PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.