; it is their story to tell.
Because I mentioned them above, here are a few memoirs of people who lived through the civil rights era that are worth reading (links are to my reviews)
- Buses Are a Comin’: Memoir of a Freedom Rider by Charles Person with Richard Rooker
- I Will Not Fear: My Story of a Lifetime of Building Faith Under Fire by Melba Pattillo Beals (later memoir)
- March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine by Melba Pattillo Beals (YA memoir)
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (YA memoir in verse)
- With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman
- While the World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry with Denise George
- Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian by James H Cone (later memoir)
- My Soul Looks Back by James H Cone (earlier memoir)
- Where the Light Fell: A Memoir by Philip Yancey
- My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King with Barbara Reynolds
- No Name in the Street by James Baldwin
- Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March
- Black Cop’s Kid: An Essay by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- They Called Us Enemy by George Takei
- Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston
- Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter by Sidney Poitier