Although the “funnies” are often associated with clean humor and political neutrality, Aaron McGruder’s comic strip and animated series The Boondocks is no stranger to controversy.
McGruder, a syndicated columnist and an executive producer of the Boondocks animated series on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, has published four collections of his cartoons and co-authored a graphic novel, Birth of a Nation: A Comic Novel, with Reginald Hudlin.
McGurder visits the Sun Dome tonight at 7 to give a speech titled “The Ethics of Dissent.”
In McGruder’s view, Boondocks does what the more conventional, more tame mainstream comics don’t do – it pushes the envelope of political correctness by exposing the latent and overt racial stereotypes exigent in American society. The main characters of the cartoon, brothers Huey and Riley Freeman, along with their guardian Granddad, come to represent archetypal black figures in American society.
Huey is named after Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers. Huey signifies a black youth who empathizes with radical political views – in the comic strip, Huey is often seen discussing “Eurocentrism” and reading subversive literature instead of completing his assigned work.
Riley represents the other end of the spectrum. He acts as a foil to his older brother, diverging from the black intelligentsia movement by lavishing in the gangster-rap lifestyle proffered by BET.
In some senses, Granddad’s dismay toward Huey and Riley’s behavior and thought paints him as the voice of reason – his quiet, arguably fatigued skepticism cast both the revolutionary fervor of black nationalism and the self-indulgence of mainstream hip-hop in a negative light.
The missteps and misdemeanors of the Freeman brothers take place in Woodcrest, a suburban neighborhood just outside Chicago, described as “lily-white” on the Boondocks Web site.
McGruder’s aesthetic also sets him apart from the pack. His popularity, in part, is often attributed to the eye-catching, manga-like drawing style of his characters – alongside his scathing political commentary, of course.
As well as dealing with issues such as racism and hypocrisy, McGruder makes incisive jabs at public figures such as President Bush and Cuba Gooding Jr.
His October 2003 series satirizing Condoleezza Rice elicited editorial reprimand from several newspapers subscribing to his cartoon, including the Washington Post, which withheld publication of the series for a week.
This didn’t faze or deter McGruder from further stirring up dust. Although McGruder’s contract with the University Lecture Series stipulates he is not giving interviews, several previous interviews indicate that McGruder is used to having editors periodically withhold his comic strip if they deem the content to be too inflammatory.
According to Ben McGrath’s profile of McGruder in the New Yorker, the series dealing with Rice attributed the secretary of defense’s aggressive foreign policy to her static love life: “Maybe if there was a man in the world who Condoleezza truly loved, she wouldn’t be so hell-bent to destroy it.”
In this particular strip, the boys went on to write personal ads for Rice, in which she is described as a female Darth Vader-type seeking “loving mate to torture” and “high-ranking government employee with sturdy build seeks single black man for intimate relationship. Must enjoy football, Chopin, and carpet bombing.”
Several newspapers dropped McGruder altogether or moved Boondocks to the editorial page in response to his series on the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mike Dolinger, the director of programming for ULS, said “The Ethics of Dissent” deals with McGruder’s inspiration for Boondocks as well as the broader implications of the cartoon in American culture.
“It’s Aaron’s vision and inspiration for Boondocks and what it means in today’s society,” Dolinger said.
According to Dolinger, ULS selected Aaron McGruder in order to uphold its mission of bringing a broad range of speakers to USF.
“As (with) all of our speakers, we’re trying to reach out to a diverse audience on campus, and he was a diverse speaker that we wanted to put in there,” Dolinger said. “His views and messages and Boondocks, of course, is a huge thing amongst students today, so we thought that he would be well received.”
Iris Elijah, a student liaison for ULS, said McGruder’s enduring popularity with college-aged students as well as his fresh approach to comics made him an excellent candidate to speak.
“He’s kind of like Family Guy, but of course, more thought-provoking than Family Guy,” Elijah said. “We’ve never done anything like host a cartoon artist before, someone so revolutionary. He’s bringing a new thought process to comics that most people aren’t aware of.”
Elijah said the unique format of the speech, a sort of open-dialogue with the audience, was another reason why ULS was originally attracted to McGruder.
“It’s kind of a late-night show, where you have the interviewer and the interviewee, but it’s more laid back,” Elijah said. “It’s something ULS has never really done before. It’s more relaxed. It’s really going to depend on the audience asking questions.”
Neither Dolinger or Elijah was working for ULS last year when the selection committee – comprised of staff, faculty, and students – contracted McGruder to speak. The cost of bringing him to campus was $25,000, including travel and lodging expenses.
Elijah said McGruder’s speech should challenge the way the USF community thinks as well as foster open-mindedness. She said ULS’s broad range of views allows USF to better uphold its role as a university.
“That’s really what college is supposed to do – it’s supposed to challenge your traditional way of thinking and open your mind and make you more willing to challenge the things you might uphold, or think are an established truth; just more diversity,” Elijah said.
Reginald Eldridge, a senior majoring in English literature and Africana studies and president of the Africana Studies Association, said he was excited McGruder was coming to speak.
“I thought that it would be a very interesting, enlightening experience,” Eldridge said. “He’s a young, black artist – he kind of occupies the space all in his own. He is a comic strip artist turned a big-time network television, cable-type person.”
Eldridge also said McGruder represented a broader cultural movement in the black community.
“Part of what I guess scholars are calling the post-soul movement, where people like Dave Chappelle and hip-hop artists and Aaron McGruder come out and are kind of raising the same types of questions that were raised in the past, during the black arts movement of the ’70s and ’80s,” Eldridge said, “but in a different, more hip, more acceptable way that is more relevant to youth of today.”