As a young black kid who was a lifelong fan of cartoons, I learned early on that there was a pink elephant in the room that the large majority of the cartoons I watched. I never complained, but I couldn’t help but notice a dearth of characters that….looked like me. I would see the occasional black supporting character (Susie Carmichael) or black best friend (Gerald Johanssen), but cartoons with a focus on black protagonists or black families were novel. At the top of my head, the black cartoons I can remember from my childhood are The Proud Family, the short-lived C Bear and Jamal (don’t ask me how I remembered this!), the shorter-lived Waynehead (which I had never heard of until college), Bebe’s Kids (which I was too young to catch in theaters at the time), and Hammerman (which is one of the worst cartoons of all time so who cares).
(he can barely even rap his own theme song!)
But at some point in the early 2000s, I discovered a comic strip in the newspaper called The Boondocks. There was something different about this comic. Not only was it a comic starring black characters, it was a comic starring black characters that talked about being black. No cartoon or comic I had heard of at that point had ever done this before. I didn’t even know such things were allowed in cartoons! For a little pre-teen kid that grew up around people with an odd fascination with the way my hair curled, imagine my reaction to something like The Boondocks!
It didn’t take long for The Boondocks to become a favorite of mine. With an often controversial, but razor-sharp satirical thumb on politics and black culture, it was like a comic made by Chris Rock! When The Boondocks was turned into an animated series in 2005, it was like a dream come true! The very first bumper/opening scene of the first episode would set the incendiary tone the show would take from then on.
Nowadays when I think about The Boondocks, I think it’s interesting how so much of it represent a microcosm of situations or issues in the black community. Sure, it directly addressed/skewered issues in the black community with no ambiguity, but there are some extremely fascinating subtleties within The Boondocks’ subtexts if you can get past the very unsubtle and inflammatory texts. The YouTube clip I just shared is from the first episode “The Garden Party”. Later in the episode when the Freemans arrive to the garden party, Granddad tries to mingle with Ed Wuncler and the other attendees, Riley goes off with Ed Wuncler III, and Huey attempts to get on stage and “tell white people the truth”. He eventually does, but to his surprise the white crowd does not freak out. Instead, they applaud Huey on how articulate and well-spoken he is without addressing or even acknowledging the content of what he was saying. The running gag throughout the episode was that anything any of the Freemans or Uncle Ruckus did that grabbed the attention of the crowd was met with applause, no matter how odd or outlandish. In this episode, the wealthy crowd represents white people in America by-and-large, Ed Wuncler’s garden party represents society in general (with white people in power), and the Freemans and Uncle Ruckus represent the black community.
Granddad represents the part of the black community that strives to assimilate into white society without rocking the boat. Ed Wuncler is cordial with him, but his constantly referring to him as “Free Man” instead of “Freeman” represents how White America will always view black people no matter how hard they try to fit in. Uncle Ruckus’ song “Don’t Trust Them New Niggas Over There” represents the lack of unity within the black community. Like Granddad, Uncle Ruckus is also looking for approval from the white crowd, but unlike Granddad, he is more than willing to step on the toes of other black people to serve his own self interests. This manifests in Uncle Ruckus simultaneously externalizing the internalized racism of the white crowd (the song he sings) and acting as their shield against any accusations of racism (after the song, one of the attendees says “I think the N-word is okay as long as they say it”). The level in which Uncle Ruckus expressed hatred towards other black people came off as cartoonish and over-the-top, but trust me, this character is inspired by a phenomenon that’s very real.
Riley’s interaction with Ed Wuncler III represents the epidemic of violence within many black communities. Wuncler III taking Riley into his room and showing him his heavy weaponry represents the flooding of guns in black neighborhoods throughout the country. It’s very important to note that all of those guns belong to Wuncler III, not Riley. The black neighborhoods don’t manufacture any of the guns they’re inundated with and those communities don’t reap the profits of any of the guns sold. Riley’s shooting Wuncler III out of his window out onto the crowded lawn represents the violence itself. Wuncler III is met with applause from the crowd. Violence within the black community has been an epidemic for generations, yet it is something that White America has failed to properly address, since it doesn’t affect them personally (hence, the applause). On the brief moment that it does have their attention, Ed Wuncler III, who isn’t black, gives the crowd carte blanche to simply go about their business (“the fuck y’all lookin’ at?!”).
Getting back to the crowd’s reaction to Huey, this in particular is important because it’s representative of so many situations involving the black community. Huey said what he did in order to spark revolution but all he got from the crowd was passive applause. Huey represents the activist wing of the black community that fights for racial justice and the response he got from the crowd represents the indifference and lip service they are met with by the white community. Just like the incident with Riley (violence in the black community), it doesn’t affect them personally, so they have the privilege of not caring about it. A real world example to this is Dave Chappelle’s fallout with his Comedy Central show. The white crowd applauded him and he became a big star, but he soon learned that the crowd was not so much understanding the satirical racial edge of his comedy as they were simply entertained by a black man saying “nigga” and catchphrases that end with the word “bitch”. An even bigger real world example is the way hip-hop got commercialized. In the mid and late ’80s, hip-hop was beginning to gain mainstream recognition and more and more hip-hop groups started introducing more Afrocentric and socio-political lyrical content. Both conscious and gangsta rap at this time addressed the desolate conditions of the neighborhoods that inspired their music. As the ’90s went on, gangsta rap continued to grow in popularity but it started to lose its socio-political edge in favor of its more superficially edgy attributes like its embrace of violence, misogyny, and vulgar language. Nowadays, most mainstream hip-hop only represents self-centered decadence, commercialism, and sleaze. Yet an even bigger real world example is the reaction Black Lives Matter protesters got at a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle. A very large number of white Bernie Sanders supporters reacted to the protesters with condescension and disdain, completely disregarding the fact that little has changed in curbing the rampant police brutality across the country in the year since the movement’s formation. Chris Rock once offered a good summation of the response Huey got at the garden party.
There is even more I can say about the subtext of The Boondocks, but seeing how much I have written about just one episode, I’ll save more dissections for future posts.