Of Niggas and Citizens: Mobilizing Strategies on The Boondocks and the Rhetoric of Blame

Curator's Note

Satire often points a critical finger at the centers of power. Sometimes the dominant culture will satirize itself, and sometimes in-groups will use satire to justify their elevated status over particular out-groups, but in many instances, satire requires a combined sense of marginalization and superiority to be effective. Satire works best when normative/dominant values are ridiculed by those who perceive themselves to be unjustly pushed to the periphery. On television, satire rarely begins at the margins and takes a critical look at itself. One possible explanation follows Kobena Mercer’s argument that people of color experience a dialectical tension when self-representing in public forums where they are aware that white audiences are also watching, which potentially brings the satirist’s critical insider/outsider position into conflict with the marginalized group’s desire to counter/challenge a long history of negative stereotypes. When satire from the margins that is directed at itself does appear, it often inadvertently duplicates existing social hierarchies within out-groups while relying on an inverted sense of marginality, whereby the more privileged members accuse the less advantaged of contributing to the entire group’s continued secondary status in society.

In this January 15, 2006 episode of Aaron Mcgruder’s The Boondocks, created to coincide with Martin Luther King Day, the politically-charged animated series veers into fantasy, imagining that King was not assassinated, but had merely lapsed into a coma, waking in time for the 2000 elections (he is turned away due to voting irregularities). Huey Freeman, The Boondocks 10-year-old black radical, convinces King that he needs to organize a Black political party and rally the African-American voters for change. Quickly, however, this new Black Party turns into a block party. Seeing the political apathy of young Black voters, King wails against the community, retooling his famous “I have a Dream” speech in order to indict the crowd as a “bunch a ignorant Niggas”. The episode ends with a montage of angry Black protesters in front of the White house, as Huey tells the TV audience that King’s speech finally got people angry enough to take action.

In skewering a sacred cow, Mcgruder told Nightline “In the episode King is critical of our apathy and our inactivity… we carry the blame of our own apathy and our own inactivity… we deserve to take a look at that and be honest about it”. Yet, his strategy for commenting on the failures of mobilizing black voters relies heavily on the politics of identity, whereby “Niggas” are constructed in opposition to “Citizens” who presumably participate in civic life and agitate for equal rights and against oppression. In so doing, Mcgruder not only espouses a troubling classed and generational critique in line with Bill Cosby’s 2004 attack on poor blacks for having ‘bad values,’ but his satirical juxtaposition of Civil Rights era politics of equality with contemporary politics of difference also points to the current struggle that marginalized groups face in articulating a differentiated citizenship, where different experiences are acknowledged but equal opportunities are still guaranteed.

Does satirizing identity politics lend too easily to overstating the role of personal responsibility in the face of continued institutional barriers to equal opportunities? How can marginalized groups participate in current practices of self-expression and self-critique central to identity-based citizenship when those very criticisms are often used against them by both the dominant culture and by privileged members of the out-group to justify their continued failures to attain/take advantage of their equal citizenship status?

Finally, if you’ve enjoyed this week’s TV, satire and politics-themed week, please check out these previous contributions on the topic by Mark Andrejevic, Megan Boler, Richard Edwards, Jonathan Gray, and Jeff Sconce

Comments

Jonathan Gray's picture

From Vancouver, BC

From Vancouver, BC (evidently the real final resting place of MLK, I see)…

Tough questions, Avi. On one hand, I think you might be expecting too much for a radical institutional analysis to take front and center in a comedy show, and I’m inclined to think that the complexity and, simply, *time* required to offer this is maybe better suited to serial tragedy (The Wire) than episodic comedy, or at least to a show that’s had many cracks at the whip over many years (on this, though, see next par.). And along this line, I also wonder whether the call from satirists for personal responsibility and politicization may rely on a hope that some of those individuals are set on, or helped along, a trajectory that begins individual, personal, and specific but that aims towards institutional analyses and critique. Satirists’ insistence on not becoming the alternate truth-sayer (something Michael Moore flirts with forgetting, for instance) is often vital in establishing audience and trust, but the tradeoff is not being able to lead the audience as far as some might wish.

On the other hand, particularly in regard to this clip, there is the significant risk of satirists allowing audiences to atomize responsibility for the world’s problems, here allowing for a worrying interpretation that the civil rights movement failed because blacks gave up. It’s perhaps important to situate this episode though, since I’d imagine that at this point into The Boondocks’ history, it’s fair to assume that an overwhelming percentage of its viewership has heard MacGruder’s continued commentary directed towards some of the institutional reasons, and many of the non-black agents responsible for that which MLK here seemingly attributes to blacks alone. So maybe MacGruder’s “earned” himself the chance to make a rare satiric type of attack, given its dialogic framing as part of a larger attack that focuses on multiple other personal and institutional responsibilities?

Jeffrey P. Jones's picture

I guess I disagree that this

I guess I disagree that this is identity politics or a politics of difference, unless you consider some of the objects of his attack—40s, black-on-black fighting, hip-hop music, BET, the NBA—as “politics.” Seems to me it is an attack on “no politics.” As opposed to critiques of “niggas” by comedians such as Cosby or Chris Rock, Mcgruder wants to emphasize the need for civic engagement—and not just a civil rights era “politics of equality” (as you put it). What he dreams is for blacks to recognize their citizenship and act on it, especially those with power—NBA players using their cultural and economic power to call for troop withdrawals, BET being about more than diversion and distraction and humiliation, Oprah using her cultural and economic power for more than she has used it to date). That seems a far cry from attacking oppressed people for their unwillingness to address the structures and behaviors that reinforce oppression (re Cosby). But again, if you see these objects of attack as some sort of meaningful “politics,” then yeah, you and Mcgruder are going to disagree about what constitutes citizenship.

Avi Santo's picture

thanks for this response

thanks for this response Jeff. It helps me to flesh out what I am trying to get at with this piece, which is not that dissimilar from your own point. I agree that Mcgruder is concerned with black civic engagement. His comment on Nightline speaks directly to his perceptions that the black community has become politically apathetic and inactive and that those with cultural power need to be doing more to help mobilize black citizens and use their power to bring about political change. Of issue for me is how Mcgruder goes about making this point. He resurrects a civil rights icon and has him berate contemporary blacks as acting like “niggas”. This is the catalyst for bringing about change. Supposedly, black people become angry at themselves and reassert their citizenship rights. The trouble is that this not only overemphasizes personal responsibility in the face of continued institutional barriers to full black political participation (and my point is not that black citizens bear no personal responsibility for their political engagement; in fact the identity-politics-obsessed monotorial citizen seems to be all about personal responsibility, and satire serves an important role in encouraging communities to self-evaluate and take more personal responsibility, but the fact that this type of critique takes place in a public forum — on television — where those in power are also watching, makes the over-emphasis on personal responsibility dangerous for marginalized groups, because it risks justifying their continued marginalization in the eyes of the dominant classes), but it also ignores the ways that the term “nigga” is imbricated in multiple struggles over difference within the black community, largely between the middle-class and the working poor, amongst older and younger generations, and along urban/rural divides that does essentially label certain cultural practices (i.e., acting like a “nigga”) as antithetical to proper citizen behavior. Coming from MLK, an icon of equal rights, this seems a bit hypocritical and points to the difficulty that blacks like Mcgruder who want to agitate for more civic engagement have in trying to utilize identity-politics as the catalyst for this engagement.

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