Writers have all manner of daily inspirations — morning walks, journal-keeping, speaking into tape recorders. Mine is a single piece of yellowed newsprint taped to my computer monitor at work. It’s a comic strip, Aaron McGruder’s “The Boondocks,” that ran a couple of years ago in the Los Angeles Times and that struck me as so sadly, savagely funny and so germane to the serious issues I write about, I clipped it and brought it to the office. (It sits just below another taped cutout from a magazine, a shot of supermodel Tyra Banks in a clingy evening gown, smiling and clasping her index fingers together to form a gun muzzle.) In the strip, Huey and his dreadlocked best friend Caesar lament the fact that “otherwise sane” black people too eagerly consume the modern-day minstrelsy of shows on the UPN network, the de facto black network channel of the last decade or so. “What happened to pride?” says Huey. “Have we reached a point where black people will accept anything as okay?” Pregnant pause, represented by a wordless panel. Then, the bomb drops. “If the Klan was paying, a lot of black people would join,” says Caesar, looking defeated. “Especially if they offered benefits,” adds Huey, looking, as usual, pissed off.
Despite such sentiments being deeply unflattering to black folks, there was no move to pull or modify that strip, or numerous others like it that ran over the years, by the papers that run the syndicated “Boondocks.” But when McGruder recently ran a strip skewering the wild popularity of reality shows liked The Apprentice with something called “Can a N***a Get a Job?”— that featured a black woman choosing sleep over work and black men smoking marijuana blunts in the boardroom — several big papers, including the Washington Post and the New York Daily News, freaked out and pulled the strip from their pages that week, or ran diluted versions of it (the L.A. Times ran a version that edited out the knife fight that erupts between black contestants).
While it’s not hard to see where the latest “Boondocks” shenanigans could be read as offensive, at least superficially, it’s much harder to see the logic in how and when publishers deem McGruder’s strips offensive enough to yank. Offensive to whom? is the question to ask first, and maybe last. McGruder is known for pillorying people and institutions on both sides of the color line, yet he’s always reserved his harshest criticism for fellow African-Americans who, unwittingly or no, are more apt than any other ethnic group to participate in their own demise. We’re also more apt to laugh at or make light of our foibles — playing the dozens, and all that — which makes a dead-serious humorist like McGruder a perfect social critic for the times.
From its inception, “Boondocks” was an in-house conversation being carried on in public, a talking drum of the modern age, with McGruder acting as a kind of cultural police and would-be enforcer of hard truths, à la the lately crusading Bill Cosby. But the forces policing McGruder are mostly white-run institutions, and as such, they are often the real arbiters of what’s okay for black people to tell each other. The “n***as” of McGruder’s imagined reality show are meant to discomfit everyone, though the gross stereotypes are aimed less at whites than at blacks of all classes who either play too easily into the stereotypes, or who think themselves entirely above the racist assumptions that fuel black stereotypes in the first place. It’s a pretty good bet that the Post and other papers weren’t thinking of these finer points when they decided to nix or alter the strip; the bottom line was that the strip exceeded their own comfort level with black issues, and by extension the comfort level they perceive blacks to have with black issues. It’s a cop-and-supercop role exercised in the ostensibly benign name of political correctness.
Ah, but then there’s the hipness factor built into any black product that can sell anything — it’s better than sex! — that even stodgy papers like the Post never want to miss out on, if they can help it. Young, disgruntled Huey has in many ways evolved into a black version of young, disgruntled Bart Simpson, the animated character who became so popular he came to embody the Zeitgeist not just of preteen America but of America, period. Which is why the ongoing censorship of Aaron McGruder is so erratically applied, why he was decried and silenced as unpatriotic after 9/11 but has gotten away with saying nigger in other strips before this one, and why he can blast black people but not if whites feel implicated. Evidently McGruder’s depiction of blacks being laughably unemployable — to say nothing of being unusable on reality shows — implicates white, corporate power structures sufficiently to trigger censorship this time around. Though, of course, the serious issues that underlie most of the artist’s observations — and mine, if I may immodestly say so — got predictably short shrift in all the discussion of McGruder once again landing in hot water with the press that mostly giveth to him, but also taketh away. Through it all, McGruder stands by his inalienable “right to be a nigger,” as he told The New Yorker in a profile written about him earlier this year. Whether America honors that right is another story — or, more likely, another comic strip.