Boondocks creator speaks on art, race

At age 28, Aaron McGruder, the creator of nationally syndicated comic strip The Boondocks, talks to 30 million people every morning through a strip which he never expected would see the light of day.

“[That is] more than any other young black man who isn’t a rapper,” he said.

On Friday, McGruder came to Williams to discuss his responsibility as one of the more prominent voices of his generation. Addressing a number of other issues, he also expressed his outrage at topics ranging from the 2000 Florida election results to Al Sharpton’s perm.

Launched in 1999, The Boondocks made its debut in more than 250 newspapers, setting the record for biggest launch in comic history. The strip centers around the lives of two young African-American boys, Huey and Riley Freeman, who have moved from inner-city Chicago to live with their grandfather in the predominantly white suburb of Woodcrest. Their move sets the stage for a variety of breaches of racial etiquette and opens a forum for sincere social commentary.

“Truth is available in such small quantities that it has become profitable,” McGruder said.

In its four years, The Boondocks has received an overwhelming increase in readership and has both offended and delighted audiences, with newspapers occasionally refusing to run the strip. McGruder has also endured a highly publicized feud with salacious BET CEO Robert Johnson and his placement on CNN’s list of Most Unpatriotic Americans.

Despite the cartoonist’s initial expectations that the strip would be pulled from every newspaper, The Boondocks has flourished; McGruder attributes this to the market for sincerity in America, as well as a thirst for controversy. “They were mad enough to get me famous,” McGruder said of his detractors, “but not mad enough to get me cancelled.”

After a brief description of his work on the strip, McGruder departed from the standard lecture format. The cartoonist offered to answer any questions that students might shout out at whim, regardless of whether or not they dealt with the topic that he was addressing.

Questions were fielded with alternately humorous and sobering pronouncements of McGruder’s political and social views. His persona onstage oscillated between that of a jaded political theorist and a wise-cracking stand-up comic.

At one moment, McGruder skewered Al Gore for his complacency in losing the 2000 election (“He’s such a big loser he got the most votes. . .and he still lost!”); minutes later, when asked why he didn’t want to be a black leader, he said, “because I don’t want to die at 34.”

Despite his insistence that he was not a motivational speaker, he often received wild, tent-revivalist-style responses to his declarations, particularly to jokes about Al Sharpton’s perm. “No black person with a perm will sit at a political table. . .except Condoleezza Rice,” he said.

Speaking on affirmative action, he said, “If you’re white, you’ll get into another school – GO!”

Like his strip, McGruder’s speech did not carry the sense of levity normally associated with funny page comedy. Even the most humorous portions of the speech were underscored by a deep disappointment in the state of the black community and American politics. McGruder said he created The Boondocks to express his discontent with a generation of young black people “who, socially and politically, are doing nothing.”

He also expressed his anger at the lack of political leadership among black Americans, which he said caused his generation to have to create leaders out of entertainers, such as Public Enemy and KRS-One.

McGruder appears to attribute this lack of power to lack of action rather than white oppression. In response to a student who wondered whether or not McGruder equated himself with Huey Newton of the Black Panthers, he said that liberation action is “no longer a threat to the system. The movement that scared white people before now seems ridiculous to them.”

McGruder was particularly incensed by the poor quality of black television programming and the debacle that Bob Johnson has made of BET. He dismissed the idea that he had any fear of Johnson: “Bob Johnson may be a billionaire, but –pardon my language – he’s a nigga billionaire. . .which means he has no power.”

He suggested that the bumping and grinding that is in constant rotation on BET be replaced with alternative news information. Though his criticisms of BET have generated the greatest negative response from readers of The Boondocks, McGruder regards the sensitivity of the issue as more material for humor:

“Never attack a cartoonist. Because we get the last word every day of the week.”

A radical leftist, McGruder presented some political views that were vaguely conspiratorial. He advocated that the Democratic party employ realpolitik strategies in dealing with Republicans because, as he said, “There is only one political party right now in America. There are Republicans. . .and almost-Republicans.”

After the lecture ended, students enjoyed a reception with McGruder in Dodd House, where he signed copies of his books. He also amused students with his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture.

Black Student Union (BSU) president Sharifa Wright ’03 expressed her appreciation to the English Department for helping the BSU fund the visit and her hope that “students will continue to talk about what they heard tonight.”

When asked what they enjoyed most about the lecture, students said they admired the fact that McGruder was not afraid to say anything. But for those who cannot find a place for this kind of commentary in their comics, there’s always Marmaduke.