Although Aaron McGruder’s comic strip and cartoon series Boondocks is known for its controversial treatment of race and politics, his speech “The Ethics of Dissent” at the Sun Dome corral Monday Night proved relatively tame.
Rather than question McGruder – who refused to be photographed – about his notoriously inflammatory political views, most students asked him specific questions about the comic strip – which is now cancelled – and his show on Cartoon Network, as well as the planned Boondocks movie.
Early into the night, McGruder talked about his experience directing various acclaimed celebrities, such as Samuel L. Jackson, who served as a guest character on his cartoon show.
“What the f- am I going to tell Sam Jackson? If you say something stupid he’ll rip you like he would in a movie,” McGruder joked.
Throughout the presentation, University Lecture Series Programming Director Iris Elijah and former student body President Maxon Victor acted as moderators.
According to Elijah, McGruder was selected to speak at USF not just because USF had never hosted a cartoon artist, but also because of the unique, discussion-based format of the speech, in which McGruder acted as the interviewee and the audience members as interviewers.
Many students were concerned with McGruder’s sentiments on the differences between working as a syndicated cartoonist and working as a producer of a network-television cartoon. McGruder said he enjoyed the ideological flexibility of the show because the lead time – the period of time between creation and publication – for the cartoon is nearly a year, compared to the lead time of his comic strip, which was about five to seven days. With the increased lead time of the television series, McGruder said he wasn’t limited to writing about current events.
Instead, this allowed him to narrate a story, which was impossible to do within the artistic constraints of a comic strip.
“We kind of left the news alone and we got into how we can develop this world that these characters were in,” McGruder said. “I’d found a sort of liberation in being able to remove these characters from the day-to-day goings on of the world.”
The discussion had a laid-back atmosphere, and McGruder responded to all questions, comments and criticism with a calm affability and humor reminiscent of a late-night show host.
One interviewer criticized McGruder for not hiring a young black male to serve as the voices of Huey and Riley on the Boondocks series after crediting McGruder for trying to make Martin Luther King Jr. more applicable to today’s youth.
McGruder also fielded several questions dealing with his medium of societal critique, satire. When asked why the Boondocks series doesn’t have a positive didactic element, McGruder said that given the context in which the show airs, as well as the show’s audience – the average viewer is 18 – positive values would neither be effective nor well received.
“To throw a bunch of positive in it – you don’t do that on cable at 11:00 at night,” McGruder said. “The ‘right image’ is totally unfunny. Look, it’s very calculated. We’re not going to preach to people. It’s not the strip. If there’s a group of smart people out there that get what we’re saying, even if they’re the minority, we’re happy with that.”
McGruder also defended his use of stereotype as a critical device, saying his stereotyped characters do not foster white animosity towards blacks.
“If white people don’t like you, they’re not going to like you,” McGruder said.
McGruder also likened the use of satire to a potentially painful yet nonetheless effective means of improvement in the black community, saying satire required blacks to address pertinent issues that are neglected because of excessive praise.
“We can’t critique ourselves if we’re only showing the positive. It’s tough love, but it’s still love.”
McGruder did field one question about politics, however, when a high school teacher asked him why he was dissatisfied in school. McGruder answered by saying that school is a means of social control.
“It’s conditioning people to live as slaves, that’s what the educational system is supposed to do.”
McGruder’s criticism of the American education extended to higher education, as he likened student loans to servitude.
“It’s like sharecropping. You show up to work, and it’s like they give you a loan, you work this field, and you never pay it off.”
He also attributed the lack of social activism in today’s youth to the fact that many enjoy comfortable lives. McGruder didn’t castigate today’s youth, but rather attributed political apathy to a problem breeching all ages and demographics. According to McGruder, both adults and adolescents are the victim of what he described as a mind-control machine.
“I think the problem is we’ve been lulled to sleep,” McGruder said. “We’ve got fast food and television. What else do we need?”
At the conclusion of McGruder’s presentation, it was clear that he was well-received by his USF audience. Many rushed to purchase McGruder’s books or line up to have McGruder personally sign Boondocks paraphernalia.
Adrian Ambush, a junior majoring in mass communications and social work, said she appreciates the different comedy style proffered by Boondocks as well as McGruder’s courage.
“So many people are scared to say such-and-such and they’re like, that’s not going to look good, that’s not going to sound right, but I mean, he doesn’t care,” Ambush said. He comes out and he gives his opinion, and he gives his opinion in a harsh way. He’s in your face – he’s not going to apologize.”
Sean Karlen, a sophomore majoring in anthropology, said McGruder’s speech gave him a better understanding of Boondocks‘ intent.
“He made some very good points,” Karlen said. “I came out here just for curiosity’s sake, but what I got out of it was a lot of things to think about. I think Boondocks is a very clever show; I think it’s hilarious. I feel confident in saying I’m actually one of those people who actually ‘get’ it, so after seeing this I can just appreciate the show a whole lot more “