It's Such A Good Feeling: How Mr. Rogers Changed My Life and Influenced My Activism
When I first heard about Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the major-release Fred Rogers documentary now in theaters, I was overjoyed! Honestly, I’ve used how people respond to Mr. Rogers as a way for me to screen potential friends and dates. Is that weird? Maybe. But seriously, if you have wonderful things to say about Fred Rogers, we can hang. If you find him to be off-putting, I'm not sure what to say to you.
About a year ago, a close friend of mine surprised me with two vinyl records of music from the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood series. There was no special occasion; they simply knew I would appreciate it. I keep those records in my room, one as a wall decoration and the other on my faith altar, next to a small painting of Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a metallic and wooden Jesus figure, and a painted candle I made during a social justice fellowship I attended. This “faith altar” is a small, dedicated space in my room where I display objects that remind me of my spiritual commitments and journey. I share all of this to express that my appreciate for Mr. Rogers is serious. If you want to know me, you have to know Mr. Rogers and his legacy.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has influenced many decisions and interests in my life, from my collegiate course of study to the ways I interact with people. I can’t remember too much of my childhood interactions with the TV series because I was so new to the English language at that age, but I’ve watched the series as an adult during times that I needed comfort. Through his television ministry, I found him to be someone to whom I, as a young adult, can relate to, despite our racial, gender and generational differences. The no-frills yet sensitive way that Mr. Rogers speaks about and directly to children–as well as his general approach to discussing conflicts–told me that Fred Rogers was someone I could trust.
I didn’t grow up feeling close to any male figure. I couldn’t really confide in my stepfather -- a man who would constantly dismiss what I would express and tell me that what I was seeing and experiencing in the world and in my home was not actually happening. On top of this, I spent most of my life physically and emotionally distant from birth father who was away in the military. Even if I had wanted to have a connection with my birth father, most of the interactions that we had were as disappointing as those that I had with my stepfather. How Mr. Rogers presented himself in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was a big contrast from the men I saw around me. If men were callous, Mr. Rogers was sensitive. If men were inattentive, Mr. Rogers' was interested in what his child audience and his adult friends had to say. Among the cheerful male TV and video game characters that I had taken a liking to, Mr. Rogers stood out to me because he was a living, breathing man; he wasn’t just a story character. I had the sense that Mr. Rogers was playing himself.
Mr. Rogers' legacy convicts me with the belief that tending to the emotional world is a necessary part of cultivating an environment where revolution can take root.
Hearing Mr. Rogers speak kept something alive in my heart. I felt validated by the tenderness Rogers displayed as someone who was constantly criticized as a child for “being too sensitive”. Mr. Rogers own sensitivity allows me to feel more at home with my own. And I feel comforted by his particular brand of masculinity: if a man in this world can be as kind and gentle as Mr. Rogers was, it isn’t impossible or ridiculous to ask this from the men in my life.
Navigating middle and high school with this hope meant I had to ignore snarky remarks about how Mr. Rogers was “creepy.” Some people went so far as to suggest that he had ulterior motives for working with children, “joking” that he might be a child predator. As an adult, I can’t help but look back and conclude that “predator” jokes seem to expose this idea that if any man advocated so fiercely for children, he must have some ulterior motive, since caring for children is seen as a woman’s job in our society. Finding the emotional world deeply intriguing and feeling called to speak sensitively to children about the conflicts happening in the world: this isn’t typically a man’s business.
Rogers has a lot to say about conflict, critical thinking and compassionate communication, even to us adults. In a speech to the US Senate in 1969, he explained why his show is so valuable: “It's much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger—much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.”
What possibly could be more interesting than seeing people work out their emotions with each other? Arguably, this is what all TV dramas are about. Peel back any plot line and you’ll see people working through their emotions. And this isn't just seen in entertainment; emotional conflicts are the undercurrent under the sensation and drama of our real-world conflicts today, from travel bans to mass detention of families seeking asylum in the United States. We know how white nationalists play up the anxiety of white Americans who have in their minds a fear of being “replaced”. We talk about all this “fear” that white evangelicals supposedly have or do not have of no longer being relevant. We ignore the fear of black and brown families who are at risk of violence from institutions like our local police departments and ICE. Our conflicts are emotional, just as much as they are social, political and economic. What could be more vital than to throw this reality to the forefront–the reality that feelings are part of our conflicts–and teach the West to talk about it?
There’s a constant fear in me that this tenderness and inclination towards the emotional world will have me deemed as less “radical” by my peers doing important and necessary work trying to build mass movements against racist and U.S. imperial violence. Fred Rogers’ work–the work of emotional awareness and relationship building–can get sidelined. In my own participation in community work, I have found that at times activists and organizers don’t typically go out of their way to get to know others unless there is a “more productive” reason for doing so, such as increasing the numbers of politically involved people in their city. Even in the course of changing the world, this emotional stuff can get regulated to the realm of the touchy-feely or seen as a distraction from the “main work.”
Reminding children and adults of what matters in a world that would prefer us to be consumed with what does not is its own form of activism.
Because of our generational, racial and gender differences, Mr. Rogers' personal politics likely differed from my own, despite our shared beliefs regarding the evils of militarism. With these differences, why would I, as a black woman in this political moment even resonate with a Christian man who teaches about emotions and connection to children? As I think about all of the times that activists that I have worked with have overemphasized intellectualism and busyness in activism, I think about all of the times that I have felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to about how scared I really was, how tired I am, and what I long for. I often felt like there wasn’t room to bring my whole heart. Again, I felt that dismissal, the same familiar dismissal I felt from the men who were supposed to raise me, that emotions aren’t important, that what I’m experiencing isn’t real or that important. Mr. Rogers' messages, that what I feel and think matters, I may not have been as resonate to those activists today who are talking about how our whole lives, including our emotional lives, are part of this work.
Mr. Rogers' legacy convicts me with the belief that tending to the emotional world is a necessary part of cultivating an environment where revolution can take root, not just in our minds, but within our deepest selves through the awareness of what is emotionally at stake for all of us. This legacy is deeply resonant with the work of black feminists of the past and of today who have been having similar conversations and who have served as a healing balm for me, when I felt like there was not enough space for the “touchy-feely” in activism.
Where I would feel hesitant to embrace this work as activism because of Mr. Rogers' and my racial and gender differences, the representation of black women in this work truly solidified my belief in this work as relevant and necessary in activism. Queer black writer, Audre Lorde, wrote during her life about the “erotic” as deep feeling that can guide us in our feminism. Esther Armah, the black woman who coined the phrase “emotional justice,” is interested in the emotional conditions that enable someone to begin caring about the issues which affect us. adrienne maree brown, yet another black woman, reiterates the importance of building mutual, healing relationships as activism in her own podcast How to Survive the End of the World. She states, “I think critical mass is very important, but I don’t think we can get there without critical connections."
Fred Rogers engaged in the work of building critical connections during his life time and helped many like me increase our capacity to create these connections. Teaching children how to connect with themselves and with their world is not a detraction from the work of dismantling corrupt empires. Reminding children and adults of what matters in a world that would prefer us to be consumed with what does not is its own form of activism. The education offered through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood offers us tools that we can use in order for us to be able to get to know and listen deeply to ourselves so that we can better listen to others and form connections with them.