Wakanda Forever, Boondocks Saints, RIP Barry Crimmins
This Week — A Black Panther immersion — with Harvey Young, John Jennings, Ytasha Womack, Brooke Obie, Olufemi Taiwo, Douglas Wolk and Evan Narcisse. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.
Mary McGrath: Escape with us to the magical land of Wakanda, a fantasy vision of a perfect world without colonialism, racism, sexism, or oppression of any kind. We spent our week in this happy space place, far away from Donald Trump’s Washington and the American malaise, first reveling in Ryan Coogler’s amazing film and then taking a deep dive into super smart takes and thoughtful critiques of the film. As Clint Smith wrote in the Paris Review, Wakanda might be fictional, but it’s impact is real.
With Black Panther, black artists were provided with the opportunity and agency to create art that captures the full range of their imaginative possibilities. It matters that Chadwick Boseman is the protagonist and is supported by a cast of nearly all black characters. It matters that Lupita Nyong’o exists as the moral foundation of the film. It matters that Ryan Coogler is the director. It matters that Douriean Fletcher designed the jewelry. It matters that Kendrick Lamar curated the soundtrack. It matters that Ruth E. Carter designed the costumes. Marvel and Disney may have produced the film — Jack Kirby and Stan Lee may have invented the character — but it is impossible to deny the formative role that black artistic and intellectual agency played in making it the cultural, and political, phenomenon it has become.
Here’s our reading list which could form the syllabus for the first Wakanda studies program at a university near you:
Clint Smith — “What Would W. E. B. Du Bois Make of Black Panther?”
Jelani Cobb—”Black Panther and the Invention of ‘Africa’”
Chris Lebron—”Black Panther is Not the Movie We Deserve”
Carvell Wallace— “Why ‘Black Panther’ Is a Defining Moment for Black America”
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò and LaKeyma Pennyamon—“Pan African Panther”
Doreen St. Felix —”On Killmonger, the Villain of Black Panther”
Slavoj Žižek—“Quasi Duo Fantasias: A Straussian Reading of ‘Black Panther’” [For better or for worse, this is a real article, not a joke]
The week also served as a crash course on the aesthetics of afrofuturism, thanks in part to the work of our guests, John Jennings and Ytasha Womack. For a good primer on afrofuturism in comic books, check out Jenning’s series, Black Kirby Short summary of the work here:
In the 1960’s, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee co-created characters like Spider-man, Fantastic Four, and Captain America in what remain some of the longest-running continually evolving stories ever told. Kirby’s bold graphic style influenced generations of artists including John Jennings and Stacey Robinson who revive Kirby’s visual mythology as the art duo, “Black Kirby.” Black Kirby remixes comic culture in the context of Afrofuturism and recasts the hero in a post-colonialist mold.
For a more general overview of afrofuturism, read Ytasha Womack’s book The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.
Read: Aaron McGruder— A Right to be Hostile (The Boondocks Treasury)
Zach Goldhammer: I was never big on superhero comics growing up, and I feel bad about missing out on the vast world of afrofuturist strips collected in our guest John Jennings’s edited anthology Black Comix Returns (Chris just ordered the book for his grandkids, so hopefully this knowledge gap will be corrected in the next gen).
What I did have, however, was The Boondocks—one of the most radical serialized works of art ever printed in American newspapers.
Aaron McGruder’s brilliant series began as a webcomic in 1996 and went on to become syndicated (and frequently censored) in more than 300 U.S. newspapers by the end of its run in 2006. Unlike Black Panther, The comic strip was more afropessimist than futurist— its politics were distinctly and cynically of its moment.
Centered around the story of an African-American family who relocates from the South Side of Chicago to the fictional, lily-white suburb of Woodcrest, Maryland—McGruder’s stories highlighted various fault lines and failures of post-Civil Rights era integration. The witnesses were the kids who had been left behind by the supposed end of history.
Huey Freeman, the 10-year-old protagonist and moral voice of the comic, was given his first name as a tribute to the Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton. His last name, seemingly, served as a reminder of an unfulfilled aspiration.
Together with Huey’s delinquent younger brother Riley and their resignedly weary grandfather, the Freeman family often found themselves at odds not only with their middle-class white neighbors, but also with each other and their competing worldviews. Huey himself was as likely to to skewer the racism of Fox News as he was the tokenism of BET and UPN. His most frequent antagonist in the strip is one of the only other black people in Woodcrest —the talented, assimilated, moderate liberal lawyer, Tom DuBois (again, the first and last names aren’t incidental).
McGruder’s critiques didn’t just focus on race as an isolated political issue either. In its middle years, “The Boondocks” strip expanded beyond the domestic dramas in Woodcrest and honed in on its critiques of George W. Bush and the War on Terror. McGruder seemed to be one of the few militantly anti-war voices in mainstream American newspapers, and his comics were frequently banned as a result. A 2004 New Yorker profile of McGruder written by Ben McGrath (Mary’s nephew) describes the comics’ most controversial period:
In “The Boondocks,” post-9/11, Huey was quick to announce that he planned to “stay cynical.” He began calling the F.B.I. to suggest names of terrorist financiers and war criminals worthy of prosecution: Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger. John Ashcroft appeared on television to explain his new “Turban Surveillance Act,” and the prospect of a congressional “anti-evil” bill, it was suggested, would force Vice-President Cheney into hiding once again. The Daily News banned “The Boondocks” for several weeks. At one point, in the middle of October, McGruder finally relented and put a muzzle on Huey … he replaced “The Boondocks” for a week with a new, faux-jingoistic strip, “The Adventures of Flagee and Ribbon.” (Said the ribbon to the flag, “Hey, Flagee, there’s a lot of evil out there.” Replied the flag, “That’s right, Ribbon. Good thing America kicks a lot of *@#!”)
As a kid, a lot of the politics went over my head, but I loved reading “The Boondocks” partly because of the great artwork and because Huey’s alienated, pre-teen existential skepticism just seemed relatable. I remember carrying The Boondocks anthology A Right to Be Hostile around with me everywhere and eventually convinced my 6th grade teacher to add it to our classroom library (thanks, Isabel Eccles!).
Re-reading old Boondocks strips today, the collection seems more relevant than ever. Huey’s perspective, which the New Yorker described pithily in 2004 as “an unhealthy dose of indignation, paranoia, and hatred,” now seems bitterly realistic. The 10-year-old kid who possesses an “unnatural familiarity with the precepts of socialist black nationalism” no longer seems so out of place in the era of the Movement for Black Lives. Still, it might be awhile before that kind of perspective is fully realized in Hollywood (it’s hard to imagine Huey embracing the rule of the Tom Duboisian King T’Challa, fwiw).
Now might also be a good time to revisit McGruder’s television version of The Boondocks, particularly the controversial, Peabody Award-winning episode, “Return of the King” , which imagines a world in which King didn’t die but fell into a coma after the shooting—only to wake up again in 2000.
We’re planning our MLK tribute show soon. We’ve scheduled a talk with Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry about their new collection of essays on King, To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Send us your own suggestions for other guests and fresh perspectives: firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch: Agnès Varda—Black Panthers (1968)
MM: I’m rooting for Agnes Varda to win best doc tonight for her amazing Faces Places, which was one of the best films I saw last year. I’m totally smitten by this 89 year old filmmaker who’s known in France as the godmother of the New Wave. I saw her give the Norton lecture at Harvard last week, and I’ve been making my way through her best films — The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnes, Daguerréotypes, Vagabond, Cléo de 5 à 7 …She and her beloved husband, the late Jacques Demy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg), spent some time in California and Varda made a few films there, including this documentary about the Black Panthers.
RIP, Barry Crimmins—A Boston Legend
ZG: Barry Crimmins was never very well known nationally, but he was one of the comedians who helped jumpstart Boston’s stand-up comedy scene in the 80s. By convincing the Ding Ho Chinese restaurant in Inman Square to let him book weekend comedy acts, he helped set the stage for many local favorites, including friend-of-the-show Jimmy Tingle (who is now running for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, btw) + Denis Leary, Paula Poundstone, and Stephen Wright, among many others. He was also a fiercely political comic himself — a self-taught, lifelong student of Mark Twain’s satire as well as an informal protégé of the BU people’s historian, Howard Zinn.
Crimmins was the subject of an extremely moving 2015 documentary —directed by fellow Boston comedy legend Bobcat Goldthwait—called Call Me Lucky (now available on Netflix). The documentary begins by exploring Crimmins’s early career and the rise of the Boston comedy scene in the 80s, but quickly by delves into deeper matters. The latter half of the film focuses on Crimmins’ childhood experience of sexual abuse as well as his later activism on behalf of fellow survivors. It sounds like a dark topic, and it certainly is, but what the film really highlights is the incredible warmth and courage of Crimmins in his commitment to others. Particularly at a time when so many comics seem to be on the wrong side of these issues, it’s inspiring to see a comedian truly standing up for victims of abuse.
If you’re hesitant about committing to the documentary, try listening to the 2013 WTF podcast episode with Crimmins which is partly responsible for inspiring the documentary—it’s one of Marc Maron’s best interviews.
Artist Corner: Louisa Bertman
Susan Coyne: Mary texted me last week with a shot of some illustrations in the NY Times. Even though I couldn’t see the byline, I immediately recognized Louisa Bertman in the heady but spare line and splashes of ink and neon-bright palettes. The world of illustrators is tiny and close-knit, so I messaged Louisa, who lives in Cambridge, with Mary’s shot. She’d had no idea she’d be in print that day — “They never tell us when they’re going to press usually” — but she excitedly shared the picture with her followers.
Stylistically and thematically, Bertman is an illustrator after my own heart. Her work is informed by a tireless quest for social justice. These days, she told me, she’s been glued to her tablet working away on a series about the juvenile justice system. She has shown in animation festivals around the world, including lots of feminist ones; done Pride covers for the Village Voice; and was commissioned by the family of Medgar Evers to paint his portrait for their estate. I love her bouncing energy and clear-eyed moral intelligence. And I’m constantly surprised, though I shouldn’t be, that whenever we chat she is solicitous, present, and offers up her time to talk about illustration and politics. More of her work can be viewed at LouisaBertman.com.
Moira Weigel on the internet of women. Teachers speak out on the strike in West Virginia. Media gossip: NYT’s newsroom is embarrassed by the paper’s op-ed page and they’re leaking transcripts to HuffPo; New Inquiry founder Rachel Rosenfelt named new publisher and vice-president of the New Republic. Samuel Moyn on Mark Lilla . The incredible cast of Donald Glover’s Atlanta returns. All of your Oscar faves are problematic.
MM: Chris held his own with Steve Pinker on Monday night in Cambridge. His book Enlightenment Now is getting lots of folks all riled up. I heard a full on argument about it at the table next to me at a restaurant in Harvard Square last night.
We’ll post this audio soon and maybe even make a radio hour of it.
Til next week,
The OS Academy of Podcast Arts & Sciences