Boondocks strikes chord, and some nerves with message

Five years after Aaron McGruder began sharing the thoughts of Huey and Riley Freeman, one thing has become clear: McGruder doesn’t seem to like many people. And he doesn’t mind you knowing that.

But for a growing number of young professionals, who like McGruder are African-American, the fact that he’s black, that the Freeman brothers are black are two of the best things about his comic strip The Boondocks.

The sometimes raw satire is another.

Anthony Cobb, 23, of Milwaukee identifies with the 28-year-old McGruder.

Both men are young. Both are black. Both say they have experienced the pain of racism. And both say they have a sense of humor about it, albeit razor-edged.

“No matter where you’re from, if you experience a certain behavior, you know best how to talk about that behavior,” Cobb said of the kinship he feels with McGruder.

“Even in the form of comics, you can see parts of yourself in his characters. … I think that like with most situations where you play the race card, it’s a reflection of personal experience. As a black man, I can say he expresses these issues, political and social, in a way I pick up on right away,” he said.

Cobb, director of a Milwaukee Public Schools special learning center, describes himself as young, well-educated, edgy and part of “that hip-hop generation” that doesn’t pull punches.

“I don’t mind saying that he does address some serious topics with a hard hip-hop perspective,” Cobb said. “And I can see somebody with another ethnic background not understanding his candidness. But I think his work is accurate.”

McGruder grew up in Columbia, Md., an upper-middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C. He once described the strip as “thematically autobiographical, meaning it’s about growing up in the suburbs. It’s about a certain amount of alienation.”

A man who takes presidents to task through the voices of child characters, McGruder has said he was greatly inspired as a child by Peanuts, a comic featuring children who waxed poetic about simpler things in life.”

When asked by a reader about the purpose of The Boondocks, McGruder wrote back on his Web site: “The strip is meant to be an intelligent and satirical view of black/white relationships as well as black/black relationships. This is simply because I have a lifetime of experience in these areas and to effectively and intelligently poke fun at something as potentially explosive as race relations requires an in-depth knowledge of subtleties and nuances of the racial dynamic not to mention an awareness of the line between humor and offense.”

McGruder’s willingness to step on that line may be what’s fueling The Boondocks’ popularity with young people, said Alexander Weheliye, a professor of African-American studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Weheliye teaches interpretation of The Boondocks as part of his course material.

“It’s important to have a diversity of voices, even when those voices aren’t saying the popular thing or are raising questions that some people consider disrespectful or wrong,” he said. “That, I think, is what is increasing the appeal of this strip, in spite of its critics.”

Weheliye said his students embrace the comic strip across racial lines because in The Boondocks there is no sacred ground.

The barbs might come in the form of a low blow at President Bush over his Iraq policy, or a slap at the Rev. Jesse Jackson for his extramarital affair.

Or maybe it’s a repeated dig at the FBI for alleged ineptitude, a poke at P. Diddy for being the king of the remix, or a not-so-subtle plea to the Wayans family, the entire Wayans family, to never make another comedy film.

Whatever the stance, the strip’s energy draws young people.

Weheliye said that before The Boondocks, many college students and young professionals he’s encountered had no interest in comics.

Before The Boondocks, Cobb, the MPS educator, said he felt the “voices” of comic strips were weak when it came to sensitive subjects.

“… I’d like to say for the people I hang around with other young professionals we agree Boondocks is an urban voice that’s just being candid … very candid … maybe more candid than some people are used to.