The Common Good
April 2005

Down With The Boondocks

by Danny Duncan Collum | April 2005

Aaron McGruder rages against the machine.

In a world gone mad,
In a world gone mad, we need artists to remind us that we’re not the ones who are crazy. So I’m beginning an irregular series of Cultural Survival Tips for the Age of Bush. Here’s tip #1: The Boondocks, the daily comic strip by the young African-American writer/artist Aaron McGruder.

Boondocks is the Doonesbury of the hip-hop era. It’s a hip, satirical, back-of-the-book take on the front-page absurdities of the daily news. And, just as Doonesbury was during Vietnam, McGruder’s Boondocks is in a permanent state of uncompromising resistance to the "war on terror" and the corporate media propaganda that underlies it.

This is a strip in which, in the wake of 9/11, the 10-year-old protagonist, the precocious young revolutionary Huey Freeman, regularly called John Ashcroft’s "Terror Information Program" (TIP) line to report the likes of Ronald Reagan, Donald Rumsfeld, and Bushes I and II for their roles in arming, training, and supporting terrorists over the past 20 years.

Boondocks appears in 300 daily newspapers around the United States. At least it’s in them somewhere, most of the time. As they’ve done with Doonesbury, many papers have bumped it to the op-ed page.

There’s a certain logic to that move. It’s hard to argue that Huey really belongs next to Beetle Bailey and Dagwood. But it also limits the strip’s potential readership to the people who bother to look at the op-ed page. That’s a problem because the point of McGruder’s style of pop-cultural subversion (like that of his white blood brother, Michael Moore) is to get the revolutionary message into the minds of the unthinking, aliterate media consumer.

Other papers refuse on some days to run Boondocks strips, when McGruder’s satirical knife is especially sharp. The New York Daily News dropped it entirely for a couple of months after Sept. 11. The Washington Post didn’t mind when Huey called for the incarceration of the president of the United States. But then came the "Get a man for Condi" campaign, which suggested that war could be prevented if Condoleezza Rice had somebody to love. That, apparently, was over the line, and the Post yanked the strip for one week.

Boondocks views the world through the eyes of a group of black kids in a predominantly white suburb (the "boondocks" of the title). The two main characters, Huey and his brother Riley, were moved from the South Side of Chicago out to the boonies to live with their grandfather.

The strip is going on its sixth year now, and the kids haven’t aged. They are like the Peanuts kids. Except that the Peanuts kids lived (then and now) in a timeless bubble of childhood, mostly safe from the outside world.

Boondocks reflects the fact that, in the 21st century, the bubble has evaporated. These kids are exposed to the big, chaotic, and confusing world of the mass media, and left mostly on their own to make sense of it. This gives McGruder a perfect voice for his profound and perpetual outrage at the media lies and pop-cultural idiocy that fill the air of our daily lives, and the machinations of corporate greed that the media circus conceals.

As you may have guessed, Huey Freeman (a "free man" in the making) is named for Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton (who, in turn, had been named for Louisiana’s Depression-era populist Gov. Huey P. Long). Huey has an enormous Afro hairdo and the Marxist-nationalist worldview of a reincarnated Panther. His knowledge of black history and culture is worthy of an African-American studies major (which McGruder was at the University of Maryland).

Huey was born during McGruder’s student days, when the revolutionary rap of Public Enemy and KRS-ONE ruled the world of hip-hop. That spirit, sadly, has faded from the mainstream music scene. But McGruder is keeping it alive in the funnies, or wherever you can find him.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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