Politics

'The Boondocks': Carrying On the Tradition of Subversive Black Comedy

The Boondocks' Uncle Ruckus

Some 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 have deep roots in America's long tradition of black humor.

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.

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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