I had a dream once. It was a dream that little black boys and little black girls would drink from the river of prosperity, freed from the thirst of oppression. But lo and behold, some four decades later, what have I found but a bunch of trifling, shiftless, good for nothing niggers. And I know some of you don't want to hear me say that word. It's the ugliest word in the English language.
The speaker was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., revived from a coma and addressing a television audience in “Return of the King,” an episode of “The Boondocks,” by black cartoonist Aaron McGruder that aired on January 15, the eve of Martin Luther King day, a national holiday. The hour was late, but people were definitely watching, and not amused by the cartoon King's denunciation of “trifling, shiftless, good for nothing niggers.” The next night McGruder found himself on “Nightline,” where ABC's Cynthia McFadden tossed the cartoonist an underhand lob, right down the middle of the plate.
“So, your conclusion is that if Martin Luther King returned today, he would be received how?”
“Well, as a traitor,” McGruder said.
I don't think his philosophy or even his character would really work in a modern context. I don't even think he would – he would talk fast enough to be able to be interviewed on television because, you know, you gotta – everything is so fast nowadays. And so, I just think he wouldn't fit in. And that's kind of what the episode is about. We sort of explore him and, you know, feeling a bit distraught about where things have come. And we examine, really, what America would think of him if he were alive today.
In other words, McGruder was judging King by the content of his character and found him wanting. It was the roughest treatment of the civil-rights hero since Bull Connor, various Ku Kluckers’ “Martin Lucifer Coon” hatred, J. Edgar Hoover's “tomcat” tag, and James Earl Ray's bullet. Rev. Al Sharpton, a veteran of the Tawana Brawley case and a former Democratic presidential candidate, weighed in.
“Cartoon Network must apologize and also commit to pulling episodes that desecrate black historic figures,” said Sharpton. “We are totally offended by the continuous use of the n-word in McGruder's show.”
McGruder likes being offensive. He comes billed – in large part by himself – as the angriest black man in America and his “Boondocks” comic strip has been called “Peanuts meets the Nation of Islam.” But even that doesn't quite capture the man.
McGruder was born in Chicago and raised in the middle class environs of Columbia, Maryland, where his father works for the National Transportation Safety Board, and which is doubtless the inspiration for Woodcrest, the suburban setting for “The Boondocks.” From grades seven to nine, McGruder went to a Jesuit school. He has since described as “very white.” He started drawing at an early age and in his teens decided he wanted to be a professional cartoonist. McGruder went on to the University of Maryland, department of African American Studies. One way to look at McGruder is as evidence that such departments serve as a recycling center for Sixties left-wing radicalism and racial politics. Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, and the other black militants of the time, contrary to what might be assumed, were not fond of the non-violent King, whom they derided as “de Lawd” and “Uncle Martin.” As someone who believed in the American Dream, he stood in their way of their destructive projects, because he wanted blacks to be stakeholders in this country, not an angry lumpen ready to burn it down.
McGruder got his first shot at comic strip under Jayson Blair, then editor of UM's Diamondback student newspaper, who later became famous fabricating stories for the New York Times. In 1997, a year before graduating, McGruder started sending out packages of “The Boondocks.” The central character is Huey Freeman, 10, a militant scholar. The supporting cast includes and eight-year-old Riley Freeman, billed as a wannabe gangsta; Caesar, Huey's best friend; Jasmine DuBois, a mixed-race girl, her parents Thomas and Sarah DuBois' and Granddad.
Huey gets his name from Black Panther Huey Newton. McGruder told Ben McGrath of the New Yorker that this may be “the blackest character ever to be popular in mainstream media, other than maybe Chuck D and Flavor Flav.” McGrath perceptively wrote that the Huey Freeman character shows an “unnatural familiarity with the precepts of socialist black nationalism.” McGruder contends the strip is not autobiographical but, as he flippantly explained to Greg Braxton of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, an effort to make radical politics “cute.” Some critics note that McGruder's drawing borrows heavily from Japanese manga style, with accentuated foreheads and eyes.
In 1997, McGruder showed up at a convention of the National Association of Black Journalists. Harriet Choice, a vice president with the Universal Press Syndicate, was there scouting minority talent. McGruder gave her some samples of his work. Universal signed him up and, in April 1999, launched “The Boondocks” in 160 papers. That year, McGruder moved to Los Angeles, where he lives in a penthouse not far from where, in 1969, the Black Panthers and Ron Karenga’s United Slaves shot it out in the UCLA cafeteria. McGruder's house features collections of movie memorabilia and a large framed cover of the Nation magazine. From this base, he exercises what he calls A Right to be Hostile, the title of his best-selling “Boondocks” collection, foreword by Michael Moore. But unlike “Doonesbury” cartoonist Gary Trudeau, who keeps a low profile, McGruder needs more than the cartoon. He says he likes to “throw down.”
“I'm ready to fight outside work,” he told the Los Angeles Times Magazine. “If someone wants to come up and start a political conversation with me, it can quickly turn into an argument.”
Two years ago McGruder showed up at the Manhattan Club in New York for the 183rd birthday bash of The Nation. His work was on display in the Club's great hall, part of what a Nation contributor told the New Yorker was McGruder's “coronation as our kind of guy.” He is indeed their kind of guy, on record as deploring the “interracial classism” of the Cosby show.
The other guests included E. L. Doctorow, Charlie Rose, John McEnroe, Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson, former ambassador to Gabon. Also in attendance, a guest of honor, was Robert Byrd, the senior senator from West Virginia and a former Ku Klucker.
Movie star Uma Thurman introduced McGruder, who thanked her for being “the most ass-kicking woman in America,” then broke out the other “N” word. He told the crowd of mostly aging white liberals that he had voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. Nation columnist Eric Alterman shouted “Thanks for Bush!” and in Jack Newfield's account, McGruder dared Alterman to knock him off the podium. The illustrator grabbed his crotch and said, “Try these nuts.”
As the New Yorker described it McGruder said, “I ain’t no punk. I ain’t gonna let someone shout and not go back at him.” Some observers compared the episode to Le Roi Jones mau-mauing white liberals in the sixties. McGruder, a Monty Python fan, is like the Arthur Pewty character who seeks an argument only to find he's signed up for abuse. McGruder's tussles with black talk-show host Larry Elder certainly couldn't be described as argument.
In one strip, the characters consider “The Elder” as the name for the “Most Embarrassing Black Person of the Year Awards.” Other candidates included Ward Connerly and Montel Williams. McGruder construed Elder, a libertarian with a strong self-help message, as the sort who makes money by saying things whites want him to say. (Elder, who has drawn wrath from black radicals in the past, fired back with a column that established an award called “The McGruders” recognizing the “Dumbest, Most Vulgar, Most Offensive Things Uttered by Black Public Figures.”) McGruder also suggested Elder, who occasionally finds “Boondocks” funny, as a mate for Condoleezza Rice. McGruder called her a “murderer,” blaming her actions on a defective love life.
“She's a murderer because I believe she's a murderer,” McGruder said on “America's Black Forum. The cartoonist with a right to be hostile, who says he likes to throw down, and who warns emulators to “get off my dick, leave my shit alone,” declined to appear on “Hannity and Colmes” to discuss the matter. (He did not respond to efforts to reach him for this story through his agency, Paradigm) He said he wanted to call Rice a murderer to her face, but it didn't work out that way.
McGruder was seated near Rice at a 2002 NAACP awards session. After accepting his prize, McGruder denounced the invasion of Afghanistan, which he believes is part of a conspiracy between the Bush Administration and the oil companies to clear out the Taliban so they could run pipelines across the country. Rice jocularly asked if she could be written into “The Boondocks.” The following year McGruder obliged by portraying her as a female Darth Vader who would be less bent on destroying the world “if she had a man in her life to give her some good old-fashioned lovin.”
McGruder's concept of a worthy female leader seems to be left-wing California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, whom he praised in one of his strips. At her request, McGruder took a Potemkin village tour of Cuba, a one-party communist dictatorship ruled for more than 40 years by a white Stalinist homophobe who appears to be constantly channeling his inner Mussolini. The tour included an audience with the man himself but this time McGruder didn't grab his crotch. The cartoonist dutifully returned with glowing accounts of the great things Castro had accomplished.
At home, McGruder targets booty-shaking BET jive, Whitney Houston and Puff Daddy, but for the most part its all Bush all the time. After 9/11, he focused his wrath not on the terrorist murderers but on the patriotism of Americans. Unlike cartoonists in Europe, who dare to portray Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, McGruder won't go near Islamic themes.
“The Boondocks” now runs in 300 papers but Aaron McGruder no longer draws it. He outsourced that duty to Jennifer Seng, a Boston artist, explaining that he thinks he's a better writer than artist. The cartoonist is a hit on the college lecture circuit, where he doesn't get heckled, or prevented from speaking, like Ann Coulter, whom he has described as a man. (“I'm just sayin' she has a pretty big Adam's apple,” says his cartoon strip protagonist Huey.)
Cartoonish left-wing views, after all, are best suited for a cartoon. But it was inevitable that Aaron McGruder's revolution would be televised. He calls his production company Rebel Base, which works in association with Sony Pictures Television. In similar style to the strip, the cartoon series is outsourced. McGruder flew to Seoul, Korea to oversee the initial animation. “You get the impression,” the Observer said, “that the muscles he has built most assiduously since moving to LA five years ago are his corporate-diplomatic biceps.”
That is true, and brings up the dialect in which McGruder operates, and which fuels his right to be hostile. He's wealthy, famous and enjoys an outlet for his views that would be the envy of anyone. That doesn't exactly square with the rebellious self-image of socialist black nationalism, supposedly marginalized by corporate America, which has greenlighted his TV show for another season.
“Anytime your checks are signed by the white man, you're not leading the revolution, and that's me included,” McGruder told black radio host Tavis Smiley. “My checks are signed by the white man.”
But for the most part, his wealth evokes a reality principle. “I always wanted to get rich,” McGruder has said. “I wanna live very, very well. The world sucks when you're poor. It's fucking deplorable. But I don't think it means you have to be part of the fucked-up system of oppressors and leaders just by virtue of making a lot of money.” That is why McGruder stands by his inalienable “right to be a nigger.” And to portray a revived Martin Luther King deploring “trifling, shiftless, good for nothing niggers.
If the eloquent, non-violent King would not “really work in a modern context,” then who would, according to the cartoonist? The “Return of the King” episode published on MLK’s birthday ended with Oprah Winfrey becoming president.
“You know, we kind of wanted to end it on an upbeat note,” explained McGruder on “Nightline.” “And – and ultimately, even though King comes down very hard on the black community, it inspires them to action. And – and so, we end it with Oprah being president, which, you know, I think we all want to see.”
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