Earlier this summer when one of my friends defiantly proclaimed that she doesn’t like The Boondocks cartoon because it’s too “minstrel-like”, I almost told her how Spike Lee-ish her statement was. Instead, I held my tongue, took a deep breath, and said that although The Boondocks (as well as much of American ensemble comedy) may indeed have a structural indebtedness to minstrelsy, it follows in the tradition of the best subversive comedy.
Historically speaking, the American minstrel show began with Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels in 1843. Though there were earlier white performers that entertained audiences in blackface, Emmett and his crew were the first to dress all of its performers in blackface and as abolitionist sentiment gained steam in some parts of America, the minstrel show with its primary themes being depictions of enslaved blacks being happy and contented with their lot in life, became a popular way to maintain the status quo in the minds of many Americans. Over time these shows developed a catalog of stock characters to do their bidding. Though individual minstrel shows could point to dozens of different characters, they were all derived from seven stock characters: the Tom, the Coon, the Mulatto, the Mammy, the Buck, the Wench and the Pickaninny.
As these characters became more deeply embedded in the American psyche, the first attempt at comically subverting them on a national stage began with black entertainers Bert Williams and George Walker. Though Williams and Walker were steeped in minstrel tradition—having performed with minstrel shows early in their careers—they felt contempt for the stereotypical roles they played, and as their careers progressed, Walker and Williams began to move away from the minstrel stereotypes by introducing African themes and characters into American shows.
They first did this with the 1903 release of “In Dahomey”, a musical comedy about black people who find a pot of gold, use the money to move back to Africa and after overcoming some plot twists, are crowned royalty. For “In Dahomey” Williams and Walker teamed with Will Marion Cook, Jesse Ship, and poet/lyricist Paul Laurence Dunbar and In Dahomey, though hardly searing social commentary, was subversive on two levels: 1) it was the first musical to open on Broadway written and performed entirely by African-Americans and 2) it used humor and dialect to positively depict the life of a black man in Africa, in contrast to that of a black man in America. This can be seen in the following lyrics:
Evah dahkey is a King.
Royalty is jes’ de ting.
If yo’ social life is a bungle,
Jes’ you go back to the jungle,
And remember dat you daddy was a king.
White fo’k's what’s got dahkey servants,
Try and get dem everything.
You must never speak insulting.
You may be talking to a king.
Though the dialect is humorously stereotypical and simplistic, the message that life in Africa was better than life in America and that black people had a humanity that was worthy of respect came through loud and clear to those willing to look past the “darky” trappings. In 1903, this was truly a subversive message.
Unfortunately, Walker suffered from bad health and died in 1911, and though Williams persevered and went on to headline the Ziegfield follies, he died in 1922. With the deaths of both men, the subversive black comedic spirit was dealt a blow.
As the 20th century progressed the stock minstrel stereotypes continued to be adopted by the next forms of American mass entertainment: the motion picture and radio.
In radio, the most famous use of these characters was the Amos n Andy program which began broadcasting in 1928. Motion pictures didn’t base entire productions on the stock minstrel characters, but instead populated many of their comedies and dramas with minstrel-influenced stereotypes, with characters like Stephin Fetchit, Sleep N Eat, Buckwheat and Butterfly to name a few.
However, in the midst of this stereotypcial barrage on radio and film, there was one noteworthy act of subversive black comedy in book form: George Schuyler’s 1931 novel, Black No More.
Often credited as the first work of black science fiction, Schuyler’s novel was a caustic satire about race relations in America. Rather than attempt to offset the minstrel stereotypes that had formed over the previous 100 years, Schuyler took America’s race phobia head on by creating a character Dr. Junius Crookman, who believes he’s solved Amercia’s race problem by inventing a process that removes the pigment from black people’s dark skin, and for all intents and purposes turns them “white”.
As a masterful work of satire, Schuyler’s book is timeless and a must read for anybody who likes an intelligent laugh, however it would be nearly 30 years before another comparably satirical voice emerged. That voice belonged to Dick Gregory.
Though a standup comedian, in many ways, Gregory’s ascension was similar to Walker and Williams in that Gregory’s core audience, like Walker and Williams, consisted of both black and white people. Being a product of the Civil Rights movement, these audiences responded favorably to Gregory’s unique use of humor to highlight the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of American race relations. For example in one of his early routines, Gregory made the statement, “People wonder how, with so many inferior jobs, black people afford so many Cadillacs? Well racial segregation buys us Cadillacs. I can’t join no country club, so that’s $500 saved right there. You know I’m not going to take my family Florida this winter, so that’s $1,500 saved there. If I walk out of here and get hit by a bus, I’m not going to the best hospital where they charge $2,500, I’m going to City Hospital where it’s free. Figure it out $500+$1.500+$2.500, that’s $4.500 I can walk into General Motors and get whatever I want”.
Also, like Schuyler, Gregory was not afraid to direct his humor at black people. In one routine, he said, “I support the NAACP, I’m a member, but do you realize that if this country was integrated tomorrow, all those cats would be out of a job?”
Such social critique may seem tepid by today’s standards, but 50 years ago, it was radical, and opened the doors for more satirical and subversively humorous racially charged commentary. Comedians like Richard Pryor, Franklin Ajaye, and Bill Cosby expanded on Gregory’s wit and commentary by creating new subversive characters like Mudbone, Bumpy Woods, and Fat Albert. Mudbone, was Pryor’s creation, an older ,foul mouthed wino who spoke wisely, though profanely. Simply put, he was an answer to the “coon” and “tom” characters of minstrel days.
Ajaye’s Bumpy Woods motif was the minstrel “buck” reconceived as the politicized black man who, rather than lust after white women, protected and loved black women, albeit humorously. Finally Cosby’s Albert character was the most subversive of the bunch, because not only did Albert enable Cosby to humorously recount his childhood in his standup routine, but it also served as an answer to the pickaninny minstrel character. Once Fat Albert became an animated series, it too served as a sophisticated response to the racist Looney Tunes characters that were part of the company’s catalog.
The collective work of each of these men created a tradition for even more subversive black comedic talents that came along later. It is this tradition, rather than the minstrel tradition, that shows like In Living Color of the ‘90s , Chappelle’s Show of the early ‘00s, and the currently running, aforementioned The Boondocks owes it’s greatest debt.
Boondocks creator Aaron Magruder and In Living Color creator Keenan Ivory Wayans may or may not have heard of George Walker or Bert Williams, but when either show makes use of elaborately constructed musical and dance routines, their craftmanship and authenticity pays homage to the stage work of Walker and Williams.
Similarly, some viewers may be offended by the self-loathing ruminations of The Boondocks’ “Uncle Ruckus” or the Chappelle’s Show,’s “blind black Klansman” but those comedic depicitions are strongly influenced by character’s in Schuyler’s Black No More as well as Pryor’s Mudbone.
It’s true that much of the disdain for The Boondocks comes from it’s propensity for profanity, not least its use of the “n” word, but even those linguistic choices are part of the subversive black comedic tradition, and not the minstrel tradition. It was Gregory who wrote a book in 1964 entitled Nigger and Pryor who recorded the album, That Nigger’s Crazy. This is not to say that that the “n” word is a positive aspect to the subversive tradition, but merely to posit the usage in the proper place.
When my friend accused The Boondocks of minstrelsy, she didn’t mean it wasn’t funny, she just thought it funny for the wrong reasons. Her concern is that The Boondocks perpetuates a negative imagery of black people and undermines the work of more socially conscious black artists. I’d argue that this type of humor in fact cleverly subverts the status quo. When I see a black character like Uncle Ruckus spouting the most anti-black sentiments ever shown on TV I laugh, but it challenges me to think about the various strains of self-hatred that are present in my community; some obvious, some not so much.
In a similar vein, when Martin Luther King is mysteriously brought back to life in an episode of The Boondocks, only to see self-destructive behavior going on in our communities, I realize that there is still institutional and individual racism in America despite King’s progress, but that doesn’t explain away the very real, ongoing self-destructive behavior among some African Americans, as this episode depicts.
This ability to sharply comment on race and society while at the same time poking fun at black and white people is part and parcel of the subversive comic tradition. Whether one thinks The Boondocks is a master of subversive humor or not is a matter of taste; but surely it hasn’t done the tradition any disservice.