from the boondocks
It happened when Al Sharpton was caught on video
in a cowboy hat, making a drug deal. It happened when Harry
Belafonte compared Colin Powell to a slave "permitted
to come into the house of the master." It happened
when Jesse Jackson called for Barbershop filmmakers
to edit out jokes about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa
Parks. It happens often when prominent African Americans
make public gaffes: they land in the boondocks.
Make that The Boondocks, an internationally
syndicated comic strip about a trio of African-American
city kids adjusting to life in white suburbia.
"At some point, you've got to know
I'm going to talk about you," Aaron McGruder, the strip's
creator and a native South Sider, told a packed, mostly
black audience at International House on a Friday evening
in November. "If you're going to act crazy in the public
eye, it seems like you should factor me in."
The audience howled with laughter, as
it did for most of McGruder's two-hour talk—when
it wasn't silently reflective. As this 500-plus group knew
long before it sat buzzing expectantly for his appearance,
sponsored by the University's Center for Race, Politics,
and Culture, the 29-year-old McGruder is both a jokester
and a harsh social critic, willing to say what others might
think but few actually voice. Appearing in 250 newspapers
reaching 20 million readers, McGruder's voice definitely
gets heard, to many an editor's dismay. For criticizing
the war in Afghanistan and, more recently, comparing George
W. Bush to Hitler, he's been temporarily canceled by Long
Island's Newsday and the New York Daily News and
moved to the editorial section of the Dallas Morning
At International House, the artist was
very much in character. After poking fun at Jesse Jackson
("Who are you, Jesse? Do you have a job?"), he
peered at his audience. "Our expectations for ourselves,"
he reflected, "have fallen as low as white people's
expectations for us." It was something his main character,
the scholarly and radical youngster Huey, would say, and
his audience stirred in acknowledgement.
McGruder said he conceived the strip,
first published in 1997 in the University of Maryland's
Diamondback student newspaper, to fill a void in
political discourse. "[Doonesbury creator Gary]
Trudeau and [Bloom County creator Burke] Breathed
were taking shots at everyone in the public eye," he
told the crowd. "I wanted to make fun of people too.
Luckily no one was making fun of the people I wanted to
make fun of"-namely the African-American entertainment
and political elite, the former for its flat, stereotypical
depictions of African-American life and the latter for its
"Too many black people are into
noble failure," he said. "There's this attitude
of, 'I tried. They killed me.' That's not good enough. Play
to win. If you're going to play the political game, you
have to play to win."
That's when a man in the back of the
crowd asked a question that elicited many eager nods: "How
do you feel about being a leader?"
"I am not a leader. I am a cartoonist.
I am an entertainer. The white man signs my checks,"
McGruder countered. "Please understand that. Nobody
whose checks are signed by the white man is leading a revolution."