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The Boondocks: AAE, Humor, and Social Commentary

July 16, 2010

Huey, Riley and Granddad from The Boondocks (left to right).

Throughout Word. we’ve pointed out different ways that African American English (AAE) is found in the media, including in movies and music. AAE can also be found in a lot of television programming, including Aaron McGruder’s award-winning show, The Boondocks, which makes heavy use of this dialect. The Boondocks is an animated series that seems mostly to poke fun at modern day America. It looks at contemporary U.S. issues from a radical point of view, while sneaking in cultural references. Its humor, irony and shock factor draw viewers into the Freeman family’s lives for thirty-minute blocks of African American English-influenced dialogue and a collision of mind frames. Even though the show is supposed to be humorous, it is also highly controversial; it was voted the fifth most controversial cartoon of all time by Time magazine for its portrayal of American stereotypes and race-relations. It must be noted that McGruder’s show is a satire and is sometimes just outrageously funny, but can also provide social commentary on the society in which we live.

In this clip from the episode “Friend or Foe”, we see Granddad and Riley Freeman exchange a few words about Riley’s new friend. Although only a minute long, the clip provides a rich sample of just some of the AAE present in the show. (Note: some viewers may find this offensive)

[Click here to watch the video, whose format is not supported by WordPress]

Here is a list of some of the features of African American English that can be found in this Boondocks clip:*

Reduction of word-final consonant clusters such as those ending in t and d

  • wanna for ‘want to’
  • ba’ for ‘bad’

Absence of r after a vowel

  • betta for ‘better’
  • hea’ for ‘hear’
  • mo’ for ‘more’

Deletion of initial d and g in certain tense-aspect auxiliaries

  • ah ’on know for ‘I don’t know’

Monophthongal pronounciations of ay and oy

  • boah for ‘boy’

Realization of  voiceless th as d or v

  • dat for ‘that’

Realization of final ng as n in gerunds

  • nothin’ for ‘nothing’
  • hangin’ for ‘hanging’

Use of unstressed been for has/ have been

  • I been hangin’ out… for ‘I have been hanging out’

Negative concord

  • I don’t think I want to do that no more for ‘I don’t think I want to do that anymore’
  • No TV, no dinner, no nothin’…  for ‘No TV, dinner, anything…’

*Note that all glosses are in Standard American English (SAE). This is purely for illustrative purposes and is not meant to imply that the SAE forms are somehow better or more correct.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Caitlyn Levan permalink
    April 20, 2011 8:45 pm

    Well, I think I should say first that I have never watched this TV show except for the clip linked to this post, so my observations are based entirely on that. I feel that one of the reasons that this show may be seen as problematic is that fact that it plays off of and therefore reenforces racial stereotypes. In the beginning, the characters talk about different types of punishments, especially being whipped with a belt, that I think are often associated with certain types of family structures. The humor in this clip plays off of particular stereotypes and expectations (Riley decides to punish himself rather than receive punishment from Granddad).
    I think that this could be approached from two different points of view. First, that we pay a price by using stereotypes in humor, which in this case is the result of the use of AAE and particular actions in combination. When we make a joke out of something like a racial stereotype, we essentially lighten the mood and make it much more socially acceptable to talk about these types of things, which otherwise can have more serious implications. I’m not sure what good this process does and I think we should consider the toll this has on the affected communities.
    Secondly, in complete contrast to the previous point, part of me doesn’t feel that this is an issue that relates to the African American alone. I can see, except for the use of AAE, any other family, of any other background, faced with these same experiences. These are by no means problems that affect only the African American community.

  2. Adam Van Grover permalink
    April 25, 2011 10:16 pm

    To begin I am a big fan of the show and the strip, and agree that while to some extent it reinforces negative stereotypes, it more than covers it by (ironically) spreading awareness on issues that are indeed important to the (black) community. The use of language (and animation style) give it a much different feel than most other (white) cartoons, and I think adds a bit of credibility and seriousness by adding a human element to comical/animation programming. I definitely understand why the show has been noted as controversial, but I think it does so appropriately and necessarily, in many of the same ways that South Park has been criticized, but more implicitly and indirectly which can be subtler. While the degree to which the show plays on stereotypes (of all people) it is negatively reinforcing social conditions and constructs, but I think the take-away is it really does so, so as to draw positive attention to the issue and raise awareness. Lastly, I highly recommend you watch. Support the arts.

  3. Zach permalink
    November 17, 2012 8:49 pm

    In response to the first comment, McGruder’s point of view seems to be that there are countless beautiful and valuable aspects of African American culture, but that that culture is surrounded by and related to many ways of thinking that are highly counterproductive to the African American condition in the U.S.. He certainly distributes blame for that statistically sub-average condition (by capitalistic standards) and for those counterproductive modes of thinking where it is due: he criticizes racism in all parts of society, as well as criticizing what I believe him to see as a complacency and stagnancy in African American activism, while further explaining that stagnancy and complacency by attributing it to the frustration that is experienced by social activists (such as Huey, who is constantly pessimistic due to the enormity of the forces he is up against in each episode, which often analogously refer to or directly portray real social issues affecting the black community or American community in general).

    It’s a wonderfully layered social commentary, and also many episodes’ plots’ macro-layouts can be traced back to cultural allusions, and in this light much of what happens in the show attains a surprising level of poignancy in almost every frame.

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