King For Today
Happy MLK day, especially to all us well-intentioned white folk who do so very much to help alleviate the world's suffering. Being a white lefty is burdensome and often unrewarding, but someone has to go tell it on the mountain, and who is more qualified to mourn and celebrate Dr. King than we forward-thinking persons of pinkish-grayish hue?
I offered my own thoughts about King this time last year, and I see no reason to revise them. What I said then, I'd say now. The only thing I'm sorry to have missed back then was Aaron McGruder's sharp satirical take on what King would say had he survived the assassination attempt and lived to see commercial African-American culture.
I don't watch much late night TV, so I knew nothing about McGruder's animated assault on his "Boondocks" show. Clearly, my head was up my pale ass when this episode aired and offended a good many people, which is what a decent satirist should do. I'm sure that more of you out there know about McGruder's harsh take than don't, but in case, like me, your head was elsewhere, the episode roughly breaks down like this:
King is not killed in Memphis in 1968, but falls into a coma, from which he doesn't awaken until 2000. As he clears his head and looks around him, he becomes increasingly disgusted with the way African-Americans are portrayed and how many of them behave. He's also branded a traitor when, after the 9/11 attacks, he maintains his Christian pacifist position (something I also mentioned in my post from last year). But it isn't until King, accompanied by "Boondocks" fixture Huey Freeman, arrives at a black church that his rising contempt is given full expression.
I like it that King moves to Canada and dies there at 91. As for Oprah becoming president, well, better than a lot of other possible celebrity choices, I guess. But surely McGruder recalls that Oprah was in favor of invading Iraq, bringing on Kenneth Pollack to cheerlead the war. I don't know if she's ever offered a mea culpa since then, but if not, I doubt anyone of consequence is going to remind her. One of the perks of being Oprah.
After the episode aired, McGruder appeared on "Nightline" to explain his satirical intentions.
I won't pretend that I was an avid "Boondocks" reader, but I've always liked McGruder whenever he's appeared on TV or radio. I only wish I'd been at that infamous Nation dinner several years ago when McGruder really brought it to the pale liberals about to receive their just desserts.
"Toward the dessert (chocolate torte) portion of the evening, Uma Thurman rose to introduce a special guest: Aaron McGruder, the creator of the popular and subversive comic strip 'The Boondocks,' who, as it happens, had travelled farther than anyone else to be there, all the way from Los Angeles. McGruder, one of only a few prominent African-American cartoonists, had been making waves in all the right ways, poking conspicuous fun at Trent Lott, the N.R.A., the war effort. An exhibition of his comic strips—characters with Afros and dreadlocks drawn in a style borrowing heavily from Japanese manga -- with accentuated foreheads and eyes -- was on display in the Metropolitan Club’s Great Hall. It seemed to be, as a Nation contributor said later, 'his coronation as our kind of guy.'
"But what McGruder saw when he looked around at his approving audience was this: a lot of old, white faces. What followed was not quite a coronation. McGruder, who rarely prepares notes or speeches for events like this, began by thanking Thurman, 'the most ass-kicking woman in America.' Then he lowered the boom. He was a twenty-nine-year-old black man, he said, who got invited to such functions all the time, so you could imagine how bored he was. He proceeded to ramble, at considerable length, and in a tone, as one listener put it, of 'militant cynicism,' with a recurring theme: that the folks in the room ('courageous'? Please) were a sorry lot.
"He told the guests that he’d called Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser, a mass murderer to her face; what had they ever done? (The Rice exchange occurred in 2002, at the N.A.A.C.P. Image Awards, where McGruder was given the Chairman’s Award; Rice requested that he write her into his strip.) He recounted a lunch meeting with Fidel Castro. (He had been invited to Cuba by the California congresswoman Barbara Lee, who is one of the few politicians McGruder has praised in 'The Boondocks.') He said that noble failure was not acceptable. But the last straw came when he 'dropped the N-word,' as one amused observer recalled. He said—bragged, even—that he’d voted for Nader in 2000. At that point, according to Hamilton Fish, the host of the party, 'it got interactive.'
"Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation, was sitting in the back of the room, next to Joe Wilson, the Ambassador. He shouted out, 'Thanks for Bush!' Exactly what happened next is unclear. Alterman recalls that McGruder responded by grabbing his crotch and saying, 'Try these nuts.' Jack Newfield, the longtime Village Voice writer, says that McGruder simply dared Alterman to remove him from the podium. When asked about this incident later, McGruder said, 'I ain’t no punk. I ain’t gonna let someone shout and not go back at him.'
"Alterman walked out. 'I turned to Joe and said, "I can’t listen to this crap anymore," ' he remembers. 'I went out into the Metropolitan Club lobby — it’s a nice lobby — and I worked on my manuscript.'
"Newfield joined in the heckling, as did Stephen Cohen, a historian and the husband of [Nation editor and face of "reasonable" liberalism] Katrina vanden Heuvel. 'It was like watching LeRoi Jones try to Mau-Mau a guilty white liberal in the sixties,' Newfield says. 'It was out of a time warp. Who is he to insult people who have been putting their careers and lives on the line for equal rights since before he was born?'
"By the time McGruder had finished, and a tipsy Joe Wilson took the microphone to deliver his New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps half the guests had excused themselves to join Alterman in the lobby. A Nation contributor estimated that McGruder had offended eighty per cent of the audience. 'Some people still haven’t recovered,' he said, sounding thrilled.
"'At a certain point, I just got the uncomfortable feeling that this was a bunch of people who were feeling a little too good about themselves,' McGruder said afterward. 'These are the big, rich white leftists who are going to carry the fight to George Bush, and the best they can do is blame Nader?'
"He went on, laughing a little, 'I was not the right guest for that event. I’ll be the first one to say that. It was one of those reminders that, yeah, I’m not this political leader that people are looking for.'"
Anyone who can drive condescending assholes like Eric Alterman into the lobby is okay by me. Obviously, McGruder didn't recognize Alterman's resounding goodness, nor that of the other aging white lefties in attendance. And after all they've done for his kind. I'm sure Dr. King would've been appalled.