A Character Case Study of “The Boondocks” and Huey Freeman: Is he a Cynic or a Realist?

[Editor’s Note: This is the second of five installments of character case studies on characters on creator and writer Aaron McGruder’s comic strip now turned animated series on Adult Swim, “The Boondocks.”  I feel that each of the characters epitomize a particular social and political archetype or stereotype that is represented in some aspects within the black community.]

[Another Editor’s Note: I’m writing this as I miss the famed summer BET Awards or as some dubbed the EBT Awards and the now famed Crenshaw Elite Glee club.]

Huey Freeman is the older brother of Riley and the two Freeman grandkids live with their grandfather Robert “Grandad” Freeman out in the suburbs of Chicago.  Huey appearance has been evidenced heavily by his large afro that dwarfs his entire body.  The show’s writer and creator Aaron McGruder lets us know that Huey was named after Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton which automatically gives the backdrop for much of Huey’s character and motivation.

I actually feel sorry for Huey because he seems to be the embodiment of a “bitter chastening rod, felt in the days when hope, unborn had died.” He’s always on point with his critical social and political analysis of a situation, nor does give into the usually childish whims that his very much misguided brother, Riley, seems to do.  However, given the permanent frown etched into Huey’s face like an epitaph on a gravestone, Huey’s character comes off as cynical and downright depressing.  This cynicism stands in diametrical opposition to the running social and political commentary he usually prattles off with ease, Huey comes off with a type of hopeful nihilism that I think is rather prevalent in the black community.

A hopeful nihilism is the perfect marriage between cynicism and being a realist.  Blacks, as a collective group recently had this notion tested with the election of Barack Obama.  Many expressed the hope of a black man holding the office of the presidency, but many expressed nihilistic disillusionment that many of those with darker skin in this country have attained over the years of seeing hopes dashed on all accounts at the intersection of black culture and the American political landscape.  Even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, from the Jesse Jackson campaign of 1984 and 1988 to watching a Jesse Helms win a South Carolina election on the issue of racial quotas and being against affirmative action.

Essentially, blacks want to see the glass as half full, but too often, life taught us that the glass is always half empty.

Huey also embodies the revolutionary characteristics associated with Black nationalist movements, particularly taking a nod toward his namesake.  This results in Huey almost completely dismissing characters who fail to see life through his particular worldview.  To drive it home, I’m sure Huey would have been a member at Trinity United Church of Christ and thought Jeremiah Wright was a prophet–no questions asked–if he believed in Christianity.  Much of this fuels Huey’s duality; inspired by strong revolutionary thought, but depressed by the reality of the revolution not coming yet.

Contrary to popular opinion, I know my “Huey’s” than I know “Riley’s.”  When I posed these character questions to some persons, people have been quick to attach the label of “stereotypical black male” when speaking about Riley and speak with archetypical language when describing Huey.  I think the gotcha-gotcha is that we’re made to think that there are more “Riley’s” walking around than “Huey’s.”  As shown on the show, Huey’s quiet revolutionary tendencies usually play second fiddle to Riley’s antics which get TV news interviews occasionally. Or that Huey feels the need to team up with Rev. Rollo Goodlove to publicize his hunger strike in the episode “The Hunger Strike” which parodied BET and was never played here in the U.S.

Or maybe we all have a bit of both in us: one side revolutionary, the other side ready to give into the whims of the world simply because it’s easier.  Huey certainly takes the road less traveled, and it’s certainly a lonelier path in life that he’s forced to lead, but his ability to think independently for himself is a trait that I see exhibited in most of the young black males that I’ve encountered in my life.

This ability to think independently will always be portrayed as a negative image within the contexts of mainstream media and various other image outlets.  Rare is the image of black males (and black females for that matter) shown in a positive light.  But I think some of the image problems we face is intraracial rather than what mainstream media directly puts out there.  We watch the images of Chicago violence, then we automatically assumer blacks in Chicago are just more violent than the rest of inner city blacks; we’ll see images of hip hop culture on TV and automatically get scared when we see a black male saggin’ his pants or with a baseball cap on–we actually believe the hype.

Similarly, we love to tear down the positive images that do exist in the mainstream media.  We’d rather embrace “Riley” and dismiss “Huey” all together negating the fact that both need our attention for a plethora of reasons.  For example, we no longer just criticize the Popes of Blackness (Tavis Smiley, Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson) but we tear them down.  It’s one thing to offer sound criticism, but we operate on the surface so easily: we can deal with the outward appearance of Riley’s chains, outfit, how he talks, but it’s harder to deal with the what he talks when it comes to Huey.

Honestly, if you’ve read more than just Cornel West’s Race Matters please let me know.

If you’ve picked up any of Michael Eric Dyson’s numerous publications or either of Tavis Smiley’s books, I’m much more inclined to listen to you, otherwise its much easier for me to dismiss your argument because a) you’re not wholly informed on the subject matter which you speak on and more scary for me is b) you don’t care that you’re ignorant of some facts.

Once we’ve engaged in the actions that force us to choose between the two, we’ve lost the fight.  We can’t negate one for the other, because we really are our brother’s keeper.


Sidenote: I wish that they had brought Riley’s counterpart from the comic strip Michael Caesar to the cartoon show.  Caesar, as he’s always called, is the optimistic side of Riley.  Usually agreeing with Riley’s political positions, he just tends to add some brevity to the air.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL


3 thoughts on “A Character Case Study of “The Boondocks” and Huey Freeman: Is he a Cynic or a Realist?

  1. I was following you until you started bragging about the books you have read. So Ill touch on everything prior to that point. Huey is cynical, he is depressing sometimes, but so was Charlie Brown. I think Huey means well & he cares for both Robert, Riley & Jasmine. I don’t think he cares much for anyone else though. Huey doesn’t really get enough screen time mainly because black intelligence is BORING, Sad to say. Places like MTO & WSHH will get where more hits than your blog & I think that fact sucks! Look at Riley he get way more airtime. Huey is not really a threat, no one ever listens to him & he is the most level headed character on the series. Oh yea Woodcrest is a suburb in Maryland outside of Washington DC were Aaron McGruder grew up. I really do appreciate these articles you have written. Its nice to see The Boondocks getting some commentary.

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