In sixth grade on a school trip to the Cloisters, two of my friends and I gathered in a field next to the museum and joyfully chanted as we broke down in laughter, “Slavery works!”
Now, while we did get some strange looks from passersby (three black kids who appear to be advocating for slavery isn’t something you see every day), this was not a Klan rally. We were not burning crosses or making a statement about race or slavery.
We were just laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of the statement, which was made by Uncle Ruckus, a deliciously satirical character in Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim cartoon, “The Boondocks” (2005-2014).
After being introduced to the show by those two friends, who had attended a predominantly black middle school before transferring to my predominantly white middle school, I consumed it with a voracious appetite, watching episodes that were uproariously funny, but also had a knack for making poignant, concise, and hilarious statements about race in America that, as a sixth grader, I had never been exposed to before.
The show, originally based on a comic strip that appeared in newspapers in 1999, was converted into a loosely related animated TV series by Aaron McGruder. The show gained critical acclaim for its witty satire and often controversial views of pressing race-related issues in America.
The show follows two young brothers (both voiced by Regina King): Huey, a self described left-wing revolutionary karate master (a reference to the Black Panther Party cofounder Huey Newton), and Riley Freeman, a young wannabe thug from Chicago. The Freeman brothers move in with their grandfather, Jebediah Freeman or “Grandad” (voiced by John Witherspoon) to the peaceful, and predominantly white, neighborhood of Woodcrest.
There, they meet a hilarious assortment of residents from Ed Wuncler, a billionaire tycoon who owns the Freeman house, to Uncle Ruckus (no relations), a black man who claims he’s white but has re-vitiligo (the opposite of what Michael Jackson had) that causes his skin to become darker every year. Uncle Ruckus despises all black people.
These characters, all well-honed tropes of real life people, are what drive the episodes forward. While the show has no overarching plot, each episode features the same characters in ridiculous situations that often allude to, or directly reference, real life situations, TV shows, or people.
There is huge variety in the devices the show uses to convey humor. Many episodes are direct jabs at specific people. One such episode is “Pause,” which follows the Freeman family as Grandad is cast in a theater group run by Tyler Perry parody Winston Jerome—and then the group turns out to be a homoerotic cult.
Other episodes like “Attack of the Killer Kung-fu Wolf Bitch,” in which one of Grandad’s many love interests turns out to be a psychotic kung-fu master, are funny simply for their outlandish premises.
Most episodes, while still hilarious, touch on more profound subjects. For example, the episode, “The Fundraiser,” follows Riley as he attempts to make money through his school’s chocolate fundraising campaign. Riley ends up starting his own business recruiting local kids to sell chocolate before eventually coming into conflict with other candy companies. This episode draws clear parallels to the drug trafficking industry and gang violence—but in a wildly funny way.
McGruder, despite receiving much praise for what is truly a candid, hilarious assessment of black life, has also received criticism for his often controversial views or plotlines, as well as his casual and constant use of the word “nigga.”
For instance, the episode, “Hunger Strike,” where Huey organizes a protest against BET and their plans to destroy the black community, was taken off the air by Cartoon Network over fears it would provoke a lawsuit from BET.
In 2006, Reverend Al Sharpton, offended by the episode “Return of the King” in which Martin Luther King Jr. returns from the dead, released a statement asking Cartoon Network to “apologize and also commit to pulling episodes that desecrate black historic figures.”
McGruder has also received criticism for his personal views, including his belief that the U.S. government was involved in the 9/11 attacks and his jabs at figures such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, late singer Whitney Houston, and black conservative Larry Elder.
When McGruder left the show before the start of its fourth (and final) season, giving full creative control to Cartoon Network, many felt that “The Boondocks” lost its satirical edge. It’s true that, while the fourth season does have some of the moments that are at once hilarious and profound that define “The Boondocks,” the line between well-honed satire and offensiveness often became blurred. Additionally, some episodes in the fourth season seem to draw on previous seasons for content, touching on themes that McGruder had already addressed.
Despite the controversy, “The Boondocks” remains relevant even today in our current political and social climate as a means to discuss, unpack, and disseminate race-related issues that still plague our country. With an uptick in hate crimes and incidents of racism in schools following the recent election, it is essential that shows like “The Boondocks” not only provide a comic safe space, but create a platform for discussion of many issues that continue to plague America.
For example, “It’s a Black President,” an episode released shortly after the beginning of Obama’s first term, discusses the various reactions of Woodcrest residents to the first black president, capturing their poignant viewpoints on the social and racial discussions that surrounded the election and that are still very relevant today.
To me, “The Boondocks” is more than just a TV show. Growing up as a person of color in a predominantly white neighborhood can be tough. I felt like I was missing out on experiences that had defined the childhoods of many of my black friends and, somehow, that made me “less black” than them. It was through shows like “The Boondocks” that I was able to connect with not only the characters, but with my friends.
Without realizing it, discussing the latest episode of “The Boondocks” with my friends was helping me connect with them while at the same time allowing me to become better versed in the complex and often deep rooted social and racial issues that plague our country.