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 played 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.

Peanuts31JUL68

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.

19JAN71

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

Calvin’s first appearance was on 19 January 1971. GBT establishes Doonesbury’s first named Black character as someone whose presence reveals white people’s racism. B.D. tells Calvin that he comes 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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16JUL71

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.

11MAR70

…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.

20MAR71

17MAR71

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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19NOV70

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.”

22MAR71

19MAR71

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.

26OCT71

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.

This Week in Doonesbury: “We’re Not Going Anywhere.”

This week’s Doonesbury is a powerful comment on a contemporary political movement, the emergence of which over the last few weeks was both long overdue and largely unexpected. Gun-control activism has attracted the energy and attention of America’s youth in the wake of the Parkland shootings. This movement was long overdue because the stakes are so high: accounts of American mass shootings blur together as greedy politicians and lobbyists and firearms manufacturers profit from an insane domestic arms race. It was unexpected because until Parkland, it really seemed as if those Americans who understand the importance of the “well-regulated” part of the Second Amendment had resigned themselves to the fact that, given the political strength of their opposition, they were fighting a lost cause. If twenty dead children and their teachers at Sandy Hook weren’t going to change the country’s moral calculus, many seemed to reason, nothing could.

Then Parkland happened and the people with the most at stake in the gun debate – the kids who go to school every day wondering if it might be their turn to die at the hands of an overarmed, enraged young man – took charge, and told their teachers, principals and parents and the politicians, lobbyists and gun nuts that they’d had enough. Their hashtag, #NeverAgain, has joined #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter as an online reflection of grassroots movements that are presenting a profound challenge to American structures of power.

Beyond recognizing the importance of the movement sparked by the Parkland students, the 1 April strip plays on a theme that has been central to Trudeau’s work for decades – his generation’s reckoning with its history, especially the question of how the Boomers failed to follow through on, and ultimately lost, the ideals that had driven them to challenge the establishment in their youth.

I have an ambivalent relationship with the Boomers. I’m a student of Boomer-era history (I wrote my dissertation on 1960s radicalism) and a I’m lifelong consumer of Boomer culture. Their generation made huge strides towards of creating new political, social and cultural freedoms. At the same time, as someone living in a world where so much of the 1968 generation’s vision of a better day has yet to be realized, I have a healthy dose of resentment towards a generation that, like their forebears, will not relax their stranglehold on political and cultural power, and will not make room for a younger generation with new energy and new ideas. This week’s strip takes that tension head-on.

Sunday’s strip begins with Mark prepping for an interview with one of the Parkland activists. As the interview is wrapping up, Mark asks a question that is completely dismissive of the dedication the young man and and his peers have shown as they have fought the political establishment: “[Having] seen how Washington really works, are you kids ready to call it quits?” Mark’s guest replies that, regardless of the patronizing attitudes that Mark has just demonstrated, these kids “are in this for good, [and] won’t stop fighting until there’s real change!” At that moment, a transformation occurs: Mark sees his past self in the young man sitting in front of him, and is forced to confront his, and his generation’s, failure to follow through on the values they embraced decades ago. That penultimate panel, with present-day Mark looking into the eyes of his enraged younger self, wondering how he lost the passion that drives the Parkland kids, ranks among the most moving moments in Doonesbury history.

1APR18

Mark confronts his past. Doonesbury, 1 April 2018

This is the second time in recent months that Mark’s studio has been the setting for a flashback that puts the politics of today in dialogue with those of Trudeau’s youth: on 22 October 2017, Trudeau linked the behaviour of the current occupant of the White House to that of a previously-disgraced president by revisiting one of Doonesbury’s most iconic panels (Here’s the post I wrote about that strip). Yet while GBT might be feeling a little sentimental in our troubled times, his generation’s understanding of its past has been a Doonesbury touchstone for decades. One Doonesbury staple that lets readers trace the Boomers coming to terms with their history is the periodic decade revival parties hosted at Walden. I’ll be looking at later fin-de-decade shindigs later, but it’s the first of two sixties revival parties, held in March 1974 (the second was in 1977), that I want to focus on here. The arc balanced silly fun and black humour: the president of Walden College arrived dressed as himself from five years earlier, ready to negotiate with student protestors occupying his office; other guests showed up as wounded Vietnam vets and Charles Manson, reminding us, contrary to the images of “the Summer of Love” and naked flower children dancing in the mud at Woodstock, the sixties were a fundamentally dark time.

10DEC74

At the Walden sixties revival party, Nicole is appalled at some of the costume choices. Doonesbury, 10 December 1974.

11DEC74

…meanwhile, President King relives the glory days of the sixties. Doonesbury, 11 December 1974.

But it’s a moment between Mike and Mark that foreshadows the sense of generational self-disillusionment that Trudeau addressed in this week’s strip. Mark is dressed as his activist self – black armband, his head bandaged after being beaten by the pigs – and Mike, the ultimate middle-of-the-road liberal, is one of  “the Best and the Brightest,” John F. Kennedy’s team of intellectuals whose policy recommendations help lead America into the Vietnam quagmire. At Mark’s request, Mike recites his paraphrased version of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech (the actual passage reads: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”). The two young men laugh warmly at the passage, fondly recalling the youthful optimism it encapsulates. Their laughter, however, quickly gives way to a grim understanding: in 1974, with Nixon embroiled in a scandal that would politically disillusion a generation and the war in Vietnam an unmitigated and still-unresolved disaster, it was clear that a generation charged with making their nation and the world a better place had failed to meet the challenge and had lost something vital in the process. Forty-four years later, in an NPR studio, facing a new generation determined to leave the world a better place than what they inherited, the bitter taste of failure still haunts Mark, and it still haunts Garry Trudeau.

12DEC74

“The Best and the Brightest.” Doonesbury, 12 December 1974.

13DEC74

“What’s happened to us?” Doonesbury, 13 December 1974.

And yet, as always, another generation is ready to do what has to be done – push the old folks out of the way and work towards necessary change. In The Wretched of the Earth, the Martinican philosopher Frantz Fanon, discussing the generation that comes to power when colonialism gives way to independence, wrote that “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” Trudeau may well be bitter about his generation’s betrayals of their youthful ideals and mission, especially in these dark times. But more importantly, he hasn’t lost his faith in the energy and vision of youth: the Parkland kids may have come out of nowhere, but they’ve discovered their mission, and they aren’t going anywhere.