The Boondocks Revolution?

Hello Everyone,

Here is a paper I did for a media activism class for college back in 2008:

“Excuse me everyone. I have a brief announcement to make. Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the devil, and the government is lying about 9-11. Thank you.” (Huey Freeman via Aaron McGruder).  These were the words out of the mouth of a ten year old revolutionary named Huey Freeman and yes, he is a comic strip character. Comic strips have been a staple in print media. From comic books to the daily comic strips we read in the newspapers, we are surrounded by comics. Sometimes comic strips can provide controversial humor especially when it comes to gender or race. One such comic strip is making waves in the world of print media and now in the world of television. This comic strip is called The Boondocks created by Aaron McGruder. Some people have argued that this comic is revolutionary, because it gives its audience an unusual and not often seen view into the lives of African- Americans. In what way is this cartoon revolutionary? Does it succeed in espousing the views of other radical social critics such as Marx, Gramsci, or Che Guevara? Or does it espouse a cloak and dagger approach in terms of its revolutionary message? Actually, Aaron McGruder is revolutionary when it comes to race, but his work seems to reflect his class bias.

The Boondocks is a cartoon show based on the comic strip by Aaron McGruder that centers around a ten year old African American revolutionary named Huey Freeman and his brother Riley and their grandfather. In the story, Grandad moves to the suburbs and brings his two grandchildren with him. The show’s humor is built on the nonsensical array of parodied African American caricatures portrayed in the media. There is Uncle Ruckus, who is a self hating black man resembling an Uncle Tom figure and the neighbor Tom DuBois who is black, but acts white and is married to a white wife and has a daughter. Even though the show is filled with humorous antics and encounters, it does seem to have a profound effect on its audience.

Aaron McGruder has received praise, especially from liberal media, that he is one of the few “angry” black voices in the media (Press, 1). Even Michael Moore praised this aspect of McGruder’s career in his foreword to a book by Aaron McGruder called A Right to be Hostile. In his foreword, Moore points out that comic strips like The Boondocks have a great potential to turn its audiences on to the discussion of race and will eventually lead to discussions of class which could end up revolutionizing society as we know it (Moore, 2). Moore, however, needs to hold his horses for a moment. While McGruder may be able to address race issues, his main weakness seems to be his class bias.

Can The Boondocks be considered revolutionary even with this class bias? The answer is no. According to Marx, in order to bring about change or a revolution, revolutionary activities must be used (Duncombe, 42). In The Boondocks, Aaron McGruder does show revolutionary activity. In one episode called “The Return of the King”, McGruder displays his most revolutionary stance against the system. In this episode, McGruder explores what reaction Martin Luther King Jr. would have in response to today’s post 9-11 culture. During the episode, he is branded as a traitor by the American public when he states that we should forgive Al-Qaeda and becomes extremely appalled by the “booty shaking” music found in today’s African American music. At the end of the show, after Martin Luther King Jr. calls the African Americans of today the n- word in order to urge them to continue to push for change and a nation wide revolution occurs. He even goes so far as wishing for a black woman president, namely Oprah.

According to Marx, this message would not be exactly revolutionary, because of McGruder’s apparent class bias especially in this episode. In this episode, like many others, McGruder rebukes the gangsta rap culture and even goes as far as saying that those who are involved with this culture give true meaning to the n-word. McGruder does not seem to realize that rap in and of itself is a revolutionary tool. According to Lawrence Levine, the use of songs to express African- American consciousness goes back all the way to the times of American slavery (Duncombe, 215). According to Levine, slaves used these religious songs to not only relate back to their African heritage, but to project a brighter future for themselves (Duncombe, 215). By including religious themes into their songs, slaves were able to turn their masters’ culture against them (Duncombe, 215). Similarly, rap is used to convey the harsh reality of lower class black life.

Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks artistic style does seem to play a role in helping to spread its “revolutionary” message and it is through McGruder’s use of hip- hop in his cartoon series that achieves this. According to an article by Oliver Wang called “Reading the Boondocks”, McGruder stated that he believes hip- hop serves the function of expressing the collective experience of the African American community (Wang, 2). In the article, Wang talks about how early hip- hop artists used their albums to disseminate black political thought. In the same way, McGruder is using The Boondocks in a similar fashion in order to disseminate his thoughts on black politics and culture (Wang, 3).

McGruder, however, also shares some of the same problems as hip- hop does and would further weaken his chance to win the hearts and minds of the “countrymen” in terms of Guevara. First of all, hip- hop has been accused of by critics as portraying women, especially African American women, in a degrading fashion (Wang, 3). In The Boondocks, there is not a strong female presence except for Jazmine who is portrayed as being confused about her ethnicity (Wang, 3). Huey’s mother and grandmother seem to be missing from the picture entirely (Wang, 3). In one episode titled “Attack of the Killer Kung- Fu Wolf Bitch”, Grandad tries online dating and finally meets the girl of his dreams. However, she turns out to be a psychopath who is constantly dependent on her girlfriend’s advice. This episode portrays women who know kung- fu as being dangerous and possibly psychotic. Secondly, The Boondocks only seems to cover relations between black and white characters, but there are rarely, if any inclusion of other races and their relationship to this race issue portrayed in the show (Wang, 3). Even the character of Riley can be seen as an internal critique of hip- hop’s use of excess materialism (Wang, 3). However, McGruder uses hip- hop’s in your face attitude as a wake- up call to many readers (Wang, 3).

Marx also points out that most of the money that the poor classes should be earning actually goes to the wealthy elite (Duncombe, 42). In The Boondocks season 1, this concept is never mentioned and never really gives the root of the problem of a racist government and unfair class system. In other words, the show manages to critique African American society along with white society, but does not mention how the African American community came to be so impoverished. It even pokes fun at the upper class (hence the title of the show) without explaining to the audience what warranted such strong criticisms. However, in a recent episode called “The Block is Hot”, McGruder actually managed to portray this concept. In the episode, Ed Wuncler buys Jazmine’s lemonade stand, which has been very successful. Jazmine is trying to save her money to buy a pony and Ed agrees to give it to her if she sells him her lemonade stand and becomes his employee. She is soon turned into an overworked and underpaid employee. He does not give her the pony he had promised. Instead, he reaps all the financial profits from the stand and makes his own lemonade product. Jazmine, however, is left empty handed. According to Marx, the powerful business man who abused Jazmine’s service ended up reaping all of the profits, while Jazmine is left with a burning lemonade stand. This reflects Marx’s view that the upper classes (Ed Wuncler) reaps the most profits, while the working classes that do most of the work (Jazmine) only receives a small fraction of that profit.

McGruder’s use of the n word in his series also remains at the center of controversy, especially among many African Americans. In an article for The Chicago Defender by Roland S. Martin, McGruder is chastised (along with many others) for using the word so laxly (Martin, 1). According to Martin, the word should not be used at all and accuses those of using it as degrading to African American culture (Martin, 2). These same critics have a valid point that Aaron McGruder’s portrayal of African Americans in the show undermines the ability of African Americans to think for themselves. According to an article by Mark P. Fancher called “Say It Ain’t So Huey- Say It Ain’t So”, Fancher describes how Aaron McGruder uses his character Huey Freeman as a means to dismiss the “nigga” community as being ignorant, but having to put up with them anyway (Fancher, 1). He also says that this distinguishes the Huey Freeman on the show from the one found in the comic strip (Fancher, 1). In the comic strip, he argues, Huey Freeman would humorously provide a background to the so called “nigga” community (Fancher, 1). He also argues that this could lead a young black audience to think that the working class on a whole are worthless (Fancher, 2). He even goes as far as to say that this is exactly what white owned corporate America is trying to do (Fancher, 2). Fancher quotes Frantz Fanon by saying that McGruder’s work, like every other work by African American artists, should serve to uplift the African American community rather than just critique it (Fancher, 2).

The episode titled “Grandad’s Fight” clearly demonstrates this point. In this episode, McGruder (through his character Huey) discusses a “phenomenon” called a nigga moment. The episode opens with an audiovisual explanation of a nigga moment. During the opening, there are African American gentlemen walking past each other on the street. One is dressed casually with a red du-rag and the other is only wearing a vest and a pair of jeans. These two characters accidentally bump into each other. A voice over comes on (Huey’s voice) and explains that a nigga moment occurs when one “nigga” commits an ignorant act (i.e. stepping on someone’s shoe) against another “nigga.” The two begin arguing and then get into a gun fight. Before they could fully come to their senses and stop their feuding, the cops arrive and shoot them down. This scene depicts “niggas” or rather working class blacks as ignorant animals who fight over every little thing. Even the artwork depicts these characters as animals with their bulging lower lips, their macho strides, and having them toting guns tucked into their belts.

Aaron McGruder seems to have struck out with Marx, but can he be a successful guerilla? To answer this question, one must turn to Che Guevara’s book called Guerilla Warfare. In his book, Che Guevara outlines what it takes to be a guerilla. One of the most important aspects of guerilla warfare, according to Che Guevara is to win the support of the country people (Guevara, 10). As mentioned above, McGruder would not be able to accomplish this, because of his apparent class bias towards the African American working class or “niggas” as he might see them.

Also, Che Guevara points out that the ultimate aim of guerilla warfare is to destroy the enemy (Guevara, 13). The Boondocks does not show or aim for the destruction of whatever causes the problems of African Americans (i.e. racist government). In the show, McGruder has created many “enemy” characters for Huey such as Ed Wuncler, who represents American big business men. In one episode titled “The Block is Hot”, Huey does take action against Wuncler by trying to tear down his lemonade stand that he stole from a little girl. With him are a group of protestors who he thinks will aid him in his battle, but is surprised to see that they are unwilling to join him taking action. In the end, Huey is able to liberate Jazmine from the prison of underpaid work. However, he does not succeed in defeating Ed Wuncler, who buys over everyone through his new lemonade product he claims is no longer made by child labor. Rather than sending a message about taking down the unfair practices of big business, McGruder portrays Ed Wuncler as an “omnipotent” figure who will always find a way to deceive the masses and may leave the audience with a sense of hopelessness when it comes to regulating big business.

McGruder’s critique of his own community does not work in his favor in terms of Antonio Gramsci. According to Gramsci’s book, The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci strays from the Marixst explanation of how the upper class “controls” the working masses. In his eyes, the upper class does not have to force or impose their ideas on the working class but is able to disseminate them through consent (Duncombe, 58). This is what is known as cultural hegemony (Duncombe, 58). According to Gramsci, the only way to effectively battle this is only through the collective consciousness of the working class (Duncombe, 58). Aaron McGruder’s critiques of the African American community could be seen as degrading to working class African Americans.

In addition to the Gramsci argument, there was a study conducted by Naomi R. Rockler which concluded that Aaron McGruder seems to have a stronger hold with African American audiences rather than with whites (Rockler, 399). According to the article, Rockler interviewed several people who come from either white European American background or African American background and asked them about their thoughts on two different comic strips (Rockler, 399). One was called Jump Start, which took a Bill Cosby approach to African American representation and portrayed their African American characters as leading upper middle- class lives with little mention about race (Rockler, 399). The other strip was The Boondocks, which did the exact opposite of Jump Start and strongly brought up the race issue (Rockler, 399). According to the study’s data, many of the white audiences preferred Jump Start due to its “positive” portrayal of African Americans and for leaving the race issue at the door and disliked The Boondocks for its strong stance on race (Rockler, 399). Among the African American participants, however, there was disagreement on whether these strips accurately portrayed their race or not (Rockler, 399). Most of the African American subjects did feel that The Boondocks more accurately portrayed their lives than the Jump Start comic strip (Rockler, 399). However, many of the African American participants agreed that The Boondocks was filled with stereotypes of its own, especially in its diction (Rockler, 409). Some participants believed that the cynical attitude of Huey and Riley would lead audiences (mainly whites) to believe that all black people had a bad attitude (Rockler, 409).

So, if The Boondocks cannot be considered revolutionary in terms of Marx, Gramsci, or Guevara, then what form of resistance is it? This show closely shares qualities with that of the carnival described in Mikhail Bakhtin’s article called “Rabelais and His World.” In the article, Bakhtin describes how the clownish skits at the carnival would indirectly serve to critique the king and his rule (Duncombe, 83). The Boondocks character that this is achieved through the most is Riley Freeman. Riley is at best a caricature of the “gangsta” rapper. In the show, Riley’s silly antics garner much humor for most of the show, but also serves to show the degrading aspect of gangsta culture. However, as Marx would probably point out, in the carnival, the king would view this as harmless entertainment and the critical aspect of the performance would be totally dismissed (Duncombe, 83). The same is with The Boondocks. While serving as a character that can be seen as serving to critique gangsta culture, he stands the chance of being dismissed as just another funny character rather than a wake up message to the audience about the degrading image of the gangsta rap culture.

Aaron McGruder clearly does not accomplish this in The Boondocks, especially in one episode called “Invasion of the Katrinians.” In the episode, Grandad’s second cousin from New Orleans moves in with his family after losing their house during Hurricane Katrina. Throughout the episode, they are portrayed as lazy, superstitious, and lying people. This would be very offensive to those who survived Hurricane Katrina and would not be considered as winning the support of countrymen as in this case are Southern African Americans. In that same episode, McGruder, through his character Huey, urges his Southern uncle and family to go back to New Orleans and to rebuild their lives. It is almost as if McGruder is telling Katrina victims that they need to help themselves. What McGurder does not take into account is the fact that most of the African Americans who lost homes in New Orleans suffered even more, because of their low class standing (Green, 6). Many of their homes were not insured and finding a job to help pay for the damages was slim to none for these families (Green, 7). According to Marx, the fact that these African Americans were having such a hard time rebuilding and some even leaving New Orleans has a lot to do with their low class status (Green, 7). The message of this episode of The Boondocks constitutes more of a neo-liberal stance than a Marxist one.

This carnival aspect of the show puts it at risk as being seen as a form of entertainment rather than a call for revolution. According to the article by Robin D.G. Kelley called “Race Rebels”, Aaron McGruder’s cartoon can be seen as an act of resisting without really resisting. In his article, Kelley points out the various forms of sabotage performed by a group of McDonald’s workers in Pasadena, California (Duncombe, 96). The workers would dance or sing while they did their work and would even end up entertaining some of the customers (Duncombe, 96). This aspect of resistance can be seen in McGruder’s television series, in which he states that the focus is on the characters more than just the content. This leads to more of a focus on the hilarious situations of the characters like that of a sitcom rather than the message itself. In an interview with NPR Radio’s Tavis Smiley, McGruder admits that the show is more centered on the characters than it is around its strong political message (pbs.org, 5). For a “revolutionary”, this would be a dangerous path to follow. During the show’s theme song, Huey’s picture is drawn to match that of Che Guevara’s and to make him look like a revolutionary, but the show does not mention what factors lead to his way of thinking. Instead, unlike his comic strip counterpart, Huey Freeman’s revolutionary passion is turned into an image of cool and humor rather than being accepted as a serious way of thinking. In fact, that is exactly what Aaron McGruder wants to accomplish through The Boondocks. Aaron McGruder admits in an interview with Chicago Weekend that he considers himself more of an entertainer rather than a revolutionary leader (Chicago Weekend, 3). He states the importance of communicating a revolutionary message in an entertaining way and he even labels this as being “effective communication” between the artist and the audience (Chicago Weekend, 3). In other words, if the message is not entertaining, the audience will not want hear it (Chicago Weekend, 3).

This aspect of the cartoon is critiqued in an article by Adolph Reed Jr. called “Why is There No Black Political Movement?” In his article, Reed argues that these forms of everyday resistance are just mere survival tactics by a weak minority (Duncombe, 99). Instead, he says there should be more of a push for change rather than a pursuit of small scale forms of resistance (Duncombe, 100). There are several different factors that can prove that The Boondocks can be seen as a small scale form of resistance. The first factor is that The Boondocks is a television series, which means it can be fitted into a desired time slot by those in charge of the media. The Boondocks premiered and is still played on Adult Swim on Cartoon Network (owned by Ted Turner), which is mostly viewed by a late night teenage and college audience rather than the broader audience viewership of prime time where the revolutionary voice of The Boondocks would be more widespread.

In conclusion, The Boondocks by Aaron McGruder is not exactly what Marx or Guevara would call revolutionary, but it can be seen as revolutionary in terms of Gramsci. However, the show seems to be more of a form of everyday resistance. With its strong political message encased by its humor and satire of not only white, but black America as well, the show serves to inform and critique the powers that be and does not offer any means to change them. Just like other forms of carnival resistance such as the Yes Men, the characters in The Boondocks use their humorous antics to express strong political critiques. However, McGruder still has a long way to go in terms of class.

 

Works Cited.

Martin, Roland S. “Use of N- Word by Boondocks Creators, Blacks Just Doesn’t Fly.” Chicago Defender. Chicago Nov. 14- 15. Vol. XCIX. 373. 2.

Wang, Oliver. “Black and White and Hip- Hop All Over: Reading “The Boondocks.” ColorLines. Oakland Jan. 31, 2000. Vol. 2. Issue 4. 38.

Press, Joy. “Black Power Rangers.” The Village Voice. Oct. 25, 2005. 1-2.

Pbs. Org. Tavis Smiley’s Aaron McGruder Interview for NPR. Archives. Nov. 2005. 1-8.

Gramsci, Antonio. The Prison Notebooks. Cultural Resistance Reader. Ed. Stephen Duncombe. Verso, N.Y. 2002.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. Cultural Resistance Reader. Ed. Stephen Duncombe. Verso, N.Y. 2002.

Kelley, Robin D.G. Race Rebels. Cultural Resistance Reader. Ed. Stephen Duncombe. Verso, N.Y. 2002.

Guevara, Che Ernesto. Guerilla Warfare. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, Nebraska. 1961.

Rockler, Naomi R. “Race, Whiteness, “Lightness,” and Relevance: African American and European American Interpretations of Jump Start and The Boondocks. Critical Studies in Media Communications. Dec. 2002. Vol. 19. No. 4. 398- 418.

“The Africana Q& A with Aaron McGruder.” Chicago Weekend. Chicago, Ill. Oct. 2, 2003. Vol. 33. Issue 37. 10.

Green, Rodney D. and Beverly Wright and Tiffany Hamelin. “Strategies for Recovery from Katrina: Corporate Capitalism, NGOs, Racism, and Class.” January 2008.

Levine, Lawrence. “Slave Songs and Slave Consciousness.” Cultural Resistance Reader. Ed. Stephen Duncombe. Verso, N.Y. 2002.

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