Aaron McGruder Biography
Cartoonist and political satirist Aaron McGruder stirred the pot of race controversy in the United States with the explosive national syndication of his "The Boondocks" comic strip in 1999. At age 24, McGruder suddenly found himself on the defensive for his frankness in expressing through his strip how he perceived American race relations. The young cartoonist did not cower from the spotlight, however; nor did he capitulate to the authority of political correctness by working within the margins it implies. His strip attracted a large audience and rapidly became one of the most popular comic strips in American newspaper history.
Though McGruder had begun to branch out in the mid-2000s, producing an animated cartoon series based on his strip for the Cartoon Network, speaking widely, and co-creating a graphic novel called Birth of a Nation, "The Boondocks" remained his major claim to fame. Whether the strip's popularity was due to the appeal of McGruder's ideas or the controversy they generated was not clear. His strip generates hundreds of letters to newspaper editors every year, some of which herald "Boondocks" as a breath of fresh air in describing America's racial climate, while others condemn it as having the power to incite even more racial tension. Regardless, the strip was devoured by the public, perhaps simply because readers were craving material that was not motivated by polls or prescriptions for how we should all get along but was a satirical description of the complexity of interaction among American blacks and whites and the various subcultures prevalent within America's races.
Born in Chicago on March 29, 1974, McGruder and his family moved to the suburb of Columbia, Maryland, which is not far from both Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. McGruder, like his comic strip characters Huey and Riley Freeman, was an urban black kid who found himself having to adjust to living in the suburbs among a white majority. At a young age, he became keenly aware of the complexity of American race relations and the feelings of alienation that one may experience due to the string of misunderstanding that is tied so tightly to perceptions of race. While growing up in the "Boondocks," hip-hop slang for the suburbs, McGruder was creatively influenced by the "Peanuts" and "Bloom County." In a 1999 Editor and Publisher article, McGruder attributed his fondness for those cartoons to their characters' "depth of emotion." He was also a great fan of Star Wars movies and hip-hop music.
McGruder attended the University of Maryland, where he majored in Afro-American studies, with a concentration in social and cultural analysis, and graduated in 1997. Known to his friends as the "A-double" or "Brother A-dub," he launched a comic strip during his college years that he called "The Boondocks" on a Web site called The Hotlist Online in February of 1996. Expecting criticism of his ideas and artistic ability, the artist was astounded by a rapid response of over 100 positive e-mail messages applauding his comic strip. On December 3, 1996, McGruder joined the staff of the university's independent newspaper, The Diamondback, contributing "The Boondocks," which quickly became famous across campus and even drew acclaim off-campus nationally. After only two months McGruder pulled his strip from the paper. He explained in the FAQ page of his Boondocks Web site, "that newspaper jerked me and forced me to take my strip elsewhere."
When McGruder graduated, national hip-hop magazine The Source published "The Boondocks" for a time. In 1997, McGruder met Harriet Choice of Universal Press at a National Association of Black Journalists convention in Chicago. When Choice approached McGruder, Universal Press had been considering the inclusion of "The Boondocks," among several other strips. Looking to attract a young readership, Universal Press launched "The Boondocks" in about 160 papers in December of 1998. By February the strip appeared in papers in 195 American cities; by 2004 that number had climbed to 300 papers. Newspaper editors and McGruder himself received overwhelming positive and negative response to the racial and political themes, ideas, and statements contained in "The Boondocks."
The strip's central characters are brothers Huey and Riley Freeman, who have moved from Chicago to a predominantly white suburb to live with their grandfather, called Granddad. The boys try to make sense of the complex interracial dynamics they are experiencing with their new neighbors, including: Cindy, a white girl who only knows life as it is in "the boondocks"; Caesar, a "lyrically rambunctious Brooklyn MC," as described by McGruder himself on the Boondocks Web site; Hiro Otomo, who, according to McGruder on his Web site, is a "practitioner of the turntable bushido"; and Jazmine DuBois, the biracial daughter of a liberal white woman and a Harvard-educated black man. On the Boondocks Web site, McGruder surveyed Huey and Riley as, respectively, a "radical scholar," and a "hardcore knucklehead." The former's namesake is Black Panther Huey Newton. McGruder commented on the Boondocks Web site that the strip was "meant to be an intelligent and satirical view of black/white relationships as well as black/black relationships." The child characters, as in "Peanuts," engage in experience-based, adult-like dialogue, effectively bringing out thought-provoking topics to be reflected on by the reader.
While McGruder has been regarded by many as a popular media hero who introduced critical pondering into an atmosphere of reader-friendly mainstream journalism, many others have deemed McGruder a cultural menace looking to incite a racial war. William Powers, one of McGruder's defenders, posited in a July of 1999 National Journal article, "'The Boondocks' isn't pretending to tell the absolute truth about race, but instead McGruder is trying to create characters whose experiences, thoughts, and feelings on race somehow ring true." McGruder assessed on his Web site that "… to effectively and intelligently poke fun at something as potentially explosive as race relations requires an indepth knowledge of subtleties and nuances of the racial dynamic—not to mention an awareness of the line between humor and offense." McGruder paints the state of race relations in the United States based on how his life experience and study has revealed it to him. He hopes to improve problems of race evidenced in the involuntary preconceptions, scapegoating, and fear felt among Americans of all races by getting his readers to stop and reflect on, not necessarily the interracial ideal, but the reality, and how it might become closer to the ideal.
As the strip's readership increased in the 2000s, so too did the controversy surrounding it. The release of one particular strip at the end of May 2000, proved to be very poor timing. In this strip, Huey launched into one of his trademark rants, accusing a teacher of "keeping the masses ignorant." Huey then told the teacher that "the day of reckoning fast approaches." Two days after this strip ran, a student in Lake Worth, Florida, shot and killed a teacher. The coincidence sparked an outcry against McGruder's strip, but the cartoonist remained calm and objective. McGruder explained that there has never been any real violence in "The Boondocks" and that, while the character is anti-system, Huey is not anti-people.
McGruder's strip became even more controversial following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. McGruder was one of the first American cartoonists to poke fun at the efforts of the George W. Bush administration to lead the United States to war. Over the course of a year McGruder joked that an "anti-evil" bill might force vice-president Dick Cheney into hiding, and he ran a series of jokes about Condoleezza Rice's difficulties finding a date. "I want to do stuff that has a moral center—stuff that I can be proud of," he told the New Yorker in 2004. And such open political satire helped him achieve his much mentioned goal of putting "a daily foot in the ass of The Man."
Not everyone saw the humor in McGruder's brand of comedy. Larry Elder, an African-American radio host, once quipped that an annual award for the "Dumbest, Most Vulgar, Most Offensive Things Uttered by Black Public Figures" should be dubbed the McGruder. And BET television executive Robert Johnson was quoted in the New Yorker saying that his employees do "more in one day to serve the interest of African-Americans than this young man has done in his entire life." Still, McGruder was among a handful of African-American cartoonists with syndicated comic strips and he was undoubtedly raising important issues. McGruder suggested to Editor & Publisher in 2000 that much of the controversy surrounding his works stems from a double standard for white and black cartoonists, saying, "Trudeau [of "Doonesbury" fame] gets away with things, but I can't say the word 'pimp.'"
McGruder began to explore life beyond the confines of "The Boondocks" in the mid-2000s. First, in 2003 he handed off the drawing work on the strip to others and concentrated his attention on the writing. Then he teamed with writer Reginald Hudlin and cartoonist Kyle Baker to create Birth of a Nation, a 2004 graphic novel which imagines that the city of East St. Louis, Missouri, secedes from the union in the aftermath of a controversial presidential election that sees victory go to a blowhard from Texas. The new nation of Blackland puts James Brown and Malcolm X on their currency, adopts the theme to the 1970s sitcom Good Times as its anthem, and nearly goes to war with the United States.
At about the same time, McGruder sold the rights to develop "The Boondocks" into an animated television series to Sony and began adapting his strip for the screen. The first fifteen episodes of The Boondocks appeared on the Cartoon Network in 2004 in that network's late-night cartoon block, Adult Swim. The series was renewed for 20 episodes in 2005. Though some reviewers appreciated the edgy humor and fresh perspective of the series, Brian Lowry wrote in Daily Variety that "McGruder's anger comes through loud and clear …, but the dearth of humor reflects another awkward and disappointing transition from three-panel glory to TV series." In other words, the TV series faced the same mixed opinion that greeted the comic strip.
McGruder, who now lives in a penthouse apartment near Beverly Hills, has grown comfortable with his role as the bad boy of issue-oriented comics, and continues to work on adapting his ideas for a live-action movie and on releasing collected versions of his "Boondocks" strips. However, McGruder announced that as of March 2006 he would take a six-month hiatus from producing his comic strip in order to recharge his batteries; only time will tell if and when the strip—and McGruder—will return to the public eye.
"The Boondocks" (syndicated comic strip), 1996–2006.
Boondocks: Because I Know You Don't Read The Newspaper, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2000.
Fresh for '01 … You Suckas: A Boondocks Collection, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001.
A Right To Be Hostile: The Boondocks Treasury, Three Rivers Press, 2003.
(With Reginald Hudlin and Kyle Baker) Birth of A Nation: A Comic Novel, Crown, 2004.
Public Enemy #2: An All-New Boondocks Collection, Three Rivers Press, 2005.
(Creator and producer) The Boondocks, Cartoon Network, 2004–.
Black Enterprise, July 2000.
Black Issues Book Review, September-October 2003, p. 36.
Daily Variety, November 3, 2005, p. 6.
Editor & Publisher, April 17, 1999; August 14, 1999; October 9, 1999; June 12, 2000.
Nation, January 28, 2002, p. 11; November 17, 2003, p. 20.
National Journal, July 10, 1999.
Newsweek, July 5, 1999.
New Yorker, April 19-26, 2004, p. 153.
People Weekly, July 26, 1999.
Publishers Weekly, June 28, 2004, p. 33.
Time, July 5, 1999; August 2, 2004, p. 83.
Washington Post, April 26, 1999.
The Boondocks, www.boondockstv.net (March 22, 2006).
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