In Officer Clemmons (Catapult, May 5;), Clemmons discusses his years on PBS’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
You were on the show for 25 years. What was that experience like?
Fred was a surrogate father to me—and we were also total opposites. I’ve always gotten a charge out of people, while he was profoundly shy. But he was a great listener, and I talked and talked. Through me, he learned what it was like to be a ghetto boy who’d had doors shut in his face.
In 1968, shortly after you joined the show, Rogers asked to you to keep your homosexuality quiet. Did that hurt you?
For a black person to have a slot on a national TV show was unheard of. The show also provided the sense of family I needed after living in an abusive home. And yes, when Fred heard I’d been seen in a gay bar, he said I couldn’t be out and appear on a kids’ show. So I chose what I considered to be my spiritual calling: I stayed on the program and accepted the consequences. When I was performing at Fisk University for the show, Maya Angelou, who was there along with James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Leroy Jones, laid hands on me and said, “I want you to know we know what you’re doing and what you’re up against. You have to carry this.” Their blessing helped me get through it all.
In the book, you discuss the difference between happiness and contentment. Are you happy or content today?
People often chase after an idea of happiness when maybe contentment is just fine. I haven’t had a classically happy life, but I’ve done everything I’ve been meant to do. I don’t have a partner, but I have wonderful relationships with my students and colleagues. If I can be with them, and sing while someone dances, you know what? I’m content.
Sharing the kiddie pool with Rogers was a big moment for racial relations on TV, wasn’t it?
At first, I thought it was silly—but it’s the episode that people ask about the most. Fred inviting Officer Clemmons to soak his feet in the pool with him was a big sign of his divinity. And it touched people profoundly.
If Fred Rogers were around today, what might he say about American culture?
Fred wouldn’t like the brutal and coarse way we’re treating each other—lashing out at children and the family separations at our borders. He would also encourage putting people, not money, first. He’d tell us that you don’t have to shoot or beat someone over the head to be a man. And he’d condemn judging gay, lesbian, or trans people simply for being who they are.