“Welcome, You Dumb Honky.” Race in the Early Doonesbury Strips, Part II: Rufus

In my last “Long Strange Trip” post, I looked at how Garry Trudeau wrote about Black radicalism in the early 1970s, focusing on the character of Calvin and Trudeau’s depiction of the 1971 New Haven trial of nine members of the Black Panther Party for the murder of a suspected FBI informant. When Trudeau wrote about Calvin and the Panthers, he did not bring the their ideas to the comics page as much as he drew attention to the often awkward and self-serving ways in which whites engaged with, and attached themselves to, the Black liberation struggle. In effect, Calvin’s most important role was as a mirror, reflecting back white people’s racism and their inability and unwillingness to engage with Black radical ideas on terms set by African-Americans.

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Introducing Rufus: Doonesbury, 5 April 1971.

Trudeau introduced two Black characters to the Doonesbury cast in 1971.  Calvin essentially disappeared from the strip after the Panther trial drew to a close. The second named Black character to appear in Doonesbury,  Rufus “Thor” Jackson,  is a young (his age is given in different strips as either five or eight years old) African-American boy from a ghetto (this is Rufus’s preferred term for his neighbourhood, and the one I will use here) near Walden College whom Mike tutors. Rufus was a regular presence for almost three years. While arcs featuring Calvin tended to be more strictly political, the relationship that develops between Rufus and Mike allows Trudeau to blend political satire with developing the personality of a central character. While Calvin’s appearances focused on the tensions and miscommunications between Black radical activists and well-intentioned but often clueless white progressives, Mike’s interactions with Rufus speak to a much more complex relationship. The dynamics that define Calvin’s interactions with the rest of the Doonesbury cast are still there, notably the white liberal guilt that underpins much of these interactions in the first place. On the other hand, at an individual level, Mike and Rufus develop a relationship that both characters cherish and which helps each of them grow. This is especially true for Mike, who, as he teaches and learns from Rufus, becomes much more than the loser and scapegoat he is often portrayed as.

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Rufus speaking truth to Power. Doonesbury, 26 January 1972.

In my last post, we saw how Mike’s engagement with the Black revolution is shaped by ignorance, insensitivity, and a desire for self-preservation. An arc from 1973 reminds us that Mike is the archetype of white liberal who tries to bridge the gap between himself and African-Americans, but ends up instead revealing his inability to engage with them without condescension. Mike appoints himself as an envoy to the Black students’ preferred cafeteria table. What begins as a naive, but arguably well-intentioned moment of outreach quickly turns awkward, leaving Mike floundering in his cluelessness and ultimately insulting the table by correcting one of the Black student’s grammar. Mike might want to do good, but he is unwilling and unable to put aside his preconceptions and listen, instead of imposing himself on a situation.

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A rush to fill an awkward silence. Doonesbury, 13 September 1973.

The spirit that drives Mike to reach out to the Black patrons of the cafeteria also lead him to take a job tutoring Rufus. A key theme in their interactions is the question of material stakes of the Black freedom struggle and the extent to which the insecurity and poverty experienced by Rufus’s family are the products of white supremacist social structures. Rufus is an early-1970s Jacob Riis, exposing readers to – or reminding them of – the conditions that exist a Zip Code or two away from them. He understands the links between racism and poverty, and tries to use that knowledge to his advantage. When the power company calls about an unpaid bill, Rufus gets that the situation reflects larger social dynamics that are in no small part determined by race. This is as true for the relationship between the Jacksons and the utility company as it is for the economy of childhood happiness. While Santa Claus may disappoint him every year, Rufus weaponizes his disappointment to inject a dose of guilt into Mike’s holiday. Beyond economic dynamics, Trudeau also uses Rufus’s experiences to reveal the broader social effects of systematic racism. A summertime postcard to Mike speaks to how urban poverty can alienate people from the natural environment; Rufus recounts seeing his “first tree” and describes it as “remarkably lifelike.” The strip’s punchline reminds readers of another social dynamic that accompanies racialized poverty, violence. While it’s unclear if the shots outside Rufus’s home are being fired by the police or other actors, Rufus’s poised attitude tells us that this isn’t the first time he’s witnessed this kind of thing (we also know that his brother has been stabbed).

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“Things seem to be picking up.” Doonesbury, 18 July 1971.

Rufus decides to capitalize on the exposition of urban poverty by offering up his services as a guide for white folks eager to experience a taste of ghetto life. In May 1972, Rufus played Virgil to Mike, Bernie, Scott and Boopsie’s Dante as they as they toured the ghetto he calls home. By now, Mike has seen enough of Rufus’s schemes to fall too hard for his schtick, but his companions are both amazed and appalled by the reality that Rufus shows them. They ooh and aah over authentic “ghetto artifacts” like an eviction notice, a nickel bag, and a canceled welfare cheque. Later, Bernie freaks out when he learns that a local “victim of the habit” will soon commit a robbery in order to feed his addiction. While Bernie is concerned for the victim of a potential impending crime, the entire group panics when their exercise in poverty tourism risks bringing them too close to the the social ills that concern them. As when he wrote about white flirtation with Black radicalism, Trudeau focuses on how white support for the anti-racist cause exists in tension with white fear of Black violence.10MAY72

Notwithstanding their fear of Black violence, Mike and his friends do believe that they are in a position to help undo racism and its effects. While GBT usually allowed white characters to embarrass themselves in their interactions with Calvin, Rufus frequently calls out white liberals for the shortcomings of their attempts to help African-Americans. While Calvin’s usual reaction to the clueless and awkward musings of his white liberal supporters is a silent grimace – after all, he cannot afford to alienate political allies – Rufus speaks truth to power in a way that only children can. Rufus’s first words to Mike – “Welcome, you dumb honky” – establish that he will not fawn over Mike’s liberal do-goodism, a sentiment he repeats after a few months of working with Mike. Beyond keeping Mike in line, Rufus offers cynical commentary on all varieties of white anti-racist activism. His limited enthusiasm for busing resonates with the attitudes of many African-American activists who saw the policy as, at best, a stop-gap measure that could not undo a long history of discriminatory educational policies. Rufus also calls out Scott Sloane for the “slightly patronizing flavour” of the food offered in the Reverend’s “free breakfast program for ghetto kids” and, when Sloane recalls hearing Martin Luther King speak at the March on Washington, expresses his doubts about the radical priest’s commitment – and that of white liberals more generally – to Black empowerment. And “empowerment” is a term that is close to Rufus’s heart.

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Calvin’s politics are largely implied through his association with the Black Panthers; Rufus, on the other hand, is given more opportunity to explicitly outline his vision of Black radical politics. His focus is on the seizure of power; Rufus wants his people to have “a lasting piece of the action,” and dreams of being a nuclear physicist so that he can help his people “harness the atom” to put themselves in “a better position to bargain with the whites.” Four years before the release of Parliament-Funkadelic’s 1975 hit “Chocolate City,” in which George Clinton proposes an America led by Muhammad Ali as President, James Brown as VP and Richard Pryor as Secretary of Education, Rufus laid out his own vision of American leadership: Huey Newton as Prime Minister and Miles Davis as Attorney General (…given the times in which we live, we’re just going to skate past the Bill Cosby reference in this strip).

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Rufus’s radical vision. Doonesbury, 7 April 1971; 14 November 1971.

While Rufus is quick to criticize white engagement with the Black struggle, he is not unflagging in his support of Black leadership. One of the few critiques of Black political activism offered by Doonesbury in the 1970s came in the form of Rufus expressing his disappointment that he could not attend an Angela Davis event because tickets were fifty dollars, “which ain’t bad bread for an avowed communist.” That said, Rufus refuses to acknowledge critiques coming from outside the Black community. Scott’s musings about how Black leaders no longer “[dream] of mobilizing their communities and shaping their own destinies,” draw nothing more than a dismissive shrug from the young Black radical.

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Rufus calls it as he sees it. Doonesbury 6 August 1972.

And yet: while Rufus demonstrates a fair amount of disdain for the white people who attach themselves to the Black struggle, he also develops a strong connection to, and a profound gratitude for, Mike and his efforts to help him learn. Soon after they meet, Rufus awakens Mike for some late-night help with his science homework; Mike’s annoyance is quickly replaced by a genuine sense of self-worth that runs against his usual “loser” persona. A few months later, Rufus realizes that, instead of being happy for a summer break from Mike’s lessons, he actually misses the “crazy honky.” It turns out that, “for a liberal,” Mike is “pretty lovable.” In February 1973, Rufus invited Mike into his family, asking him to be the godfather for his adopted baby brother (who later turns out to be a sister named Norma Jean). When he meets Norma Jean, Mike reveals a sense of compassion that Trudeau rarely ascribes to him. He is overwhelmed by the responsibility he has taken on, and he wants to shelter Norma Jean for as long as possible from the ugly truths that will shape her life in a white supremacist society.

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Mike’s alright, once you get to know him. Doonesbury, 9 April 1971; 6 April 1972.

Mike is most often the scapegoat of the strip; his peers are as quick to ridicule him as he is to embarrass himself, and his conduct towards women, especially, reveals him to be selfish and insensitive. And yet, even read through the lens of GBT’s critique of white liberalism, Mike’s relationship with Rufus is an early example of the Mike’s evolution into a character who is is more aware and caring than originally presented. Writing and drawing Rufus allowed Trudeau to deliver cutting satire about the relationships between Black and white Americans at a time when those relationships were being increasingly interrogated and challenged by young people. It also allowed him to start writing his titular character as more than a loser.

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Mike at his best. Doonesbury, 3 March 1973.

He’s Black, He’s Beautiful, and by Gosh, He’s Angry: Race in the Early Doonesbury Strips, Part I.

My last three “Long Strange Trip” posts have looked at how Doonesbury treated the Vietnam War during the first few years of its run, starting with B.D’s experience in ROTC through his decision to enlist and his encounter with Phred the Vietcong terrorist. Though B.D. was sent home as part of Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization,” his repatriation did not mark the end of GBT’s engagement with Vietnam. The war figured prominently in the strip up until the fall of Saigon in 1975, and in the years and decades that followed, the experiences of characters including B.D., Phred, and Kim Rosenthal allowed GBT to chronicle the lasting effects of an event that plated a formative role for his generation. But I’m going to put Vietnam aside for a little while and go back to look at some other themes that figured prominently in Doonesbury’s first years. This, then, is the first of two posts about race in the early Doonesbury strips.

I’ve said before that the character of Joanie Caucus introduced me to feminism in my early teenage years; in a similar vein, Doonesbury was my gateway to the concept of Black radicalism. As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Montreal in the 1980s, my education in terms of racism and the struggle against it was limited to a few clips from newsreels about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Garry Trudeau was the first writer to tell me about the Black Panthers and the idea that anti-racism did not begin and end with King. Inspired by some of the strips I’m looking at today, I wrote a Grade Eight term paper about the Panthers; I really wish I’d held on to it. I’m sure it would be massively embarrassing to read it now.

When I began reading the early Doonesbury strips, I also had no idea that the presence of Black people as anything other than the butt of racist humour in comic strips that largely featured white characters was, at the time those strips were written, a relatively new thing. In the wake of King’s murder, a retired schoolteacher named Harriet Glickman wrote to several popular cartoonists to suggest that they incorporate African-American characters into their strips. Given the popularity of newspaper comics with children, Glickman reasoned, those readers should be more exposed to images of Black and white children learning and playing together. Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts and arguably the most popular and influential cartoonist of the time, replied that while he and several of his colleagues would have liked to integrate their strips, they were afraid to appear as if they were “patronizing our Negro friends.

Glickman shared Schulz’s reply with two African-American friends, Ken Kelly and Monica Gunning, who both wrote to Schulz to reassure him that a Black Peanuts character would be a positive step forward. A few months later, Franklin joined the Peanuts gang. Franklin would remain a secondary character in the strip, but including a Black character in a funny pages staple like Peanuts was, in 1968, a move that required moral courage: Schulz was asked by editors from Southern newspapers to stop producing material that featured integrated classrooms at a time when “forced integration” was taking place.

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Franklin’s first appearance. Peanuts, 31 July 1968.

Schulz’s inclusion of Franklin was a radical political act, but Peanuts is not a political strip. Two and a half years after Franklin’s first appearance, Garry Trudeau began to address the politics of race in America in a manner that was informed less by a particularly narrow reading of King’s message – that fixing America’s race problems entailed incorporating African-Americans into the mainstream of American life – and more by both the harsh economic and social realities faced by Black people and by the work of radical Black intellectuals and activists who interrogated and ultimately sought to undo a system predicated on white supremacy. But while GBT brought something of the conditions endured by African-Americans and something of the Panthers’ ideas to the comics, he did not try to position himself as the voice of Black radicalism on the funny pages. Rather, Trudeau turned his satirical lens on his own cohort of white liberals and leftists, focusing on how white people who saw themselves as allies in the struggle for racial equality were often unable to deal with the Black struggle on its own terms.

My next couple of posts will look at two African-American characters who appeared regularly in the first few years of Doonesbury, Calvin, a Panther who attends Walden College, and Rufus, a kid from the inner city whom Mike tutors. Calvin and Rufus play similar roles, drawing our attention to the insidious legal, social, and economic effects of white supremacy and pointing out the clumsiness, miscommunication and ignorance that often shapes the efforts of well-intentioned white people who join the struggle against racism. This post looks at Calvin’s appearances in the strip; we’ll look at Rufus next time.

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B.D. sticks his foot in his mouth. Doonesbury, 19 January 1971.

Calvin’s first appearance was on 19 January 191. GBT establishes Doonesbury’s first named Black character as someone whose presence reveals white people’s racism. In that first appearance, B.D. tells Calvin that he’s from “the heartlands of America” and has “fond memories of … waking up at dawn to see blue skies, and Negroes toiling under the sun.” Calvin’s silent rage speaks loud enough to make B.D. realize how wrong his comment was and forces him to amend it, if only to avoid confrontation. Other encounters, however, reveal how white people are completely ignorant of the racism they express. When informed that Calvin will be joining the Slackmeyer family for dinner, Mark’s father tells his wife (and their Black maid) to “throw on some fried chicken.” When informed that his country club “doesn’t allow Negro guests,” the elder Slackmeyer is disappointed, as Blacks “make such splendid caddies.

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Mark’s Dad makes no apologies for his racism. Doonesbury, 13 July 1971; 16 July 1971.

Aside from allowing GBT to satirize the social racism expressed by B.D. and Mark’s father, Calvin’s presence also allowed him to write about how the American legal system used its power to silence radical Black political activism. Calvin’s appearances in Doonesbury coincided with the trial of the “New Haven Nine,” a group of Panthers who were accused of the murder of a suspected FBI mole. Activists at Yale held a large rally in support of the defendants; Yale President Kingman Brewster issued a statement in support of the protest. [1] Somewhat frustratingly, Trudeau didn’t provide much of a back story for Calvin, but it’s clear that Calvin has engaged in the struggle in ways that put his freedom at risk, and that he has close contacts with people who have paid high prices for their activism. When Calvin unexpectedly faces an old comrade in an amateur boxing match, we learn that he’s tight with a Panther who, like Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, had to flee to Algeria to escape legal persecution; as the two friends catch up, Calvin asks how Cleaver is doing.

Mike’s offer to help Calvin during his trial not only reveals the racism permeating the legal system – the judge is depicted as a hooded Klansman – it also speaks to Trudeau’s larger critique of white allies to the Black cause. Mike is a college freshman, not an attorney, so it’s unclear what he might actually do to help Calvin beat the charges. But beyond naive overconfidence, the interactions that Mike and his friends share with Calvin reveal the multi-layered and sometimes contradictory ways in which white progressives engage with the Black liberation struggle. To Mike and his friends, Black radicalism is both glamourised and feared; while whites may enthusiastically respond to Black liberation rhetoric, they are less inclined to fully commit to a struggle that ultimately seeks to undo a system from which they benefit. Finally, their position in the racial hierarchy makes them unable to grasp the true meaning and stakes of Calvin’s struggle on its own terms. In Trudeau’s telling, whites from across the political spectrum ultimately use Black radicalism and Black radicals as means by which to ease their personal guilt about white supremacy.

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…well, he’s angry now. Doonesbury, 11 March 1971.

The romanticization of the Black struggle among white progressives exists in tension with a limited commitment to the success of that struggle. Calvin’s association with the Panthers draws him rock-star levels of adulation. Students gush and cheer as their professor introduces Calvin as “a victim” who is Black, beautiful, and angry “… AN ACTUAL BLACK PANTHER.” Yet this white fascination with, and enthusiasm for, a man who is putting his freedom and possibly his life on the line for racial justice does not extend to accepting actual sacrifice in support of that cause. The white students at the rally in support of the accused Panthers might want to annihilate the status quo, but they don’t want to torch the frat houses. And while some whites enthusiastically embrace vision of Black liberation that won’t involve any real threat to their privilege, others, like Walden College’s President King (in imitation of his real-life counterpart Brewster), cynically sign on as a way to advance their own agenda.

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While President King/Kingman Brewster latches on to the cause to advance his own agenda, Walden/Yale students don’t want to take this revolution thing too far. Doonesbury20 March 1971; 17 March 1971.

The possibility that the frats might get burned down speaks to another theme that Trudeau explores: white fear of Black violence. Even before we meet Calvin, Mike reveals himself as someone who sees radical ideas as leading to potentially bad outcomes for his personal well-being. While he doesn’t want to buy a newspaper from two campus radicals he bumps into – one African-American, the other white – because he “doesn’t believe in revolution,” he also doesn’t want draw the radicals’ ire for not supporting their “free breakfast program for little children,” GBT’s direct nod to the Black Panthers. And so “another white liberal bites the dust”: Mike purchases a paper, “buying in” to save his hide should the revolution actually materialize. The threat that Mike perceives is clearly evident in Trudeau’s rendering of the radicals’ glares and menacing smiles. The notion that Black radicalism ultimately represented a violent threat to white people drives a strip from a year later, when Calvin marks up Mike and B.D.’s door with an X, presumably as a target in an impending uprising, after they don’t come through with a donation for the Panther Defence Fund.In both strips, the characters’ fears of potentially becoming the victims of revolutionary violence is evident, and one can only wonder to what degree Mike’s wariness resonated with Trudeau’s readers.

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Mike buys in. Doonesbury, 18 November 1971; 19 November 1971.

Finally, Doonesbury’s white characters reveal a profound degree of ignorance about the Black struggle that they try to support in their own clumsy ways, and it seems as if they rarely miss the opportunity to say the wrong thing. When the buzz over the rally in support of Calvin subsides, Mike assures him that “even though the Panthers are out of vogue,” he won’t be “switching ethnic groups.” (Mike’s comments reflect how, after the New Haven trial, the Panthers became much less of a role in a broader campus activist political culture). Mark suggests that the young Black revolutionary rebrand himself as a “civil rights negro.” Mike seems to Black radicalism as a fashion accessory, while Mark grossly underestimates the depth of his fellow revolutionary’s commitment to a radical vision. While Calvin typically responds to the ignorance displayed by his white supporters with a look of dejected resignation, he at least once calls Mike out for his bullshit: when Mike asks him if he’d “rather be Black or white,” his answer is pretty clear: “….it’s a pretty stupid question.”

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Cluelessness abounds. Doonesbury, 22 March 1971; 19 March 1971.

Because he has lived a life of privilege, Mike cannot understand the meaning and the stakes of Calvin’s political struggle. He means well, but there are intellectual and experiential barriers that prevent him from being able to support Calvin on Calvin’s terms. Next time, we’ll see how, even with his baggage of ignorance, awkwardness, and self-interest. Mike was able to foster a meaningful mentoring relationship with Rufus. There’s kind of a redemption story there: as we’ll see, Mike’s moments with his young student allowed GBT to give us a far more complex, and ultimately sympathetic view of his titular character.

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Mike will, eventually learn a bit. Really. Doonesbury, 26 October 1971.

 

1. For the trial, see Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martini, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, University of California Press, 2013, pp. 254-262. In fact, read the whole book, it’s an essential history of the movement.