In Praise of Huey Freeman

Ed Note:  The Boondocks is no longer with us in the cartoon form, and I haven’t seen the series, so I can’t comment about that.

                                                                                                                                         6:31 p.m.   1/7/05

aaron_mcgruderWhat’s this I feel coming on? Is it a rant? No, it’s a rave! How novel. How unexpected! I actually have something good to say about something for a change. What is it, you may ask? What has me feeling inspired and hopeful? Why, only the best political commentator, bar none. Who would that be, you’re asking yourself. George Will? Please. Al Franken? Ah, a favorite to be sure, but no, not him. Michael Moore? No, the angry one is not the target of my love this time. What about the oh-so-sexy Jon Stewart? Hm. Let me pause and reflect on the magnificent Mr. Stewart for a minute before reluctantly admitting that it’s not him, either. It’s Huey Freeman, a young African American boy who speaks the truth as he sees it. True, he is paranoid, grumpy, outraged at the world and self-righteous, but hey, so am I, and I’m three times his age.

Who is Huey Freeman, you ask? The star of his very own comic, The Boondocks, written brilliantly by the very talented Aaron McGruder. With his sidekick, Michael Caesar-Brooklyn, fool!-who provides much needed hilarity and his little brother, Riley, who aspires to be the biggest, baddest thug in Woodcrest-not a difficult thing in a milquetoast suburb-Huey takes on political issues with the fearlessness of Jet Li taking down the baddies in a Hong Kong action flick. He is rocking the ‘fro as he tells the truth as he sees it, and he doesn’t back down from confrontation, no matter how ridiculous or inane. In a world of bland, inoffensive comics, Huey–along with his creator, Aaron–is a breath of much-needed fresh air.

The Boondocks is one of those comics you either love or hate. Some people think there’s no room for political satire in a comic, but what a perfect venue to express controversial ideas. I don’t know who keeps perpetuating the idea that comics are only for children, but they need to stop. Comics are a great place to flesh out adult themes and messages because of the vivid images that can be provided through such a medium. Don’t believe me? Read a graphic novel or watch an adult cartoon. There is nothing fluffy or comforting about something like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but it’s a joy to read, nonetheless.

Back to Huey and the gang. I remember when I read this comic for the first time in one of the two major Twin Cities’ papers. I laughed out loud and wanted to know who would dare write such a comic. I couldn’t wait to read The Boondocks every day, and it’s the only comic that provided me with consistent amusement. In fact, in all the time I’ve been reading it, I’d say I didn’t laugh out loud at it perhaps a handful of times. It’s the only comic which constantly tickles my admittedly macabre funny bone, and it’s the only comic which I feel ‘gets it’ over a long period of time. It’s also one of the only, if not the only comic to be yanked from one of the aforementioned local papers for being too controversial. White readers wrote in saying they thought it was racially divisive. This was after the strip about Riley being proud of making a white woman pull her daughter to the other side of the street when she saw him coming. The complainers wrote that it just perpetuated negative stereotypes, quite missing the point. I was seriously pissed when the paper punked out and canceled the comic.

Luckily, I have (now which features The Boondocks daily. I also have all the books out so far, and I’m now reading A Right to be Hostile. Even though I’ve read all the comics before, I still find them astonishingly funny. See, that’s the most important thing about this strip. It’s damned funny. It’s edgy and strident and angry, which makes for good comedy. There is no placating nature to it. There is no underlying apology for being primarily about black people with few white people in it. The white people who are present are pretty minimal and mostly racist, but to varying degrees. The reason it works, however, is that it’s true to life. Racism exists in every form, and there isn’t a false step in any of the characters.

The reason that some black people don’t like it is because McGruder doesn’t let anybody off, including black people. He calls the shots as he sees them, including taking on a cultural icon such as BET. Yes, the station of the jiggling butts and the bling-bling. McGruder won’t let anyone get away with anything, not even Huey, his little revolutionary. Huey is not this perfect little kid who just wants to do good in the world. He is an angry, hostile, smart little kid who sees nothing wrong with breaking laws that don’t make sense to him. He’s self-righteous and enjoys being a downer. He has a hard time looking at anything positive, and he oozes disdain. Sometimes, even his best friend, Caesar, doesn’t know what to do with him.

Then there’s Riley. Ah, Riley. What to say about the little thug-wannabe. Some say that Riley is just a stereotype, but it’s not true. He’s a little boy who sees the rappers getting theirs, and he rightfully concludes that he should be getting paid, too. He likes to listen to Lauren Hill, however, though he won’t admit it. And he watches Oprah, though he will deny that as well. He’s a thug, yes, but he’s also a confused boy who has taken the capitalist message to heart, even if he does twist it up a bit. The series where he’s enamored with the NRA is a scream, but there’s also a kernel of truth to it. That, my friends, is another reason I like this strip so much. McGruder tackles real issues, not made-up ones. After 9/11, he was one of the only comics to even address the issue. While all the others were rah-rahing as were most of the media and people in general, Huey was keeping it real, doing what he does best-hating on Bush.

The thing is, everything he rails about is something I’ve railed about in my own time. When he makes comparisons between Bush and Hitler-saying the comparison isn’t fair because Hitler was elected. This was before the last election, obviously-I had to admire the audacity to actually put that in print. It’s something I would have thought but wouldn’t have the nerve to say it. Not only does McGruder say it, he prints it for millions to see. That’s courage of conviction, my friends, an admirable trait indeed. He continues to say these things even though people want him to shut the fuck up. The fact that he can say it with a sense of humor only makes it more admirable. Rarely does the humor turn bitter, which I consider amazing.

Then there’s the narcissistic factor in my liking this comic strip. Huey reminds me a lot of myself-except for the ‘fro, of course. He does things I’ve done or wish to do, and he thinks of the things I think about. The current series depicts him handing out coupons to friends and family members for a free one-hour lecture of his choice. When Caesar points out that Huey gave him a James Brown t-shirt, Huey remarks, ‘That’s because I like you.’ Then, the strip where Huey is about to lecture Tom about how he personally ruined the Democratic Party had me rolling on the floor-it is that funny. The point is that I’d do something like that. Hell, I send those kind of e-mails to friends all the time. Not because I don’t like my friends, but because I get so damn frustrated. Take the recent moral value shtick which got President Bush elected. I don’t know how many e-mails and essays I wrote in decrying that one, just like Huey would have done.

Then, there’s the fact that Huey and his gang give me respite from the world. Yes, it’s political and it tackles current issues which are sometimes difficult to talk about. However, it’s first and foremost a comic strip which means it’s primary focus is to make me laugh. That’s it, that’s all, and it does its job admirably. When my mind is filled with heavy thoughts, I turn to The Boondocks to cheer me up. There is nothing like a laugh to make things seem a little less dreary, something Huey would do well to learn. However, I wouldn’t want him to cheer up because much of the humor in the strip has to do with Huey’s discontent.

Another reason I love this comic strip is because I learn new things when I read it. More than once, I’ve had to Google something-usually a name-I either didn’t know or vaguely recognized. I am not one of those people who want to passively be fed pabulum while I sit with my mouth agape. I enjoy learning new things, and I think it’s refreshing to have to bust out the social dictionary while reading a comic strip. It makes me feel erudite when I do catch the obscure references. Also, I like the fact that the comic doesn’t talk down to its audience. It assumes that the reader can hang with a little highbrow culture thrown into the mix. I’d much rather have to look things up than to roll my eyes because of the juvenile language in a comic strip. I like to be challenged, and McGruder is the exemplary at pulling this off without seeming condescending about it.

Finally, I take issue with people who say McGruder is promoting racial stereotypes. He is not! He is using them to cleverly subvert the reader’s own biases. Anyone too stupid to see that ought not be reading it, anyway. Besides, ever get a look at Beetle Bailey? Besides being criminally unfunny, it’s got some of the worst racial stereotyping I’ve ever seen. The obsequious slanty-eyed Asian guy who kisses butt to make it up the ranks. The thick-lipped, bug-eyed black man who…I’m not sure what he does, but the visual representation is offensive enough. The buxom secretary who has to fend off the old geezer’s passes. That’s not racial stereotyping? That’s not offensive? And yet, I don’t recall anyone clamoring for…who writes the damn thing, anyway? Mort Walker? Is that his name? That strip’s been around forever. Anyway, I don’t see anyone clamoring for him to turn in the towel.

In conclusion, I urge everybody to read this comic strip with an open mind. Get beyond the surface and see the brilliance that is The Boondocks. This is one of the three best comics ever, and I will not discuss this point. Go meet Huey, Riley, their grandfather, Jazmine and her parents, Caesar, the hysterical Cindy, and the rest of the characters who represent Woodcrest, word. It’ll be the best present you give yourself, fresh for ’05, sucker!

4 Responses to In Praise of Huey Freeman

  1. Good post – insightful, informative, AND entertaining!

    I too, was greatly saddened when Boondocks dropped out of the comic-strip business. I may be (to crib from another pretty good strip – Kudzu) “The Whitest White Boy in America”, but I really think Boondocks was far and away the best comic strip of its era. Pretty much the early Doonesbury of the 21st century (with much better artwork than the early Doonesbury).

  2. TLR, welcome to my blog! I am always happy when a new reader comments, especially on an old entry. Yeah, I miss Boondocks like crazy, but I am resigned to the fact that it’s gone. Sigh. Feel free to comment any time!