- Black comic strip author, best known for writing and drawing The Boondocks
- Presents himself as a socialist black nationalist who has been marginalized by corporate America
- Views America as a nation infested with white racism
Aaron McGruder is an African American comic-strip author best known for writing and drawing The Boondocks, a strip that appeared in many American newspapers from February 1996 through March 2006.
McGruder was born on May 29, 1974 in Chicago’s South Side and was raised in Columbia, Maryland. From grades seven through nine, he attended a Jesuit school that he would later describe as “very strict” and “very, very white.” McGruder then transferred to a predominantly black high school, where he became an avid fan of rap music and evolved into what he calls an “angry black man.” In 1997 he graduated from the University of Maryland (UM) with a degree in African American Studies.
Intent on becoming a professional cartoonist, McGruder in February 1996 launched a comic strip he called The Boondocks, on The Hotlist Online website. Ten months later, he joined the staff of UM’s independent newspaper, The Diamondback, where The Boondocks became quite popular. At that time, the Diamondback editor was fellow UM student Jayson Blair, who later became a reporter for The New York Times. “We weren’t friends, but he seemed like the brother who had figured out the system,” McGruder recalls of Blair. “It was like, ‘You don’t seem one hundred per cent down, but you’re definitely not a Tom [Uncle Tom]. Somehow you’re making it work.’” After just two months, however, McGruder had a falling out with The Diamondback, and he pulled his comic strip from the paper.
In 1997 McGruder began distributing packages of The Boondocks to newspaper editors across the United States, in hopes that he could spark their interest in his comics. That same year, he attended a convention of the National Association of Black Journalists, where Harriet Choice, a vice president with Universal Press Syndicate, was scouting minority talent. Not long after McGruder gave her some samples of his work, Universal signed the cartoonist to a contract and in April 1999 launched The Boondocks in 160 newspapers nationwide. That same year, McGruder was named one of People magazine’s “25 Most Intriguing People.” Over the next few years, his comic strip increased its coverage to 250 newspapers.
The Boondocks centered around two city children, ten-year-old Huey Freeman (named after Black Panther founder Huey Newton) and his eight-year-old brother Riley, who moved to the “boondocks” (slang for the suburbs), to live with the boys’ obstinate, moody grandfather. The comic focused mainly on how the boys and their new neighbors dealt with that transition.
The character Huey was a black nationalist who habitually questioned and defied authority, while Riley, as described by NotableBiographies.com, was “a young thug-in-training.” McGruder once told Ben McGrath of the New Yorker that Huey, who expressed political opinions that were obviously the cartoonist’s own, was possibly “the blackest character ever to be popular in mainstream media, other than maybe Chuck D and Flavor Flav.” McGrath later wrote that the Huey Freeman character showed an “unnatural familiarity with the precepts of socialist black nationalism.” McGruder, for his part, saw the three main characters as representations of “three different facets of the sort of angry-black-man archetype.”
In the 2000 presidential election. McGruder voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Shortly after the Florida recount controversy that resulted in George W. Bush’s victory over Democrat candidate Al Gore, McGruder and his friend Reginald Hudlin, director of House Party Films, co-wrote a movie script about that election. When they were unable to sell it, they enlisted the help of of artist Kyle Baker and turned it into a novel titled Birth of A Nation, which was released in 2004. In that book, the black citizens of East St. Louis become so angry and disaffected when they are denied the right to vote, that the city opts to secede from the United States and calls itself Blackland.
After 9/11, McGruder focused his scorn not on the Muslim hijackers who had crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but on the rekindled patriotism of Americans. In an interview on America’s Black Forum, he called Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a “murderer.” During his acceptance speech for a prize he received at a 2002 NAACP Image Awards event, McGruder publicly denounced the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as a conspiracy between the Bush administration and oil companies that allegedly wished to clear out the Taliban so they could install oil pipelines across that country. The following year, McGruder described Rice as a member of the “oil cabal that’s now in the White House,” portraying her as a female Darth Vader who would be less desirous of destroying the world “if she had a man in her life to give her some good old-fashioned lovin.” The Boondocks character Huey Freeman, McGruder’s alter ego, said of Rice: “Maybe if there was a man in the world who Condoleezza truly loved, she wouldn’t be so hell-bent to destroy it.”
In a December 2001 interview, McGruder spoke at length about a variety of topics. Some examples:
- McGruder on President Bush: “We have to confront the very scary fact that the president is a moron. He’s really dumb. He’s got some really smart people around him, and people weren’t afraid to say that before. They said it in a nice way, but they said it. It was like, he’s dumb, but he’s got Cheney and he’s got Powell, so we’ll probably be OK.”
- McGruder on the causes of 9/11: “I don’t think the American people should be worried at all about Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein or anybody, because our government is going to do what it wants to do to them regardless of what we want them to do or not. All we can control is what happens here. And what happened here is what allowed those attacks to take place. The intelligence community failed. Security failed. The military failed. Everybody failed at the same time. I can be really nice to them and say, ‘You guys really messed up and need to check yourself.’ Or I could be not nice and say, ‘You know, I don’t think it’s really probable that all the systems can fail at the same time, which means something far more insidious took place.’” (And in a keynote address at the 2002 H2K2 conference, McGruder said: “I really and truthfully believe that George W. Bush is somehow involved, either directly or indirectly, in the attacks on New York City on September 11.”)
- McGruder on the parallels he saw between President Bush and Islamic terrorists: “You know, [Bush] called [the terrorists] ‘evil.’ That’s really some childish stuff. They’re bad, we’re good. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. That’s so incredibly stupid. What do you think they do? They call us ‘evil.’ I just see so many parallels between both sides in this war, and it’s really uncomfortable.”
- McGruder on U.S. relations with Cuba: “There’s some new evidence that has just come out about the CIA planning terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the ’60s and how they were going to set up Castro for it in order to get America behind a war in Cuba.”
- McGruder on police brutality: “The reality is this: Me, I’m comfortable. I make a lot of money. So I can say, America is OK, up until the point that the LAPD pulls me over and knocks out some teeth on some bullsh-t. That happens enough to black men that it’s a legitimate concern for me.”
- McGruder on America’s treatment of blacks: “[America] is just not the best place in the world for black people, even the UN knows that. They did some study ranking living conditions by ethnicity, and white American men were Number One. I don’t remember where black American men were, but they were a little bit further on down.”
- McGruder on the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan: “[The media are] not exploring … the Bush administration’s financial ties with Afghanistan. The fact that George Bush Sr. has financial investments in the area, and those investments become much more valuable when the Taliban government is removed. I’m not talking about getting into a whole bunch of conspiracies.” (Also in the early 2000s, McGruder said: “Everyone in the Bush administration is affiliated with oil and, you know, these are the last of the big oil reserves on the planet, and they needed to get the Taliban out of the way so they could run these pipelines through Afghanistan.”)
- McGruder on Americans’ post-9/11 displays of patriotism, coupled with President Bush’s allegedly illegitimate election win: “I thought it was very faddish, and there was no real weight behind it. You know, we just came off an election that was a mess. We still don’t know if the president won the election. We do know that he got less votes nationwide. There’s no question about that. And he may not even have won, legitimately, the electoral contest. There were reports of the massive disenfranchisement of African-Americans in Florida, which went totally unreported in this country, but was covered widely by the foreign press. There were black people in Florida yelling and screaming, trying to get somebody to pay attention to them. They were saying that they had their rights taken away from them, and they were not allowed to vote. And nobody in this country cared. Where was the flag then? Where was this embracing of American ideals when people had their rights ripped from them so unjustly? We have a president who was appointed by the Supreme Court, and there was none of this talk about freedom and love of country at that time…. So there are a number of reasons why I was uncomfortable with the whole flag thing.” (And in the early 2000s as well, McGruder said: “We’ve got to figure out a way to get the Nazis out of the White House…. One thing that you have to respect about the right wing is that they will steal, lie, cheat and murder to maintain power. They do it because that’s how the game of international global politics is played…. But understand that this is not a nice game. It’s ugly…. Al Gore won the election, and is not president because he was not willing to do what it took, and Bush was.”)
- McGruder on America’s military response to 9/11: “I don’t know. But I would ask, how many bombs can we drop to bring these people back? We can’t drop enough bombs to bring 4,000 people back, and we can’t drop enough bombs to ensure that it never happens again. Is it really about Osama bin Laden, or are we narrowing this? The people that hijacked the planes and crashed them are dead. If there’s a terrorist network or a man responsible, yes, we should get them, but when you construct it like a police action or an investigation, and not like a war, then you’re forced to respect the lives of innocents, even if it’s a pain in the ass. I say it’s not worth innocent people dying, even if it takes years and you have to keep sending SEAL teams or whatever in there. What the hell? That’s what they’re trained to do. That’s why they exist. Drop them in there to get one guy. F-18s exist to wipe out towns. It may take longer the other way, but that’s too bad.”
In a spring 2002 speech at Duke University, McGruder noted that 90% of the country supported a war against America’s terrorist attackers. He then voiced his hope that “the other 10% were black.”
In one post-9/11 comic strip, the character Huey called the FBI and reported that an American who had financed terrorists was Ronald Reagan.
McGruder has long admired California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, whom he specifically praised in one of his comic strips. At Lee’s request, McGruder in 2002 accompanied her on a trip to Cuba where he had a friendly meeting with Fidel Castro. McGruder thought highly of Castro, as evidenced by the fact that inside the front door of his Los Angeles penthouse apartment was a photo of Castro riding triumphantly into Havana on January 1, 1959.
By the fall of 2003, McGruder had outsourced the task of drawing his cartoons to Boston artist Jennifer Seng, explaining that “I think I’m a better writer than artist.”
In 2003 as well, McGruder published a bestselling collection of his Bookdocks cartoons, titled A Right to Be Hostile. The foreword for this book was written by Michael Moore.
In the early 2000s, McGruder and black conservative columnist/radio host Larry Elder publicly criticized one another. McGruder, for his part, used the characters in his comic strip to suggest “The Elder” as the name for the “Most Embarrassing Black Person of the Year Awards.” Elder then fired back with a column that established an award called “The McGruders,” recognizing the “Dumbest, Most Vulgar, Most Offensive Things Uttered by Black Public Figures.”
In 2005 McGruder and his production company, Rebel Base, collaborated with Reginald Hudlin (President of Entertainment for BET) to sign a deal with Sony Entertainment to turn The Boondocks into a television show and a motion picture. In the TV program, which aired for three seasons, McGruder introduced a new character – a black handyman called Uncle Ruckus: “This guy just loves all the little white children in the neighborhood and he’s basically straight out of the eighteenth century,” McGruder explained, describing him as “a slave” and as “the world’s most self-hating black man.”
In a 2006 interview on Nightline, ABC‘s Cynthia McFadden asked McGruder how he thought the late Martin Luther King Jr. would be received by blacks if he were to return to life. “Well, as a traitor,” McGruder replied. “I don’t think his philosophy or even his character would really work in a modern context….”
In 2007, The Boondocks television show won a Peabody Award for an episode titled “Return of the King,” in which Dr. King awakened from a coma and reacted to contemporary phenomena like gangsta rap and the war-on-terror.
In 2010, McGruder worked as screenwriter for the film Red Tails, a 2012 movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black combat pilots during World War II.
In March 2014, The Boondocks was revived for a fourth and final season on the Adult Swim television platform, but without McGruder’s involvement as the show’s creator and showrunner. Explaining that “The Boondocks pretty much represents my life’s work to this point,” and that the program’s characters “are my fictional blood relatives,” McGruder said he had arrived at the “painful” realization that it was time to “finally pu[t] a life of controversy and troublemaking behind me.”
Next, McGruder developed a live-action scripted comedy series titled Black Jesus – about the founder of Christianity living as a black man in modern-day Compton, California – which first aired in August 2014 on Adult Swim.
In 2017, McGruder and film producer Will Packer collaborated to create a new drama series titled Black America, which they produced in conjunction with Amazon Studios. TheFader.com offers the following synopsis of the program:
“[The show] envisions an alternate history where newly freed African Americans have secured the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama post-Reconstruction as reparations for slavery, and with that land, the freedom to shape their own destiny. The sovereign nation they formed, New Colonia, has had a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship with its looming ‘Big Neighbor,’ both ally and foe, the United States. The past 150 years have been witness to military incursions, assassinations, regime change, coups, etc. Today, after two decades of peace with the U.S. and unprecedented growth, an ascendant New Colonia joins the ranks of major industrialized nations on the world stage as America slides into rapid decline. Inexorably tied together, the fate of two nations, indivisible, hangs in the balance.”
McGruder today is a sought-after lecturer, speaking in a variety of venues including college campuses, conventions, and banquets.
In his interpersonal relations, McGruder makes it clear that he has no desire to keep a low profile. “I’m ready to fight outside work,” he says. “If someone wants to come up and start a political conversation with me, it can quickly turn into an argument.” McGruder is particularly hostile to emulators, warning them to “get off my dick, leave my shit alone.” He has also affirmed what he describes as his inalienable “right to be a ni**er.”
The fiercely anti-capitalist McGruder currently has a net worth of approximately $10 million – a fact that does not square with his rebellious self-image as a socialist black nationalist who is supposedly marginalized by corporate America. “Anytime your checks are signed by the white man, you’re not leading the revolution, and that’s me included,” McGruder once lamented to black radio host Tavis Smiley. “My checks are signed by the white man.” “I always wanted to get rich,” he said on another occasion. “I wanna live very, very well. The world sucks when you’re poor. It’s fucking deplorable. But I don’t think it means you have to be part of the fucked-up system of oppressors and leaders just by virtue of making a lot of money.”