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.

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. In Calvin’s first appearance, 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.

13JUL71

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.

18NOV70

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.

“Even Revolutionaries Love Chocolate Chip Cookies”: Mark Slackmeyer and Radical Campus Politics.

When Garry Trudeau introduced readers to Nichole in September 1971, he seems to have largely shed the frat-boy misogyny that had dominated his writing about women and relationships between women and men in his early strips. [1] The introduction of a character who actively criticized and protested sexism and patriarchy not only marked a key shift in the strip’s portrayal of women, it marked the end of part of Trudeau’s “world-building” process. With the introduction of feminism as a regular thread, Trudeau finished assembling a set of themes that he would continue to explore over the next decades. Some of these themes would receive more or less attention over the years, and others would be introduced as real-world events warranted, but within the first year of Doonesbury’s existence, much of the thematic terrain Trudeau would go on to explore was sketched out. Alongside feminism, these themes include:

  • Radical politics
  • Education
  • War
  • Relationships between generations
  • Race
  • Electoral politics
  • Sports
  • Media
  • Drugs and countercultures

For the next little while, I’m going to be looking at how GBT introduced each of these ideas during the first year or so of Doonesbury’s run and set himself and his characters up to explore them. I’ll do my best to frame each theme around a particular character or set of characters. This week, radical campus politics through the eyes of Mark Slackmeyer.

But first, a quick diversion about the general political culture of Doonesbury’s first few years. Trudeau’s “Core Four” of B.D., Mike, Mark and Zonker each represent a distinct faction in Boomer political culture. From right to left: B.D. is a young Goldwater Republican; Mike (leaving aside the strong misogynistic tendencies he displayed in the early years) is a bleeding-heart liberal; and Mark represents the radical left. Fluttering about in no particular lane is Zonker, a head who has believes in neither the bullet nor the ballot. In later posts, then, I’ll come back to B.D.’s hyper-patriotic conservatism, Mike’s wishy-washy liberalism, and Zonker’s flying-of-the-freak-flag.

We first meet “Megaphone” Mark Slackmeyer on 19 November 1970, as he calls out Mike’s political spinelessness. Mark represents the New Left phase of the American revolutionary tradition – movements like the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. Mark actively opposed the war in Vietnam, read Marx and hoped to see the end of capitalism, and was an active ally in struggles against racism and sexism.

Our first extended encounter with Mark follows him as he stages a one-man occupation of Walden College’s president’s house, one he narrates as a historical epic starring himself. Trudeau often had characters act as their own interior sportscaster, calling the play-by-play on whatever they were up to, much as a sandlot baseball player might “call” his or her on-field performance as they strive to emulate one of the game’s greats. Garry Wills, in his introduction to the first hardcover Doonesbury complication writes that this device allowed Trudeau to comment on how people understood their actions in terms of a larger ongoing narrative: Doonesbury’s characters are “watching each other watch themselves” as they play their ascribed roles. [2] As Mark watches himself play the role of the radical campus activist leader, Trudeau uses his experiences to satirize elements of the radical campus politics of the Vietnam era. Mark’s play-by-play on his solo occupation of Walden College’s president’s house, for instance, points at the egotism that seems all too common among political leaders, while hinting at some the darker elements of the political climate of the times.

Slackmeyer practices for his big moment, and reminds us that people were beaten and killed for contesting the system. 2 December 1970

Another element of radical politics that Trudeau explores through Mark is the gap between student activists – who often come from a comfortable backgrounds which give them the opportunity to immerse themselves in political theory – and the people on whose behalf they claim to be struggling. Mark may be out on the streets fighting capitalism, but he’s the son of a wealthy stockbroker, and his family has servants. This distance between students and workers is the theme of a long July 1971 arc in which Mark takes up a summer job on a construction site. He wants to connect with the working class and introduce them to revolutionary theory; instead, his self-superior attitude leads him to alienate his fellow workers. Instead of forging a student-worker alliance, he spends much of his time getting beaten up. Unable to get through to the workers, Mark talks down to them – and reveals something about how he actually feels about his ostensible allies in the working class. Of course, those working-class revolutionary allies often know their revolutionary theory better than the academic “experts,” as we see in what is one of my all-time favourite Doonesbury strips. The bricklayer represents what the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Grasmsci called an organic intellectual, a thinker who emerges from within the working class, and is thus better-positioned than a stockbroker’s son to help workers understand their circumstances and envision a road forward. 

17July71

“The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between this profusion of matter and the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.” — André Malraux. 17 July 1971.

As student activists are alienated from important elements of the society they hope to change, they are also often alienated from each other – and inept as a result. A long December 1971 arc featured Mark’s experience as the moderator at a radical campus activist congress reveals how sometimes, it seems as if activist movements can be their own worst enemies

8December71

Anybody who has been involved in activist politics can relate to this. 8 December 1971

One strip from that sequence brings into focus an American tragedy that Trudeau commented on through Mark’s experience, that of the violence inflicted by the state on those who fought for a better world. The young women and men who struggled in the 1960s and 1970s for equal rights, equal opportunity and equal justice for African-Americans, migrants, women, and LGBT people, and who fought to end a brutal and unjust neo-colonial war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, fought a system that was built on violence and never shrank from using violence to maintain the social order. As we see above, Mark’s first campus occupation ends with the arrival of “baby-blue helmets,” striking visible fear into our previously-confident hero’s heart. A few weeks later, a Trudeau gives us a bit of dark humour on the use of surveillance and chemical weapons against protesters.

There were any number of atrocities committed by the American state against the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 70s; the Murder of Fred Hampton; Attica; Chicago ‘68. But one horror seems to have had special significance to a young Garry Trudeau. On 4 December 1971, a young man proposes the congress issue a statement calling for “an end to government-sanctioned violence.” When B.D. challenges the man on his right to talk about violence, we get one of the darkest punchlines Trudeau ever penned: he’s the delegate from Kent State. The May 4, 1970 murder of four students at Ohio’s Kent State University was the subject of at least three strips in the first fifteen months of Doonesbury’s run. On 28 November, things take a dark turn as Mike announces that he has moved on from being outraged over Kent State: if he were to stay angry about Kent State, he reasons, his “indignation over Attica would be compromised.” A few months later, we find Zonker reflectively issuing a bitter commentary on the anniversary of the massacre at Kent State; using the voice of a character who rarely follows current events to comment on the massacre two years on conveys the scope of the tragedy for Trudeau and his contemporaries. 

4May72

This is the one of the most poignant strips in the early Doonesbury. 4 May 1972

Mark will remain a crucial voice for radical political ideas as the strip moves forward, even as he loses some of his edge with age. He allows us to see the political idealism of his era in terms of its triumphs and its defeats, whether those defeats were self-inflicted or the outcome of state violence. Mark shows us, above all, the human foibles that shape any political undertaking; after all, like all of us, revolutionaries are just regular people who want a better world, and love chocolate chip cookies.

22December70

22 December 1970

[1] I say “seems to” because I’m still reading through the strip and can’t vouch for what I haven’t read yet. Also, there may very well be sexism/misogyny that I don’t see in the post-Nichole strips that I have read.

[2] Garry Wills, “Introduction,” in Garry B. Trudeau, Doonesbury Chronicles (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1975).

This Week in Doonesbury: “The Safest Space on the Comics Page”

July 2nd’s Doonesbury strip ran as Image Comics pulled a cover image drawn by Howard Chaykin that was widely perceived as being violent and racist (a perception I share).  The image and the ultimate call to pull it fuelled debate about hate speech, the limits of free speech, and the responsibility of artists to consider the messages behind, and the potential effects of, the images they create and market. On one side of these debates were progressively-minded comics artist, scholars and fans (my Twitter feed counted a high proportion of women, PoC and Queer- and Trans-identifying people in this camp; your Twitter mileage may vary). On the other side of the debate were people (largely men, largely white, it seemed: again, statistical analysis limited to my recollection of my Twitter feed) who believe in a narrow conception of free speech that seems to disregard accounting for a power imbalance between privilege and marginality or the potentially painful histories through which people perceive art. Some in this camp claim the right to shock simply for the sake of shocking. While some on this side had thoughtful things to say about the relationship between freedom and responsibility, more than a few seemed to rely on slippery-slope arguments about book-burnings and imploring their opponents to go back to their “safe spaces.”

“Safe spaces” were also at play in the weekend’s Doonesbury offering. It’s Reader Mailbag time, a recurring set up since sometime in the 80s (I think). A young man writes, asking if he can read Doonesbury without fear of being offended: Mike and Mark reassure him that characters undergo regular “sensitivity training,” making them “the most woke in all of comics”; Doonesbury has thus been named “the safest space on the comics page for twelve years running.” The punch line is Mark’s outrage at the fact that they lost the title one year because a “snowflake” reported them for a “microaggressive joke.”

Reading the strip in the context of what was going on in Comics Twitter (…a space I am still very new to…) in the wake of the Chaykin situation hung me up a bit. What exactly was GBT getting at? Given Mark’s deployment of words often used by the right to mock elements of today’s radical youth culture, it’s reasonable to read the strip as a shot taken by an ageing Boomer against a generation that he is completely out-of-touch with: “Look at those damn Millenials, they can’t even handle reading a comic strip out of fear they might get offended.” From there, the joke easily becomes: “Even libtards like Garry Trudeau hate the Millenials!!””

And that may well be what GBT was trying to say. But even if he did mean it that way, the strip points to a larger truth that’s at stake.

First off, I don’t buy the idea that Trudeau is simply playing the “hey you kids get off my lawn” card. One: he’s not that lazy. Two: it doesn’t fit with his long history of holding nuanced views on any generation. GBT both praised and ridiculed his generation’s various sub-sets, and he does the same with the Millenials who followed. Yes, Jeff and Zipper are idiots. But Alex and Toggle are smart and resourceful grown-ups confronting a world that holds much less promise than did the world offered to their parents.

Reading the 2 July strip in terms of Doonesbury’s longer history makes things a little more interesting. Mark Slackmeyer is a former campus radical who came out as gay sometime in his late thirties or early forties. His character is the personification of the most radical elements of the campus anti-war left of the 1960s and 1970s. He represents those who fought on the front lines of a revolutionary movement that experienced violence on a level that has often been left out of popular memory of the 1960s. Mark has been beaten, tear-gassed and jailed as he and his comrades confronted the violent racism and imperialism of post-war America. Mark is a stand-in for the Students for a Democratic Society, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the defendants at the Chicago Eight Trial, and the four college kids who were shot down by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970, and his sexuality puts the Stonewall uprising in his radical genealogy (though his marriage to a neo-con risks putting his radical cred in jeopardy). Mark isn’t speaking for his generation writ large: he’s speaking as a representative of a particular moment in the longer history of the radical American tradition.

As the most radical early regular cast member, Mark played another crucial role throughout much of Doonesbury’s history, that of the younger half of a deep divide between the Boomers and the (self-described) “Greatest Generation.” Mark’s relationship with his father was the relationship between a substantial cohort of the Boomers and their parents in microcosm. Mark’s father Phil was a conservative in every sense of the word, and every choice the younger Slackmeyer made challenged Phil’s values. Love of country, long-held ideas about relationships between black and white or men and women, the capitalist system: Mark rejected his old man’s values with every fibre of his being. Trudeau’s strips about the eternal father-son conflict between Phil and Mark Slackmeyer allowed him to explore at length the effects of social and political change on family relationships and the mutual distrust and misunderstandings often experienced across divides. But if the distrust and the misunderstandings are mutual, the punchline usually makes it clear who the good guys are: the younger generation.

With all that in mind, I read this week’s comic not simply as a shot at the “Snowflakes,” but as a commentary on how critiques of today’s radical culture coming from older liberals and lefties happen because clashes between generations are inevitable – even when (elements of) those generations have many shared ideals, outlooks, and ultimate goals. Of course elements of today’s radical culture might well seem ridiculous to a radical activist from decades earlier: otherwise, those things wouldn’t be radical. It’s easy to see how a figure in Mark’s position might have to struggle to make the mental leaps necessary to embrace ideas that arose from a few decades of radical politics following his own activist years. Mark doesn’t get it; he’s not supposed to get it. That’s part of how generations keep moving forward to a better world.