Sunday, September 06, 2020

Francois Clemmons, Fred Rogers, & a Full Life

Officer Clemmons: A Memoir: Clemmons, Francois: 9781948226707: Books -

 I just finished reading Officer Clemmons: A Memoir  after noticing it on the "new releases" rack at the library: Clemmons, became famous as one of the "neighbours"  on the long-running kids' show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood but we are introduced to a bigger story as he forged a career in music despite living in poverty as a child and receiving virtually no guidance from his father or stepfather. Along the way different people recognized his talent and provided the shelter and mentoring  he needed to thrive and succeed. 

Clemmons grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment but created his own more expansive and eclectic spiritual worldview. which made room for his realization that he would never be accepted as a gay man in the church of his youth. 

Clemmons was a paid soloist in a church choir when be met Joanne Rogers, Fred's wife. They sat beside each other in the choir and developed an easy friendship. When Francois sang American-American spirituals as part of a Good Friday service at another church, Joanne invited Fred, a devout Christian.

 From that experience and subsequent conversation Francois was invited to sing on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and was eventually given a permanent role as the police officer. Clemmons admits that he was reluctant to play a policeman given the uneasy relationship between cops and Black people in America. The role was ground-breaking, as was the relationship between the Officer Clemmons character and Mr. Rogers. When Clemmons joined the cast in 1968 there was still a colour barrier and they did skits along the wat which challenged this. 

COLORBLIND - The Harlem Spiritual Ensemble

Fred Rogers knew that Francois was gay and while he accepted his orientation he told him that this couldn't be revealed on the show or in public generally -- prejudices were strong in the 60's and 70's.. Despite this, Francois' love for Fred is evident throughout his memoir. Fred was not only his steadfast mentor, he was his surrogate father who supported him in every life challenge. 

This book is about far more than Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, despite the title. It is quirky in some ways and leaves some questions unanswered but I'm glad I read it. Clemmons showed remarkable courage and determination to succeed through the years and he deserves to be known. 

From poverty to fame: François Clemmons sings his way through life |  Vermont Arts |

Francois Clemmons 

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