The Boondocks, Return of the King

Revisiting The Boondocks’ Martin Luther King Jr. Episode “Return of the King” in 2021

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In what would be the most controversial episode of its first season, on January 15, 2006, The Boondocks aired “Return of the King,” an episode penned by Boondocks comic creator Aaron McGruder and would go on to win a Peabody Award in 2006.

“Return of the King” is an episode framed in the fantasy mind of Huey Freeman about what would have happened if Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had survived the assassination attempt against his life, but was placed in a coma until 2000. King finds himself disillusioned by the state of African-American culture, taking shots at BET, and finds himself at odds due to Fox News (shocker) thinking he is unpatriotic, due to continuing to be a pacifist after the 9/11 attacks. This delivers a major blow to King’s public reputation.

As Huey and King navigate 21st Century Black America, the idealism of King comes up against the cynical world that exists today. This all leads up to the most infamous part of the episode, where King attempts to deliver a speech in front of a group of Black Americans who are distracted by music. He then drops the N-word bomb. A lot.

A snippet:

“Is this it? This is what I got all those ass-whoopings for? I had a dream once. It was a dream that little black boys and little black girls would drink from the river of prosperity, freed from the thirst of oppression. But lo’ and behold, some four decades later, what have I found but a bunch of trifling, shiftless, good-for-nothing nigg@s. And I know some of you don’t want to hear me say that word — it’s the ugliest word in the English language. But that’s what I see now — nigg@s.”

The Boondocks is one of the shows I always think of when it comes Black shows that are targeted at Black audiences, despite its popularity among white people. When I watch this episode, I know who McGruder is talking to, and I can also understand the awkwardness of knowing that non-Black people are watching this being said, too. That being said, I think the episode hits at the frustration at the state of the country, especially during the Bush administration.

Black people had limited presence in the areas of entertainment, and Black-owned television network BET had been spreading regressive images of Black folk, spreading stigma that is still being shaken off today.

There is nothing wrong with Black folk who want to twerk and have a good time, and I don’t think that the episode’s version of King is advocating for respectability politics. Moreso what he (and, really, McGruder) is addressing is the way in which culture projected an image of Blackness that was limiting, and the ways in which people adopted it—not because it was their true self, but because when you are constantly being force-fed an idea that Blackness is something, you internalize it, especially when introspection is not encouraged.

While activists like Al Sharpton criticized the show for having King say the “N-word,” it at least keeps to the core of his politics without sanitizing his pacifism. During Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s extremely exhausting to see how politicians who are against BLM and use racist dog whistles also quote the late activist as though they’d be in agreement.

While imperfect, the episode was a call to arms, one that I think many people heard, even with the satire. At the end of the episode, we see the front page of a November 2020 newspaper that shows King has died in Vancouver, British Columbia at the age of 91, and that Oprah Winfrey has just been elected President of the United States.

As Huey says in his final comment, “It’s fun to dream.”

(image: Adult Swim)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.