By Raphael Satter
Maroon News Staff
Renowned cartoonist Aaron McGruder, creator of comic strip The Boondocks, spoke before a standing-room-only crowd at International House last Friday. McGruder discussed a variety of issues, among them the future of the strip, what he termed "the crisis of leadership" in the black community, movies, and the decline of hip-hop as a medium of political self-expression.
McGruder created the strip in the mid-1990s. "It was me recognizing that there was this void in the cultural discourse in this void I saw opportunity," McGruder said about the strip.
Although originally conceived as a television show, McGruder decided to start small instead. "I figured that no one would give me a show without a strip," he said.
The Boondocks first appeared in February 1996 in The Hitlist Online, before moving to The Diamondback, the independent student newspaper of the University of Maryland, where McGruder was a student majoring in African-American Studies. Two months later, the strip began appearing in the hip-hop magazine The Source. It then received the second-largest launch in comic history and was featured in over 150 newspapers nationwide.
The strip, which had a circulation of 200 million daily and 300 million on Sundays, has flirted with controversy ever since; while some newspapers have moved the strip onto their editorial pages, others periodically discontinue it whenever the subject matter is particularly outrageous.
"It's amazing that a person with only one degree is talking to that many people," McGruder said. "And I barely managed to get that one; the strip has done things that I never thought possible."
McGruder often uses the strip to make fun of prominent political and entertainment figures. "Whenever people act crazy in the public eye, do something crazy, I get jokes," he said.
McGruder said that he often receives calls from people he pokes fun at in his strip "A lot of people think that I do all the strips a day before," McGruder said, noting that strips are sent in six weeks in advance. "They think that by calling they can stop it."
McGruder spoke at length about what he characterized as the degeneration of hip-hop after the appearance of NWA, the unapologetically violent and sexist pioneers of gangsta rap. "What bothers me about the violence of hip-hop is its close association with the black community," McGruder said. "The generation gap is growing exponentiallyI can't stand what kids are listening to today. The new Southern Rap musicthat's like rap's revenge on itself."
McGruder's real jabs were saved for Cedric the Entertainer's latest film, Barbershop, which grossed $20.6 million in its opening weekend and ran into trouble for its jabs at prominent civil rights leaders. "Barbershop was just the worst parts of Coming to America done less well," McGruder said. He nevertheless defended the movie against the criticism leveled against it by Jesse Jackson, who had accused the filmmakers of "cross[ing] the line between what's sacred and serious."
"Ironically, the scene Jesse Jackson was angry about was the best scene in the movie," McGruder said. "All of this speaks to the crisis of black leadership."
McGruder berated both Jackson and the King family for their self-promotion and self-righteousness. He poked fun at the controversial Reverend Al Sharpton and his infamous pompadour haircut. "Al has a perm," McGruder said. "You can't run for president with a perm. No one is sitting at the table of power who is male and has a perm."
Some of McGruder's worst venom was directed at Secretary of State Colin Powell, even while he praised him for his efforts to reign in the Bush administration's war machine. "He still works for a person who stole 20,000 votes from black people," McGruder said.
But even McGruder steers clear of some subjects. "There's a lot I can't say," McGruder said. "Have you ever seen mention of Israel-Palestine in my strip? That's because I want to work in Hollywood, and if you ever want to see a TV show, you'd better hope I don't go there."
McGruder jokingly attributed some of his love of controversy to the exhausting task of meeting newspaper deadlines. "A lot of the things that you read are really just my quiet attempts to end my career," McGruder said, "but it always just makes me more popular, gets me more exposure. As long as the strip continues I'm fine."
The McGruder event was part of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture's (CSRPC) Annual Public Lecture Series, with support from the International House Global Voices Program and the Organization of Black Students. The CSRPC, an organization "committed to moving the study of race well beyond the black/white paradigm that continues to govern most research within the United States," will be holding their next event, "The Sexual Economy of American Slavery," with Adrienne Dale Davis, on November 14.