Reading Black Childhood


It is fitting to begin a critical exploration of black childhood by invoking the (in)famous 1863 photograph of Isaac and Rosa, black children from New Orleans, Louisiana, whose image was meant to garner white philanthropic support for schools for newly emancipated black people in the state. The idea of optimism regarding the future that is conventionally associated with childhood was thus extrapolated onto the representation of children who were born into a state of dehumanized abjection and were barely, if not cursorily, free of slavery. Within the popular imagination “the black child became both muse and metaphor. While some views of the black child were infused with hope, others burdened their prophets with frightening images of disorder” (Mitchell 5-6). The former stemmed from the expectation that children such as these will grow up to bridge and nullify the racial divide in the nation and the latter was a fear that the presence of free, educated black children presented the threat of white supremacy being diffused for posterity.

Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks started as a cartoon strip in newspapers in 1999, ended in 2006, and was televised as a sitcom in 2005. The texts, both the written and the audiovisual, make an important critical intervention in their portrayal of black childhood in 21st-century America by drawing a firm wedge between sentimental optimism and the socioeconomic realities of black childhood. The protagonists, ten-year-old Huey and eight-year-old Riley, display precocious awareness of racial violence, sexuality and economic divides within American society and disrupt at every level the social expectation of incorruptibility surrounding childhood. Their lives prior to their arrival in their grandfather’s home in the suburbs is left deliberately ambiguous. We are told that they lived in the South Side of Chicago prior to relocating to the suburbs and seem ill at ease and all too aware of their stature as outsiders within the predominantly white suburbs, ironically far more so that their grandfather who views his ability to purchase property in the said neighborhood to be a marker of social ascension. Visually, the oppressive nexus of racial and class marginality is represented through the disproportionately large sketches of material objects compared to the bodies of the two protagonists who appear diminutive in comparison.

Named after the co-founder of the revolutionary Black Panther Party, Huey Freeman’s precocious ability to see through the deceptions of the racialized bourgeois society is what catalyzes much of the works’ critical insights. Contrastingly, Riley Freeman is shown to aspire to the cultural codes of contemporary hip-hop culture and shows little or no interest in his brother’s academic pursuits. Popularly, Huey has been viewed as the voice of reason while Riley is the comic foil, but McGruder’s work disallows the location of any such stable thematic fulcrum. Though the overarching political bent of the commentary in the work is unambiguously rooted in Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory, it would be a misreading to see this as an elitist rejection of black popular culture. Oliver Wang in his essay “Reading The Boondocks,” describes the work’s aesthetic and political choices to bear an “explicit hip-hop attitude. Even the strip’s cultural hijacking of newspapers resembles hip-hop’s use of the music industry to package and distribute nuggets of black political thought” (Wang 3-4). To this end, it would be an oversimplification to believe that McGruder creates an ethical binary between the protagonists with Huey subscribing to left radical political views and reading voraciously and Riley unquestioningly consuming American popular culture and being steeped in the rhetoric of consumerism. McGruder circumvents didacticism in his work at every level and the characterization of his protagonists is no exception. While the critique of Riley’s consumption and emulation of existing behavioral codes for black youth is palpable in the text, so is a critique of Huey’s pedantry and his proclivity to distance himself from mass culture even as he envisions a black working-class revolution in the distant future as a realizable possibility. By introducing flaws in both characters, the text moves away from putting forth any narrow, prescriptive code of being for black children and youth.            

Visually Huey and Riley appear different owing to their starkly different temperaments and hairstyles, but the aesthetic choice of using the same face for both characters is by no means incidental to the work’s overall critical position. Huey wears a large afro and Riley has short hair followed by cornrows and the two characters are rarely, if ever, shown to smile. The frowns on their faces subvert two pervasive social discourses—that of childhood’s transcendent happiness and the derogatory stereotype of the “angry black male.” Anger is shown to be synonymous with a state of critical questioning and therefore the only viable intellectual state of being for children in their socioeconomic position. Economically and socially deprived, they have little reason to have the sunny dispositions that children are stereotypically shown to have in most popular representations. Furthermore, placing the onus of being personable on the most vulnerable sections of society ensures both their submissiveness and the obfuscation of their oppression. The subversion of symbols of happiness and contentment is however not the same as the endorsement of cynicism; instead it is a statement that happiness for black children is a logical impossibility in the existing social order.

The two characters are curiously similar in their rejection of conservative as well as liberal reductive conceptualizations of racial inclusivity. Their disdain for public school education is of an equal degree, albeit for different reasons. Huey understands the educational system to be fundamentally flawed as it pertains to children of color, where the acquiescent are ideologically co-opted into the social mores sanctioned by the state and civil society and aberrant subjects are penalized and deemed social misfits. While Huey’s proposed alternative to conventional schooling is to be home schooled, Riley questions the validity of formal education altogether. Here it is important to note that Riley’s position, though superficially flippant and reminiscent of his general proclivity for truancy, is layered in its subtexts. In suggesting that the skills and curricula that he is learning in school have no bearing on his quotidian life, his criticism resonates with the contemporary scholarly interrogations of the nation’s public schools. In their essay “Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education,” Gloria Ladson-Billings and William F. Tate IV argue that insofar as education is an integral part of American capitalism, it constitutes “intellectual property,” and its acquisition, both quantitative and qualitative, is thus deeply contingent on the structures of race and class. The writers point to the higher rates of drop-outs, suspension, expulsion, and eventual incarceration among black and Latino/a students within public schools, besides the marked disparity in infrastructure, expertise, and the quality of pedagogy and curricula in schools attended predominantly by children of these ethnicities as evidence for this argument (Ladson-Billings and Tate IV 51-52).

The containment of black children’s intellects is shown to be facilitated not only through a stunted public school system and constant social surveillance but also by rendering the intelligence of black children “exceptional.” In the first episode of the television series titled “The Garden Party,” Huey dreams of declaring to a group of rich, white people the line, “Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the devil and the US government lied about 9/11” to cause an uproar and to stir the status quo. However, when an uncannily similar incident does take place in his life, the uproar of his dreams is replaced counterintuitively with enthusiastic applause where the incisiveness of his claims is entirely overshadowed by the sheer amazement that his white audience evinces at his articulacy. The intellectual development of the black child is thus caught within a double bind whereby on the one hand there are continuous systemic barriers to such development and on the other hand any display of a black child’s intellect becomes the subject of white condescending encouragement and is used to the state and civil society to instill faith in the cursory social justice that exists in the nation. Resonances of this are also seen in the episode where Riley begins to learn painting and eventually takes to street art and graffiti. When under the training of a renegade artist he transitions from haphazardly tagging walls to creating graffiti which is aesthetically and thematically sophisticated, the white residents of the neighborhood instinctively believe it to not be his work. His distinctive signature “Riley wuz here” (also the name of the episode) invokes the famous World War II era graffiti “Kilroy was here,” albeit by modifying the standard English of the latter. Ironically, while the authorship of both remain unknown, within McGruder’s work, the implicit belief of the white suburban dwellers that anything that they associate with intellectual depth is white-authored as well as the greater social acceptability of transgressive cultural productions by white artists substantiates the idea that there exists an amalgamation of racial and gerontocratic biases that bear down on the intellectual development of black children and youth.

Perhaps the most enduring intellectual conversation that McGruder’s work contributes to is that regarding the “school to prison pipeline” or “the intersection of a K–12 educational system and a juvenile justice system” which “results from the failure of public institutions to meet the educational and social development needs of a large segment of the children they are charged with serving” (Kim, Losen and Hewitt 1). The temporal context of this in the case of McGruder’s work is important to consider since The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, popularly known as “No Child Left Behind,” was passed by the George W. Bush administration in 2001, when the publication of the cartoon strip was ongoing. The hugely controversial legislative move amplified the degree of standardization in public school education, besides making the terms for acquiring federal funding ambiguous to the disadvantage of schools serving students from socially underprivileged groups. The nomenclature of the school that Huey and Riley attend, “J. Edgar Hoover Elementary School,” serves more than the purpose of tongue-in-cheek humor. It reminds the readers that educational institutions are not merely complicit in the criminalization of young black students but act as carceral spaces themselves. The sociocultural alienation that black children experience in such educational settings is catalyzed by the presence of predominantly white teachers, a curriculum that is exceedingly Euro-American, and more regimented forms of surveillance and reprimands for black students. The discomfort that the school administration feels at the prospect of the enrollment of black children who have hitherto lived in a poor inner-city neighborhood is portrayed in the strip. The inclusivity that they attempt to bring about is revealed to be shallow, as their rhetoric reveals deep-seated implicit racial biases and the fundamental absence of critical apparatuses within the public school system to accommodate students from the protagonists’ socioeconomic backgrounds.

When Barack Obama delivered televised speeches to public school students across the nation in 2009, the opposition to this move centered around the alleged politicization of education and childhood. Critic Anna Mae Duane notes in her work Suffering Childhood in Early America: Violence, Race, and the Making of the Child Victim that a closer examination of American political history reveals that childhood has historically been both literally and symbolically an integral part of the political imagination. From the association of innocence and nascence with the colonial USA, and figures such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Little Eva and Mark Twain’s Huck and Tom, imagining the American zeitgeist as youthful has been a leitmotif in literature and politics alike (Duane 3). In a similar vein, the genre of the slave narrative relied heavily on invoking the author-narrators’ childhoods for dual if not paradoxical conceptualizations of childhood—stringently stark and deterministic and yet a seeming plea to universalist humanitarianism.

The demystification of childhood in The Boondocks is not restricted to the ironizing of education as a social equalizer, but is extended to popular customs and myths associated with children. A recurrent instance of this is when Huey unpacks the legend of Santa Claus as one meant to indoctrinate children into prescriptive moral codes of behavior and religious belief much to the dismay of a more gullible Jazmine, their neighbor’s biracial daughter who evinces firm belief in all facets of upward mobility and social respectability. Alternatively, Riley believes in the existence of Santa Claus but has utter contempt for him because Riley believes that over the years he has been denied gifts on purpose and thus, unable to separate the idea from the individuals embodying the abstract idea, he plots revenge against the person playing Santa in the local mall. Barring the absence of understanding of the structural context surrounding this childhood myth, Riley’s hatred mirrors Huey’s critique and both represent the alienating impact that normativized cultural practices may have on children from historically marginalized communities.

There are recurrent references to Black Entertainment Television (BET) in the cartoon strips and the anti-intellectualism that Huey believes that the channel promotes. The text shows Huey criticizing the infomercials and televangelists that constitute a large portion of the channel’s broadcasting content besides pointing to the irony of the generally peripheral presence of people of color on a channel that caters primarily to black audiences. This in many ways operates as metacommentary within the text because it makes a larger comment about black cultural production, of which McGruder’s work is a part. The argument that is made through this is the fact that popular art ought not be the means to blur or render invisible the historical and contemporary marginality of a people but rather underscore it in ways that agitate majoritarian discourse. The refutation of the onus of being entertaining harkens back to a long tradition within the American cultural sphere where the inclusion of black visual, performative, and literary artists was contingent on them producing works that were aesthetically and thematically pleasing to a mainstream white audience.

The choice of portraying his principal characters as children also allows the writer to push back against the censorship that the thematic content may otherwise have garnered. While it undoubtedly received vituperative criticism from the top echelon of BET. and prominent conservative journalists and public figures, the very fact that it did not appear in a niche forum is testimony to the way the popular debilitating stereotypes surrounding black childhood can be appropriated to slip through the cracks of institutionalized censorship. In an interview regarding his work in The Nation McGruder observes, “The Boondocks is not an alternative weekly strip. This is not a Web site strip. This is in the Washington Post” (McGruder, “Huey Freeman: American Hero” n.p.). This is particularly significant because the publication of the strips spanned across the conservative post-9/11 era marked by severe regimentation of cultural productions. Among other topical references, one finds an allusion to the 2000 case of Judge Lewis Kaplan issuing a preliminary injunction to stop the online publication of the DeCSS code that would enable breaking DVD encryptions. Similarly, when strips showing Huey accusing Ronald Reagan of being an active supporter of terrorism and of introducing crack cocaine within black inner-city neighborhoods received severe criticism from within journalistic circles, McGruder responding by taking a hiatus from the regular narrative and creating a strip featuring a personified flag and ribbon which display an exaggerated form of patriotism. This is a consistent strain throughout the strips and the television series where the writer overtly critiques prominent public figures and institutions and then uses their criticism to further his original critique. Employing the perspective of children to build this political critique also enabled McGruder to infuse extremely weighty intellectual subjects with satirical humor which demystifies all hitherto sacrosanct ideas and institutions. In “Blackness We Can Believe In: Authentic Blackness and the Evolution of Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks,” Terrence T. Tucker argues that the strip and the television show embody what can broadly be termed as the “Post-Soul” moment in black literary and political spheres whereby outmoded forms of cultural expression which sought to essentialize blackness in any way were ironized and called into question. He writes, “The key element of The Boondocks in its comic assault is its unfettered focus on challenging and expanding ideas of blackness. McGruder’s concern does not emerge from an attempt to initiate feelings of universality but is instead motivated by a desire to celebrate a dynamic blackness” (Tucker 37).

It is not only Huey and Riley’s singular refusal to be personable that unsettles conventional sensibilities but also their interrogation of hackneyed ideas used to regulate and monitor the behavior of children. In one strip for instance, Grandad invokes the familiar “finish your food, there are children starving in (insert name of developing country)” to persuade Riley to finish his food. Riley’s comeback–”You gonna take it over there?”–is not only witty but also exposes the hollowness of middle-class ethics whereby any altruistic concern remains symbolic and never translates into the questioning of one’s own class privilege. Similarly, in the strips depicting the distant relatives of the family who have been left homeless by Hurricane Katrina, the children of the evacuees are shown to not display any vulnerability but rather are livid at the way in which the state and society have failed them and are quick to retaliate when they are reminded of them being beneficiaries of individual or state philanthropy.

McGruder’s representation of black childhood is however compromised by the conspicuous absence of well fleshed-out female characters. Jazmine Du Bois, the naïve biracial daughter of their neighbor, Tom Du Bois, a successful lawyer who is invested in the principles of colorblind liberal humanism and is married to a white woman, is a largely flat character. Her presence in the text serves the purpose of demonstrating the extent to which middle-class black children may be indoctrinated by the ideals of religious conservatism, post-raciality, and social ascension. However, what this omits is any critical engagement with the specific manner in which racialized social surveillance and the “school-to-prison pipeline,” among other forms of institutionalized racism, affect black girls. One may well argue that rather than diluting the work’s primary focus on the social alienation and criminalization of black male children, this would have further nuanced the scope of the project and rendered its critique more comprehensive.

The philosophy of critical pessimism that characterizes McGruder’s representation of black childhood is aptly summed up in his own words when he spoke at the University of Illinois in 2003. He opened his speech by saying “There’s so much bad stuff going on… I’m not a motivational speaker… I’m not here to make you feel good about yourself. I’m not here to convince you you can do it. You can’t,” and concluding by reiterating “Hey, I’m not a motivational speaker, remember? You should not be listening to someone under 30 anyway,” satirizing in one fell swoop the presuppositions of both liberal multicultural optimism and gerontocracy (Harvey 157).

Works Cited

Duane, Anna Mae. Suffering Childhood in Early America: Violence, Race, and the Making of the Child Victim. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2010. Print.

Harvey, R.C. “Encountering Aaron McGruder.” The Comics Journal (September 2003). In All the Rage: The Boondocks Past and Present. Aaron McGruder. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. Print.

Kim, Catherine Y, Daniel J. Losen, and Damon Hewitt. The School to Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform. New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.

King, Regina, Cedric Yarbrough, and John Witherspoon. The Boondocks: The Complete Uncensored Series. Culver City, Calif: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2014.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria and William F. Tate IV. “Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education.” Teachers College Record 97.1 (1995): 47-68. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

McGruder, Aaron. All the Rage: The Boondocks Past and Present. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. Print.

—. Public Enemy #2: An All-New Boondocks Collection. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005. Print.

—. A Right to be Hostile: The Boondocks Treasury. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003. Print.

Mitchell, Mary Nial. Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery. New York: New York UP, 2008. Print.

Nichols, John. “Huey Freeman: American Hero.” Colorado Springs Independent, 16 May 2002. Web. 22 Dec. 2106.

Tucker, Terrence T. “Blackness We Can Believe In: Authentic Blackness and the Evolution of Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks.” In Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity after Civil Rights. Ed. Derek C. Maus and James J. Donahue. Jackson, MS: The UP of Mississippi, 2014. 22-37. Print.

Wang, Oliver. “Reading The Boondocks.” Peacework (Summer 2001): n. pag. Web. 21 Dec. 2016