What Is Your Definition of “Cooning?”

Pictured above is Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry who created the character “Stepin Fetchit.” Billed as the “Laziest Man in the World,” many critics view the Fetchit character as a malignant, buffoonish stereotype that denigrated black culture. But some later scholars see Perry’s work as revolutionary, subversive humor and point out he wrote for legendary black newspaper The Chicago Defender and was the first black actor to become a millionaire.

Recently I got into a dialog with a reader on my Alan Keyes/Obama entry about what constitutes “cooning,” nee “Tomming,” in modern culture.

I thought this was a pretty interesting question as people often fling the terms around so liberally that they apply to people or actions that should be a little more gray in their interpretation. In the past I’ve been accused of “selling out” or being “uppity” because I was critical of the celebration of the lowest end of black culture.

Also, I find the term “Uncle Tom” pretty offensive, given that if the term refers to the “Uncle Tom” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the term has been twisted maliciously. The actual character of “Tom” did love his original master who was kind, but Tom later dies, beaten to death by slave master Simon Legree for protecting a pair of runaway slaves. Dying so others could be free is the opposite of what a so-called “sell-out” is. After I read the novel in college I stopped using the term “Uncle Tom” altogether.

That said, I’m looking for the opinions of others so I can write a column reflecting on these views. What is your definition of a “sell-out” or a “coon?” What is constitutes “cooning?” To whom and what should these labels should apply? Should these terms even be used at all? And how are those who you believe apply to those terms harming black Americans?

Do you think the terms are overused? Do you think they are justified? Do you think black Republicans and conservatives are unfairly labeled as “sell-outs” or are their views/actions tantamount to racial betrayal?

If you have an opinion, please share below or shoot me an email. Your views are appreciated!

19 thoughts on “What Is Your Definition of “Cooning?”

  1. Thanks for the history/etymology lesson. I suspect there are a lot of words we would remove from our lexicon if we knew their history. I am told “picnic” is another.I think “cooning” is mercenary behavior that misrepresents your culture. I say mercernary because that implies a deliberate, volitional act. Many so-called “coons”, “Toms”, “sellouts” are simply ignorant of themselves, their history and the impact of what they do. I believe when they are educated, then they change. They “do better, when they know better”. However, when you deliberately do things that cast yourself, or your people in terrible light–especially before the majority who definitely has no true understanding of your background and culture–and do so in the name of the almighty dollar,, trying to justify it through ratings, “harmlessness”, “it’s what the public wants”, etc., I think you’re “cooning”, you’re “selling out”.There are many examples of this, but, from my perspective, this is applicable principle.

  2. thank you so very much for this post. i’m with you on the usage of ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘tomming’ as referring to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. usually people don’t know what they’re saying when they say it….monkey see, monkey do i think that it’s just a reflection of KNOWING the truth versus BELIEVING the truth.yea, i think we over use a lot of words and phrases. theyve become buzz words…language that we use when we wish to evoke a certain potent emotion or imagery. i think it dilutes the meaning of the actual events and such that we are speaking of…but i digressto me, cooning is synonymous for acting a fool in front of your superiors….lowering yourself and those you represent by playing up to stereotypes and prejudices. cooning, soft-shoing, shucking & jiving, putting on black face….all have the same meaning to me…basically pretending to be someone/something lower than who you really are for the sake of some kind of perceived advancement, favortisim, or entertainment of those who are ‘above’ you or are in powerselling out means you’ve left your people/family/friends behind to, once again, become something or someone you really arent. all for the sake of ‘getting ahead’

  3. actually doc, the picnic thing is urban legend. so far, I agree with cbrava’s definition of “cooning”.

  4. Most people “sell out” if you really, really put it in context to the ideas that we are an organized group with internal infrasture and unified mindset based on a value set of behavior, esteem, merit, and laws. However we don’t have any of that. I’m unconventional and so is my viewpoint.When I am judging someone, in some cases I am wrong because we were and aren’t organized. I am holding up measuure of someone against an internalized ideal that SOME also identify with but we never agreed to leglislate it as coded law. We would have to be a group with a nucleus of governing.So…according to what I think, I see that most Blacks are sellouts because my measure is of high expectations most of us have not been socialized to try to meet in execution in modern life. I want us mortal Black beings to be exceptional and hence a lot of people want to be average, comfortable, or down-to-earth which are all matters of opinion of measure.Basically though, you never hear our people professing they want to be exceptional or extraordinary. So with that, my measurements are elitist and truly the type of high expectations not normally accepted or revered by our people. I don’t like excuses and don’t accept conditions of people wanting me to understand (eventhough I do). I am tough.So I see we are a people of sellouts who refuse to be better than the best (who decides what and who the best are).But if you are looking for a definition of a conventional sellout, it is not just the people who don’t want to be identified as the typified “Black in tragedy” and/or honor, it is the type of person that wants to get over the easiest way without obstacles or competition that could induce failure as a recognized typified Black in tragedy or honorable esteem. Wanting to own and share in solidarity to fight The Struggle is part of the clause in not being a sellout.

  5. uncle ruckus on “the boondocks” is my definition of a coon…i know it’s a cartoon, but that’s what comes to my mind…i don’t necessarily consider black repubs to be sell out’s…i personally agree with smaller government…of course that is not at all what they stand for these days…it’s a choice they make… and while i can’t wrap my head around black repub in 2008, i also question why we black folks automatically give our support to the dems when there a quite a few that do nothing to deserve our support…another word that has questionable meaning is the term “buck”…as in this gallon of milk costs three bucks…that word was used to describe black men and their worth in the so called go ole days…

  6. I may catch hell for this, but it’s my opinion, so hey.Off the top of my head–and I will have to go back and think about this a bit more–as much as I agree with several things that both Obama and Wright have said over the course of this presidential campaign (yeah, sorry for going *here*, but again–first thing that comes to mind), I think they’ve both sold each other out for their own reasons. I’m a complete Obama supporter, and I understand the political game he has to play; however, I think that the way he “denounced” Wright for the sake of appeasing voters amounts to a sell-out. And likewise with Wright for the way he capitalized on the opportunity, for whatever reason (paid off, protecting his own image, stupidity–whatever), to show his ass when and how he did (again, I actually agree with many of his points, but it was the delivery and the timing).I’m sure there are better examples. That make sense? Maybe I’m grasping at straws…I totally agree with cbrava about “cooning.” Interesting post!

  7. thanks dewfish for that picnic clarification…it’s so easy to buy into. Picnic is actually french and the word became popular during the artsy period in Paris (don’t remember the exact time, but think van Gogh time or thereabouts). anyway the word means “little pieces” as in little pieces of food to nosh on.But re: black coservatives – they’re not race traders, though I disagree so much with many conservatives.I will say one thing, this matter of terminology & even black conservatism hinges on the one thing we’re not directly talking about – CLASSIM within the African-American Community now and in the past.One time a group of people (that I didn’t know) accused me and my friends of being clique-ish and bougie. At first everyone got upset..Then I thought about it. Yeah. we’re middle class (aspiring) young professionals. We have middle class values of ownership, personal responsibility, enjoying the arts and concerts, and encouraging each other to be sucessful. The remark was meant to be an insult, and at first it ws taken that way. Then I thought..it’s true and why does it have a negative connotation? Why does being (or wanting to be) middle class insulting?

  8. The Urban Scientist: I think it comes from the African American community being so small. Out of pure survivalist beliefs there’s never been much tolerance for dissenting views. And things are demonstrably worse now as the black middle class is much larger, but the popular view of black Americans is still poor and presently urban (formerly rural). Hence why kids I went to school with would brag about going to the city to hang out with city kids while others would argue over whose parents came from the most impoverished circumstances. This while wearing designer clothes, applying for state colleges and kvetching over how there’s nothing to do in the ‘burbs.Since the “poor” black identity is the only legitimate identity in popular culture those who exist outside of it are considered “sell-outs” or “stuck up.” Plus, all American culture has a streak of anti-intellectualism to it, hence “bitter-gate” over Obama’s “elitism,” which makes no sense as he came from a humble background but OBVIOUSLY must think he’s better than us because he had the gall to go to Harvard Law, get married to Michelle before impregnating Michelle and not “keeping it real” by becoming a rapper, pro-athlete or a street pharmacist.It’s beyond lame. But that is often what is at issue. We’re a small community and well-to-do black folk don’t want to upset lower class black folk who constitute the majority (so far.)

  9. Recently, I’ve been re-thinking the word “coon” in regards to talking about entertainment. I think when we do that, we blame actors/comedians/etc for white people* who believe negative stereotypes of black folks–and I think that lets those white people off the hook. It easy to get mad “our own” because it’s easier to show disapproval for individuals than to deal with the larger problem of racism. It perpetuates the myth that if we (or characters on the screen) just acted “right” racism would magically go away. Not that people shouldn’t be offended or upset by stereotypical characters–but those characters where/are symptoms of a much larger problem.(*I’m using “white people” but really it could be any non-black people who embrace negative stereotypes of black folks as truth.)As far as sellouts are concerned, I think a black person becomes a sell out to the community when their goal is to harm the community to line his or her own pockets. I think most black republicans believe their philosophy will actually help the community. If your goal is to help, uplift, improve, etc–I don’t think you are a sellout.The black republican politician who tries to deter blacks from voting or says nothing while his white buddies engage in dirty tricks that would benefit him–that’s a sellout. A black republican politician who tries to trick black people into voting for him by falsely claiming that highlevel black democrats endorse him, that’s a sellout.Now, the black banker who smooth talks retirees into ridiculous mortgages that they don’t need, that would be a sellout.

  10. Snob,I think Debra Lee is the queen of the coons at the moment. I also think Black pastors/ churches that have aligned themselves with Evangelicals are also coons.I don’t think in general that Black Republicans are necessarily coons. I think many of the Black Republican pundits are definitely coons. People like Armstrong Williams, La Shawn Barber, etc.I used to think rappers were coons as well. I have a larger view of the situation now. I think that although they certainly aren’t blameless in being participants in the minstrelsy that is hip hop, they are really just pawns used by corporate America.It’s really easy to attack them, rappers as Oprah has done. It’s much harder to attack Viacom and David Geffen and all of the real power brokers who control hip hop.Monie

  11. Thanks for confirmation on the picnic urban legend. Did additional research too. Guess even valued and respected sources can be wrong. But re: the entertainment industry,I must confess, that I do wonder that, while holding the entertainment media conglomerates accountable, our doing the “right” thing would still have a positive effect. Perhaps it is totally naive and unrealistic, but if, for instance, our hip-hop artists(actually any entertainer) collectively decided to only produce positive image entertainment, there would still be profit because the negative option would be limited. Art and culture are reflectors of each other,and one cannot be changed without affecting the other. One can be true to the culture form of your generation without perpetuating negativity. It wouldn’t erase racism, but it might help to reduce our contribution negative imagery. But I guess that would be considered selling out too.

  12. [quote]What is your definition of a “sell-out” or a “coon?” What is constitutes “cooning?” To whom and what should these labels should apply?[/quote]With the baseline assumption being that POPULARITY of an action or belief is not a mutually exclusive construct on the question of “Sellout-ness”andwith “Sellout” defined as a series of thoughts and actions that serve to place SOMEONE ELSE’S interests in front of your own……..it is easy to make the case that a good portion of Popular Black Political Advocacy is in a sold out state. Again this might just mean that many are standing within a crowd of ‘sellouts’ and thus are not being called to the carpet for their actions but they are sellouts by definition based on their actions.In 2008 with so many areas that have a high concentration of Black people being governed by people who are in popular favor YET STILL our schools are dysfunctional, our streets are unsafe, our economic districts are not employing our own people to their maximum capability and ‘healthy lifestyles’ are not being promoted because doing so is not popular.How else might you define a SOLD OUT state?The sad truth is that despite their advocacy against their POPULARLY ACCEPTED ENEMY – too many Black voters practice VOTER NULLIFICATION when they enter the polling booth. Their actions in the privacy of the voting booth has little resemblance to that which is going on in the streets of their own communities. In Clayton County Georgia, Detroit Michigan and Philadelphia PA among other cities – despite having favorable people per the POPULAR (I am arguing “sold out”) position to the best interests of Black folks many of these people are now suffering the impact of their previous choices. In Clayton County 3 years after acquiring political control over all of the offices within the county – the majority Black school district that has 54,000 children stands on the verge of losing its accreditation. Where as in the past the voters bought into the notion of having “someone who looks like you and has your own best interests in mind” in office….they now see how they were used in the process. Several loyal Black Democratic families are packing up and moving to the Republican dominated counties of Fayette and Henry to the south – departing the Democratic enclave of Clayton. Where as most of our people believe that the purpose of our political advocacy is to bring home the BLACK BEST INTEREST home into our communities….the actual facts on the street prove otherwise. As for me as an observer of my people I can make the strong claim that many Black folks are in a SOLD OUT state – promoting their PARTY and their IDEOLOGY over what can be otherwise be proven to be the BEST INTERESTS of their own community.As a result – the Democratic Party is strong today in our community than it has ever been before – while the problems contained within persist just as strongly. In summary – who is the sell out? THE AVERAGE BLACK VOTER who’s actions are wildly abstracted from his own best interests on the ground. And NO the counter point is not to vote Republican but instead to focus on the inside of your own community and order your house from WITHIN.

  13. [quote]Do you think black Republicans and conservatives are unfairly labeled as “sell-outs” or are their views/actions tantamount to racial betrayal?[/quote]Black Snob – when such a small group of people are promoted to be Public Enemy #1 the judges have two issues at hand.They are either promoting these few vile Black Conservatives as SUPERIOR BEINGS – with more POWER than the average Black manOR they are promoting the INFERIORITY of the 95% of other Black folks who are not Political Conservatives.How is it that such a small group of people is talked about so much? Might it be that the people who ACTUALLY HAVE POWER within our community know how to play us like a violin? They know that the minute focused on attacking the Black Conservative who could not even be elected DOG CATCHER within the Black community is one minute not focused upon the operative who IS IN POWER.My next round of research on my people is titled “What happens when you run all of the conservatives off and you have all favorable Democrats in power over your interests? When do you start obtaining the BENEFIT that they promised you?”The metaphor of “The Struggle” has now worn tired. Unfortunately too many Black folks are still caught up in the past not realizing how politically successful they have been but how much of a FAILURE they have had on their hands with regard to their strategy.

  14. constructive feedback: Gee. Haven’t heard for you for a while. I was starting to think you didn’t care? ;-)But glad you contributed. All this information is very helpful, very interesting. I’m getting some good feedback/ideas for the final piece.Per the “black Republicans,” I wanted to see if people would go at this emotionally or critically (or some other way I have read before). On an irrational, emotional level all sorts of people are “sell outs,” but things are more complex once you stop throwing haymakers and get to what actually constitutes the worse thing you can call another black person — a traitor. A Judas, so to speak.People tend to forget that political ideology (like religion) is supposed to be beyond petty ethnic squabbles. And that party affiliation is in no way an endorsement of those philosophies and for the most part neither party practices them in their pure forms. If you have some calm, rational thought it makes more sense to examine the whole rather than attack the one thing you despise.

  15. I wound up here because I was totally ignorant of the term “cooning” (except for raccoon hunting in the backwoods). I surmise, from the comments, that it refers to blacks who (in view of their peers) act in a manner which suggests they are acting as others want them to in order to avoid upsetting those others. Though I am a 69-year-old white Virginian, I was raised to judge others by their fruit, not their skin color or heritage. I was so without the discriminatory gene that, other than that the actors were black, I never associated the scripted behavior of actors on Beulah or Amos ‘n’ Andy with race, just folks being folks. As a kid I was entertained, but never formed a racially-motivated opinion of the “different” folks. Only once in “real life” did I encounter someone whom one might today say was “cooning.” An intelligent black coworker, with whom I had associated for years, suddenly began acting incapable of performing, as he had been, with superior achievement. When I eventually confronted him, he told me that our superiors had been taking advantage of him, using his talents but refusing to compensate him with a higher position or more money. (He felt, because of his race.) He said that if they were going to treat him like “Lightnin’ Jones,” that is how he would act. I am troubled that this sort of antipathy is pulling apart races, internally and externally.

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