Huey Freeman: American Hero
On Thanksgiving Day 2001, with the United States in the midst of what polls identify as one of the most popular wars in history and with President Bush's approval ratings hovering around 90 percent, more than 20 million American households opened their daily newspapers to see a little black kid named Huey Freeman leading the pre-turkey prayer.
"Ahem," began the unsmiling youth. "In this time of war against Osama bin Laden and the oppressive Taliban regime, we are thankful that OUR leader isn't the spoiled son of a powerful politician from a wealthy oil family who is supported by religious fundamentalists, operates through clandestine organizations, has no respect for the democratic electoral process, bombs innocents, and uses war to deny people their civil liberties. Amen."
In the whole of American media that day, Huey's was certainly the most pointed and, no doubt, the most effective dissent from the patriotism that dare not speak its mind. And it was not the only day when the self-proclaimed "radical scholar" skewered George W. Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Defense Department, dithering Democrats, frenzied flag-wavers and scaremongering television anchors in what since September 11 has been the most biting and consistent critique of the war and its discontents in the nation's mass media.
The creation of 27-year-old cartoonist Aaron McGruder, Huey Freeman appears daily in The Boondocks, a comic strip featured in 250 of America's largest newspapers, including the Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Inquirer. "There are a lot of newspapers where Aaron's comic strip probably is the only consistent voice of dissent," says Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Joel Pett, whose editorial-page cartoons for the Lexington, Kentucky, Herald-Leader have raised tough questions about the suffering of Afghan civilians and the role the United States has played in spreading terror. "I think that not only is he doing good stuff, the fact that he is on those comics pages makes it important in a way that none of the rest of us could accomplish. He's hooking a whole group of people. He's getting ideas out to people who don't always read the opinion pages. And he's influencing a lot of young people about how it's OK to question their government and the media. When you think about it, what he has done since September 11 has just been incredible."
In recent weeks, McGruder's Huey has grumbled about how it may no longer be legal in John Ashcroft's America to ask whether George W. Bush was actually elected; hiked atop a mountain to yell, "For goodness sake people, it's a recession! Save money this Christmas!"; and repeatedly expressed the view that "Dick Cheney is just plain creepy." And he has listened in disbelief to an "announcement" from the Attorney General that went: "I would like to reassure Congress that my proposed Turban Surveillance Act, which would allow the FBI to covertly plant listening devices in the headgear of suspected terrorists, is in no way meant to single out Arab or Muslim Americans."
At a time when most comedians are still pulling their punchlines, McGruder has gotten plenty of laughs at the expense of the Bush Administration and its policies. But not everyone has been amused. In early October the cartoonist had Huey call the FBI's antiterrorist hotline to report that he had the names of Americans who trained and financed Osama bin Laden. When the FBI agent said that, yes, he wanted the names, Huey began, "All right, let's see, the first one is Reagan. That's R-E-A-G..." This series of strips was pulled from the New York Daily News and Newsday and shuffled off comics pages at other papers. Editors were quick to deny they were censoring The Boondocks, claiming they simply thought McGruder had gotten a little too political. McGruder played the controversy into more laughs. He produced an inane new strip featuring talking patriotic symbols, launching it with a satirical editor's note: "Due to the inappropriate political content of this feature in recent weeks, it is being replaced by 'The Adventures of Flagee and Ribbon,' which we hope will help children understand the complexities of current events. United we stand." Ribbon then declares, "Hey, Flagee, there's a lot of evil out there," to which his compatriot replies, "That's right, Ribbon. Good thing America kicks a lot of *@#!"
McGruder, whose cartoon began appearing nationally in April 1999, says he did not set out to make Huey the nation's No. 1 dissenter. Yes, The Boondocks--which recounts the experiences of Huey and his younger brother, Riley, inner-city youths who move with great trepidation to the suburbs--has always been controversial. Bitingly blunt in its examination of race and class issues, The Boondocks has made more waves more often than any nationally syndicated comic strip since Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury characters declared Nixon aides "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" in the Watergate era. "It even got pulled from the Buffalo paper for something involving Santa Claus," recalls McGruder, who grew up listening to rap artists Public Enemy and KRS-One, idolized Berkeley Breathed's politically pointed Bloom County comic strip, took an African-American studies degree from the University of Maryland and started drawing cartoons for the hip-hop magazine The Source.
But the cartoonist knew that the controversy he would stir in the weeks after September 11 would be different from any he had provoked before. What he did not know was that, unlike Trudeau in the Watergate era, he and his preteen characters would challenge a popular President and his policies with little cover from allies in the media or Congress. "Sometimes, I do look around and say to myself, 'Gee, I'm the only one saying some of these things.' That can make you a little paranoid. But I don't think that's a reflection on me so much as it is a reflection on how narrow the discussion has become in most of the media today. The media has become so conglomerated that there really are very few avenues left for people to express dissent," says McGruder. Well aware that he is a young cartoonist--as opposed to a senator or veteran television commentator--McGruder is the first to note, "I should not be the guy right now. I should not be the one who is standing out here saying, 'Hold it. This doesn't make any sense.'... There are a lot of people who do this so much better than I do. I just have the distribution and the opportunity."