This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Big Books Home
2006 Third Web Report
On Serendip

The Trial of H.B. Stowe: The Boondocks, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the Progression of Propaganda

Amy Stern

When we discussed Uncle Tom's Cabin in class, several people mentioned feeling very uncomfortable, and I was definitely one of them. In a culture currently predicated on racial understanding and tolerance, not to mention a society in which the very nature of slavery is particularly abhorrent, I found it hard to empathize with Harriet Beecher Stowe's vision of the world, where tolerance is rooted in treating slaves kindly and giving them good Christian values rather than completely abolishing slavery. I had a hard time rationalizing how this could be a strongly liberal view of the world when it was predicated on beliefs that even archconservatives today would find extremist.

Then I rewatched a few episodes of The Boondocks. And all of a sudden I understood.

Aaron McGruder originally wrote The Boondocks as a comic strip in the mid-nineties (a few years of strips were published in A Right To Be Hostile, which was the point at which the comics became more overtly political), and in November of 2005 the Cartoon Network began airing it as a cartoon series. Both the comic strip and the television show feature Huey and Riley, two black elementary-school-aged kids who move with their grandfather from their life in a mostly-black urban area (the South Side of Chicago) to all-white suburbia (their "boondocks"). There, they make wry observations about culture, popular as well as political. Riley, the younger sibling, wants to be a gangsta rapper; he doesn't are at all about the political situations in which the country he lives in is embroiled. Huey, the older sibling, is a militant leftist who chiefly wants to be free of stupidity in all forms. Granddad just wants to be happy and relaxed and live the American dream, which would be much easier if his two grandchildren weren't making the suburban life unnecessarily difficult.

Since the show first came on the air, a fair amount of controversy has surrounded the ways in which McGruder portrays the black experience, and honestly, I don't entirely know how to respond to it. Both reading Uncle Tom's Cabin and watching The Boondocks makes me very aware of my whiteness, and what it means. That's given me several questions, in fact, regarding how I can write this paper. In the comics, McGruder replaces racial slurs with "asterisks... [or] 'profanitype'" (n*gga, *#$%!, etc.) (de Moraes). In an interview on Nightline, however, when asked why he uses "the N word [when he knows] it's going to be highly offensive to many people", McGruder smiled and said "Well, actually, we had him say nigga. We don't use the N word on my show" (Nightline). Given McGruder's stated preference, and the way the word "nigger" is used frequently in Uncle Tom's Cabin, I will be doing my best to conform to that.

It was, in fact, the use of the word "nigger" that made me want to look at Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Boondocks together in the first place. Stowe is guileless in her use; it is simply another way to refer to the people of African-American descent. McGruder, on the other hand, is completely self aware; he has had several interviews (including the one quoted above) about his conscious decision to use words as he hears them in conversation. Notably, too, he errs on the side of the word as spelt "nigga", which in some way carries with it the reclamation. (This is, obviously, a much larger subject, which deserves far more discussion; due to space restrictions, however, I am only touching on it.) For the purpose of this paper, "nigga" will be used when referencing The Boondocks; Uncle Tom's Cabin will be quoted as it appears in the text.

Obviously, the use of the word "nigga" in The Boondocks is not a response to the use of the term in Uncle Tom's Cabin, but rather to centuries of history surrounding a word with a powerful linguistic history on a specific racial group. Still, given that both are aspiring to "push the envelope" and make people think about their reactions (appropriate and otherwise) to race, and given that McGruder has mentioned several historical events which contribute to what he wants to say in the comic strip and cartoon, I feel the comparison remains apt.

Still, I was starting to wonder about how to tell what, if anything, the direct impact is of something like Uncle Tom's Cabin on something like The Boondocks, when I realized that it was as clear as the title of the book. "The Trial of R. Kelly" is the first episode of the TV show to introduce two secondary characters: Tom Dubois and Uncle Ruckus. Both characters are black, and both are in some ways at odds with the way Huey, the point of view character, approaches race. Examining them enables the audience to examine their own reactions to race in its myriad forms. In this way, The Boondocks is able to accomplish the same task that Uncle Tom's Cabin set out to do: force the audience's feelings about race and behavior out into the open, and create a forum for discussing them. Stowe's character is an archetype, a genuinely good man with very few flaws who deserves far more than what he was given in life, but McGruder's characters are more complex.

Like in the comic strip, Tom is a black man who has married a white woman and works as a prosecutor in the local courts. In short, he has assimilated completely into the white suburban landscape in ways that neither Riley nor Huey is able to, nor desires to, do. In "The Trial of R. Kelly", R. Kelly is being tried for sexually assaulting yet another underage girl, and Riley decides to protest at the courthouse, dragging a "Free R. Kelly" sign (as well as his brother) with him. Tom is, in fact, prosecuting R. Kelly, a fact which outrages Riley, who at one point calls him "Mr. I-Wanna-Lock-Niggas-Up". In the course of a few sentences exchanged with an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old, Tom Dubois has become Aaron McGruder's reimagining of Stowe's Uncle Tom.

The episode itself is a criticism of all extremes. McGruder places Huey, Tom, and three or four academics against a swarming crowd that cares far more about R. Kelly's success with Trapped in the Closet than they do with the fact that he urinated on a fourteen-year-old girl on a videotape. Tom's methodical, clear presentation of evidence is outweighed by the way that the defense attorney- a white man- points to Tom's wife as proof that he is not as comfortable with his black culture and identity as R. Kelly is; saying Tom "is married... to a WHITE WOMAN!" elicits gasps in the court, clearly placing him at odds with the culture.

Uncle Ruckus is another character who far more strongly fits the stereotypical, derogatory insinuation of an "Uncle Tom". Uncle Ruckus is clearly ashamed of his race, and repeatedly refers to his "condition", which makes his skin so dark; he claims it is "Re-Vitiligo", which he says is the opposite of what Michael Jackson has. Uncle Ruckus believes that white people are responsible for all that is good in the world, and black people for all that is bad. Because of the structure of The Boondocks, however, his complete fawning subservience to anyone white and contempt for anyone black places him not as someone to be pitied, but someone to be mocked. If Tom Dubois is the natural outgrowth of a character struggling to make peace between his own black self and a culture which values white ideals, Uncle Ruckus is a caricature of Uncle Tom.

With Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe was appealing to the general public to change their perceptions of race. Through The Boondocks, as highlighted through the characters of Uncle Ruckus and Tom Dubois, Aaron McGruder is working hard to do the same thing. As the culture has changed, both in climate and laws, what Harriet Beecher Stowe said grew less and less envelope-pushing, until today when it seems blatantly regressive. McGruder presents new ideas, several dozen steps beyond Stowe's, but his art is something which could not have existed without Uncle Tom's Cabin. By drawing on the stereotypes she presented and making them into something more, McGruder doesn't just make Uncle Tom's Cabin relevant in the present day; he reinvents the story, bringing new depth to a story which, without these continuous reinventions, would by all rights become irrelevant in any contemporary context.

Works Cited

Billingsley, Lloyd. "Martin Luther King, Down in the Boondocks". FrontPage February 8, 2006.

De Moraes, Lisa. "CNN Stands By Embattled Novak." The Washington Post. July 18, 2005.

McFadden, Cynthia. "Pushing the Envelope." Nightline. ABC. January 16, 2006.

McGruder, Aaron. "The Trial of R. Kelly". The Boondocks. Adult Swim. Cartoon Network. November 13, 2005.

McGruder, Aaron. A Right To Be Hostile. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:38 CDT