Teaching the Boondocks

December 3, 2010 § 1 Comment

Another day, another 10 point teaching post. I’ve had so much fun with this popular culture class, I can’t help but share some of my lesson plans. When I first started teaching at OSU, I was baffled by the 108 minute teaching time, because, in my MA program, I had taught for 50 minutes, three times a week. But I’ve grown fond of the 108 minutes for teaching popular culture, because it allows you to provide a comprehensive introduction to a popular culture phenomenon, without belaboring any particular “take” on it. This is ideal for something sub-(or even micro-)cultural, like The Guild, but also for something controversial, like The Boondocks.

1. Assign comics, specifically, a selection from Aaron McGruder’s 2000 collection, The Boondocks: Because I Know You Don’t Read the Newspaper. I chose to assign the first few pages of the collection, which detail the premise of the story and introduce the major characters. In these pages, Huey and Riley move to the suburbs to live with their grandfather. Together, they navigate this new world, deciding what from their old lives they’d like to hold onto, and how they will adapt in order to inhabit their new home. Also, I wanted to make sure we had time to “meet” Jazmine, the main female character in the strip. Her initial interactions with Huey are hilarious, but immediately complex in a way that speaks well to the social world McGruder forms in the comic.

2. Read McGruder’s dedication from the collection. He dedicates his book to his parents, grandparents, friends, Charles Schulz and other graphic artists, professors at the Afro-American Studies program at the University of Maryland, prominent figures in Black media, W.E.B. Du Bois and other significant Black authors, “the hip-hop artists who used to teach Black people to love themselves…and the few who still do,” his brother, and still others. I wanted to talk about this dedication because I think it speaks to the historical and artistic significance of McGruder’s project, thus setting the stage for our critical approach to it. There is no way that a project situated so firmly within so many different major cultural traditions can be taken as “just a cartoon,” and I wanted to make that clear right away.

3. In order to address the irony of the context of English class, read Pat Parker’s “The Best Nightmares.” Pat Parker has a poem for every occasion, and so I like to incorporate at least one of them into each class I teach. “The Best Nightmares” goes like this:

“In English Lit.
They told me
Kafka was good
because he created
the best nightmares ever.
I think I should
go find that professor
& ask why
we didn’t study
the S.F. Police Dept.”

Because education as a tool of white supremacy comes up pretty regularly throughout The Boondocks, as well as because Pat Parker also writes beautiful dedications to a wide range of people, living and dead, in order to situate her work, I thought that this poem would serve nicely to provide additional context. Especially because a lot of our texts up to this point in the quarter had not foregrounded race as a category of analysis (instead focusing on gender, genre, medium, disability, and so on), I felt compelled to address one of the many alternative research trajectories the class could have taken.

4. Read Harry Allen’s foreward to the collection. It’s an excellent foreward, which fleshes out the world addressed by McGruder’s dedication. Allen begins by saying that “Race is the most fertile yet untapped realm for the creation of powerful storytelling.” In our conversations about Alias the Cat! and Understanding Comics, we talked a lot about McCloud’s claim that mainstream comics in the U.S. had taken on too few kinds of stories, and thus pigeonholed the entire medium as something too limited in scope to take seriously in the context of art. We talked about how Deitch provides an alternative narrative to McCloud’s, which focuses more on the forces in place to suppress the complex stories creators have wanted to tell, but also determined that the end result is pretty much the same. McGruder’s work tells a parallel story, which is that, “the truth of race’s fundamental divisiveness and apparent permanence, no matter how harsh or unexpected, always makes better retelling than a jaw full of fantasy or wishful thinking about it.” Or, as Allen claims even more explicitly, “Aaron McGruder, meanwhile, also thinks frankness in racial matters makes better punch lines.” In other words, while Deitch and McCloud offer sweeping accounts of the twists and turns taken by media in the United States across the 20th century, McGruder takes a more proceduralist approach of finding his medium and his subject matter and improving the form with truth. Allen’s foreward tells us why this is significant without footnotes, which is a remarkable task. (or at least seems so to this graduate student, mired in the footnote-heavy forms we are expected to produce…)

5. Finally, get to the comic itself. I was interested in talking about Huey as nerd, because, in addition to the exposition-heavy first few pages of the comic, I had assigned the strips published around the release of the Star Wars prequels. I had thought these would provide good material for expanding our ongoing conversations about popular culture reading practices and the ways in which these are represented and hailed in various popular culture forms. For, while Huey is a radical, he is also represented as a passionate Star Wars fan, and, from McGruder’s meticulous depiction of such, I suspect that the author may be, as well. Fortuitously, the day I was teaching The Boondocks, an article appeared in The Onion, entitled “African American Community Calls for New Black Nerd Archetype.” I thought it was funny (as in funny unfortunate, not funny comical) that the article didn’t mention Huey as a possible contender, because he is certainly a nerd, both in terms of his encyclopedic and critical understanding of intersecting power relations in the United States, as well as in his solid allegorical interpretation of Star Wars:

But that’s The Onion for you. I think that it is a serious problem that the geek hierarchy and other forms of nerd policing implicitly exclude conversations about race, and I just thought it was worth raising whether or not we read Huey as an example of this character type.

6. Watch Season 2, Episode 5, “The Story of Thugnificent.” After this set-up, I felt it was time to stop talking for a little while, and so I decided to show an episode of the animated series, which is significantly different in tone from the comic. I believe that this screening was the most successful of the quarter, which could have to do with the “Adult Swim” aesthetic, targeted directly at college students at large, public universities.

7. Talk about gender. Particularly, talk about the way in which this particular episode subverts exploitative imagery of black women, but also implicitly discounts women’s perspectives. The episode thematizes an all-male conflict, staged between grandfather, grandsons, and the male rapper Thugnificent. Jazmine does not play a significant role in this episode, although a few white female news reporters do. We talked about the value of representing this social world as a conflict between men, but also its potential sacrifice in representing the largest possible range of stakeholders in the disputes presented.

8. Specifically, talk about Huey as “the voice of reason”. In this episode in particular, Huey seems to represent the voice of reason, making sure that the feud between his grandfather and Thugnificent doesn’t turn into something even more ridiculous than it already is, and explaining in front of the media cameras the rational agreement to which the two parties have come. At first, I wondered what it meant for a man to corner the market on rational thought in the episode, but ultimately, Huey is such a sympathetic figure, and the show represents the world as it is as so utterly ridiculous, it makes sense. Also, the fact that his voice, as well as Riley’s, is provided by Regina King further complicates the re-inscription of male authority over the anarchic world of popular culture.

9. On that note, talk about authorship in animation. One thing we noticed while talking about the translation of the comic to the animated series was that only Huey’s character seemed to retain McGruder’s authorial voice in the comic, and the rest seemed so exaggerated as to be distracting. It’s brilliant, of course — I was especially struck by the way the animated series captures the sensory omnipresence of technology, the irritation caused by ringtones and whatnot, but it does take some of the focus away from Huey’s particular brand of sarcasm when his monologues are not sufficiently removed from this hectic world. That’s presumably a matter of immersion, however — I’m not a regular viewer of the series, so I might gradually desensitize myself to its dazzling style.

10. Speaking of authorship, what about those celebrity guest voices?. In this episode, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Fat Man Scoop, MTV’s Sway, Xzibit, and Nate Dogg guest star. We talked about this, returning to some of the issues raised by the dedication — who all goes into creating this work, and why would some of the people who are the implicit target of McGruder’s critique want to contribute? The obvious answer is that popular culture artifacts are always multi-layered, and that critique is not intended to be monolithic or definitive. Huey has a definitive take on the world, but the audience is not necessarily expected to agree with him on all counts — the audience may in fact be more like Riley, wondering what we can get out of Thugnificent’s art, and how we can become part of that world of cultural production. But who knows — maybe I’m just always one to sympathize with younger siblings :).

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