Thursday, March 26, 2020

"Officer Clemmons" - Francois Clemmons

You can't look at the cover of Francois S. Clemmons's autobiographical "Officer Clemmons" without immediately recognizing the lifelong singer as one of the many beloved familiar faces from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." 

Clemmons, after singing alongside Fred Rogers' wife Joanne in a church choir, would initially appear on the fledgling show as a singer before becoming the regular cast member of Officer Clemmons, a black police officer with a kindly demeanor whose presence on the show gave a gentle nudge to a nation in the early days of race relations. 

"Officer Clemmons" is not just about Clemmons's time on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," though the book opens with a brief introduction dedicated to his nearly 40-year relationship with Rogers that he describes with great adoration and affection. The book's final chapter is also extensively devoted to his years appearing on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," from his unexpected relationship with the white Presbyterian minister turned children's television host who would become a father figure for Clemmons to the more controversial stories around the homosexuality that Clemmons would have to live discreetly for years both as a regular presence on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and as a professional touring singer whose blackness was already one strike against him. 

However, at least 2/3 of "Officer Clemmons" is devoted to Clemmons himself from his upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama and Youngstown, Ohio where he became his church's choir director at age 10 and immersed himself in the spirituals of pre-Civil War America to his college years at the progressive Oberlin College where he would begin exploring the homosexuality that he'd sensed but largely stifled because it conflicted with his familial values and the conservative church in which he was raised. 

"Officer Clemmons" is surprisingly devoid of ego for a man who would, during the late 60's and 70's in America, obtain his Bachelor of Music degree from Oberlin College, Master of Fine Arts from what would become Carnegie Mellon University, and an honorary Doctor of Arts from Vermont's Middlebury College. Clemmons won a Grammy Award for a recording of "Porgy and Bess" and in the late 80's became even more dedicated to preserving the American Negro Spiritual by founding the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, an effort supported financially by his longtime mentor Fred Rogers. Clemmons has an engaging personality and an infectious spirit that radiates throughout "Officer Clemmons," though his ultra-casual writing style will be distracting for some and his openness regarding how homosexuality impacted his daily life may be met by resistance from some readers picking up "Officer Clemmons" and expecting a "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" type of reading experience. 

While Clemmons's long friendship with Fred Rogers provides much of the heart contained within "Officer Clemmons," the book itself is most effective as a culturally aware biography that powerfully, even achingly, displays the lengths to which one mad had to repress himself in order to live the life for which he was gifted and the life which he loved. From America's racial divisions that would influence Clemmons's childhood and career throughout much of his life to his inability to be out as a homosexual while nonetheless breaking ground as one of the first African-American regulars on children's television programming, Clemmons has lived both an inspirational and a heartbreaking life that would have broken many spirits but seems to have been channeled into his musical gifts and professional choices. 

"Officer Clemmons" is an incredibly valuable reading experience because Clemmons doesn't really flinch while sharing stories (though certain names are changed to respect confidentiality), still with surprising affection, in which he is being reminded by others around him that he is either not good enough or that he must keep parts of him hidden. Clemmons retired in 2013 after 13 years as the artist-in-residence at Middlebury College, though his positive influence remains and "Officer Clemmons" captures the entire journey of joys and sorrows with warmth, enthusiasm, innocence, and remarkable vulnerability. 

While not without its flaws from a literary standpoint, "Officer Clemmons" is an accessible view into one man's journey toward self-acceptance through the lens of an American culture that seemed to never quite offer the acceptance he so desperately craved. While the material in "Officer Clemmons" may prove a little daunting for some fans of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," the truth is the book beautifully reflects the spirit of Fred Rogers while also delving into the difficult subjects of racism and homophobia and self-identity. It's an entertaining read that will also quietly provoke thoughtful discussion and exchanges of ideas and experiences. One could easily say that Francois Clemmons's road to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was the road less traveled, a rocky journey filled with unpredictability and potholes galore but through it all his gentle spirit survives and you'll find yourself wanting to be his neighbor.

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