It’s been twenty years since Aaron McGruder’s daily comic strip, The Boondocks, first appeared on Hitline.com in 1996. It’s been ten years since it ended, after being syndicated in over 300 U.S. newspapers and transformed into a successful animated TV show. Twenty years since it started, ten years since it ended and–not much has changed.
Yeah, sure, an oppressive regime unlike any previously seen on American soil is about to take power, but the gap between where we were before and where we are now is likely smaller than most think. As many marginalized people know, we have been on the brink of this for at least the length of my 26-year-lifetime and, more probably, much longer than that.
And, so, reading A Right to be Hostile: The Boondocks Treasury in 2016 feels more familiar than it should. Some of the conversations are dated and highly specific to the times–a sequence about Napster, a running bit about Miss Cleo–but a lot more feels painfully close to the here and now. The names change, but the game’s the same.
Sometimes, this is amusing. In the strip above, from sixteen years ago, a couple is at war with each other over the choice of a third party vote and here we are again, sixteen years later, attempting to blame the relative handful of people who voted for a third party instead of addressing the millions who went to the polls for a white supremacist and anti-Semite. In 2000, it’d be hard to say who precisely this strip’s joke was on (beyond, clearly, George W. Bush), but in 2016, the joke is obviously on us, a population who managed to learn almost nothing sixteen years later.
Time has intervened in other ways, though. There’s a strip from 2001 that describes Bill Cosby as the “master of positive black entertainment.” But then, there’s also a running joke throughout the entire strip about how bad mainstream black movies are–something that rings less true in 2016, after past successes (Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave), present successes (Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight), and hopes for the future (DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time).
Nonetheless, A Right to be Hostile is a perfect microcosm of heaven and hell as a 2016 black critic. The heavenly portion is all down to the protagonist, Huey Freeman, who knows my life so well.
Huey is, in all probability, at least a little bit depressed. He’s also constantly furious, constantly undermined. And worst of all, he seems to be quietly aware of the utter futility of those emotions. I laugh as he writes his zine, “The Free Huey World Report,” which endeavors to release essays on the true nature of Western hegemony–a zine that no more than three or four people ever read–but, as the writer of a tiny column in which I try to address the Big Questions of Criticism, often as they relate to Western hegemony–I cannot laugh that hard.
This is the thing about The Boondocks, the thing about A Right to be Hostile, and the thing about still having the right to be hostile in 2016–the joke’s on them but the joke is always, in some part on you. You can laugh at the strife because that’s better than crying, but in the end you are still the punchline. That’s the joke, you see? No one takes Huey’s (mostly) righteous anger seriously, feels what he feels–not his brother, not his grandfather, not his next-door neighbor, not even his best friend.
But I can dig it. I feel like this, often. His presence on the page is validating, emotionally and critically. I am Huey. Huey is me. And both brilliantly and terribly, Huey is me before I even knew who ‘me’ was. In 2000, I was 11 years old and couldn’t figure out why all the black kids sat together, why they didn’t sit with white kids like I did. Now I’m 26 and trying to figure out how a comic strip from 16 years ago so perfectly represents my current reality, what point there is in trying to re-say what has already been said.
This is the critically hellish portion, the portion I have casually alluded to so far but not confronted out right–A Right to be Hostile, in 2016, is evidence that all that I would like to say has already been said. It is maddening, both as a critic and as a human being. If my critical purpose is to See that which is not easily Seen, then what the hell am I doing making the same observations that have already been made by other black people who have suffered some years before me. This is easily Seen. This is easily witnessed. We have been here before and my revelations are not revelations at all. I am only the latest in a long line of black people trying to argue for my own humanity. What else am I supposed to think when strips like the one below, from June 2000, say what I’ve been trying to say for the last five years, more than a decade before I even knew to say it.
So what’s to do, fellow marginalized critics? What’s to do, me? How do we contend with the fact that we are spinning our wheels in perpetuity? What is the point of repeating what my ancestors have already said, only for my descendants to do the same? How do we grapple with the fact that nothing has changed?
I have a thought.
What if we just….stopped?
There is already enough material out there, somewhere in the world, arguing for our humanity. We have spent enough of our time trying to find new ways to convince white people, abled people, non-queer people, cis people, whomever, that our lives have value. Even now, we search for some new way to put it, some new comparison, some new turn of phrase with the hope that maybe this time will suddenly make them understand that our lives matter.
The texts have already been written and the arguments have already been made. Let’s just republish it all. When our rights are violated, our personhood disrespected, our selves denied, let’s just go all the way back to the old texts. Instead of fresh op-eds on police brutality and thinkpieces on disenfranchisement, let’s all just agree to stop. We’ll copy and paste straight from Frantz Fanon, and we’ll be sure to put the date in enormous red font to make it clear that we’ve been saying the same shit since 1952. Or take it back to Sojourner and remind them that we’ve been saying the same shit since 1851.
Imagine the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, all of them everywhere, just filled with old essays and reports. Let people see that essentially nothing has changed, that everything we are saying has already been said.
Because the onus cannot and should not be upon us to find new songs and dances to entice our oppressors.
Or maybe because, in truth: we have already tried everything else.