The Sell-Out: An Addendum On “The Coon”

The idea to write about “sell-outs” came from my correspondence from a reader, bklynbam. He offered this rumination on the emasculation of black males in film and the fascination with “the exotic other” some whites have, specifically in the role of “the coon,” always worth mocking.

On a cold day in the late 1990’s, at one of the finer engineering schools in the Northeast, a group of mostly white students gathered at the movie-showing place on campus for a screening of the modern classic L.A. Confidential. For those unfamiliar with the film, it is set in the 1950’s and, in a scene entitled “Interrogation,” three bumbling, ignorant young Black men, accused in a multiple homicide case, are questioned by sharp, highly intelligent and shrewd, yet fiercely tough white police officers. So outclassed, outwitted, and out-toughed were the trio of Negro miscreants, that one of them actually began to soil himself visibly.

At this, a murmur of chuckling and laughter began to form over the mostly white audience at that fine institute of higher learning. The crescendo of chuckles builds to a quiet roar upon seeing the pathetic whimpering face of the piss-puddle’s provider juxtaposed with the cool, cunning, intelligent white detective.

At the scene’s climax, a different white detective suddenly shoves a revolver into the mouth of one the suspects.

It is at this point that the movie-watching crowd broke into a loud round of guffaws. Though the laughter had built up slowly, it was brought to a screeching halt with just six loud and passionately expressed words (i.e., “what the **** you laughin’ at?!!”) in the curiously strong Brooklyn accent of one of the university’s outstanding bright, young, Black engineering students …

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that America’s oldest and longest-surviving entertainment form is laughing at Black people. We all know about minstrel shows, and we should also know that these were Black-tie affairs. People used to put on tuxedos (TUXEDOS, man!!!!!) to watch tar-faced performers engage in what was considered to be the most ludicrous buffoonery, i.e., imitating Black people. As time when on, the minstrel show died, but many believe it lives on in today’s entertainment media: television, film, Internet, you-name-it.

I’ve spent a long time trying to get at the root of (1) what constitutes coon’ing, (2) why it is wrong and (3) when is it cooning?

From Amos N’ Andy, to the Wayans Brothers Show, to J.J. from Good Times, to Flavor of Love and O.D.B. (r.i.p.) the argument on who’s a coon and what makes a coon is a heated one and it never seems to end. Some say it has to do with poor English and enunciation. Some say it’s too much damn dancing! Some say it’s a lazy and loud-mouthed manner of behavior. Nobody ever really defines it, and it’s hard to get everybody to agree.

I learned a couple of things during that movie screening so long ago: First, that intimidating a very large room full of people is f-r-r-reakin’ sweet! More importantly though, I finally understood that the “Coon” is the characteristically Black object of *condescending* White laughter (*). No more; no less. Every coon who ever coon’ed, did so by this principle (note that there are Brutal Black Bucks, Mammies, Pickaninnies, Jezebels and other classically re-occurring, degrading Black stereotypes in American entertainment, but the coon is the funny one). This, I believe, is what distinguishes genuinely original and creative Black comedy from coon’ing: i.e., it’s the condescending laughter of on-looking white audiences.

You can begin to answer the questions of (1) “what it is” and (2) “why it’s wrong” with this idea, but (3) “when is one coon’ing?” is the tough one because the line between great Black comedy and coon’ing can be blurred and sometimes it’s the same damn thing.

(*) – Even though the three young men in that scene are not coons, the revelation was all the same.

16 thoughts on “The Sell-Out: An Addendum On “The Coon”

  1. I guess I’m not helping by answering your question with a question. What do you think about Mr. Chapelle and his work? Your point about condescending white laughter is what made me think of him.

  2. Exactly Marilynjean. I think that Chappelle himself had some sort of ephinany where he realized he was not making high art like his hero Richard Pryor but that the white people were laughing at him and it was a sobering realization for him. It’s my understanding that its this ephinany that led him to walk away from his just-inked multi-million dollar contract. Takes serious principles to walk away from that kind of money. I’d like to think my principles are that strong, I certainly hope they are.

  3. I’m with ac. Chappelle realized his humor was doing more harm than good. That people were laughing at him, not with him, not getting the satire. He pretty much said so on Oprah. I loved his show, but even I was disturbed as to whether non-black people (or even some black people) “got” the show. That it was social commentary, not an endorsement of ignorance.

  4. Yes, coonery is really in the eye of the chuckler…I guess. I KNOW I have watched and laughed at my fair share of coonery, shucking and jiving, stepping and fetching and the like. Laughter is good for the soul, well that is until you realize some of souls laughing aren’t good. I think that is the EXACT reason Chapelle left his gig!He felt the laughter was at him, he knew he was riding a fine line of buffoonery. Dave is a very smart cat! Like he said in his Actors Studio interview after a clip from Nutty Professor, somewhere there’s an African American Studies professor screaming BUFFOONERY! He also mentioned that if he could make a teacher’s salary doing comedy he would consider himself successful. If you think like that walking away is easy. Sorry I can’t answer your questions. -OG

  5. the comedian paul mooney said in one if his standups that a white person said to him that black people were created to entertain…

  6. I tend to think shucking and jiving is always an acknowledged self-awareness and cooning is sometimes obvious to the person executing the act — but many times oblivious as well by the executioner because they think it is par for the course fo whatever situation they are in.All are exhibitionist behaviors even is executed by a reluctant and weak participant really wanting to refrain from submission. But a lot of status seekers coon and have no idea because they think it is part of the process to ascend with those who have more power than them. so not all participants are of a certain class. Like the CBC Conference is filled the entire time of cooning by some of the snobbiest yet ignorant people. They are just too ignorant to know how they look and who they are with measure. They probably would think it was someone else that would readily apply to term but never consider their class-striving an exhibitionist component of cooning. It’s performance. Not all coons are cousin to Snoop Dog and Flavor Flav’s cooning. I think back to the later episodes of George Jefferson at times shucking and jiving for Mr. Whittendale knowingly and also at times cooning in how he was written to not know his ridiculousness at times.I used to shuck and jive. I learned it as what I was supposed to be. My mother and docile family members would force me to smile and talk and then entertain Whites at the store, the post office, and the town hall when I was with them if I was looking too serious. They wanted their children to smile and perform for approval. My family was so afraid of Whites, wo at times were not even thinking about intimidating or taking advantage of them. It was in my family’s head to the point they saw it. And at times they just gave away their power that Whites manifested the free power given up in submission by my family. I used to feel dirty as a child being threatened to perform as a good little Black girl. I knew if my daddy knew he would be pissed adn would throw down with my mother’s side of the family. I would not tell my dad to keep the peace.But I feel pretty confident I never submitted to cooning. Even when I was taking my serious, I can’t recall stooping that low even if not cognizant of my candor. Cooning can be a clueless exhibit if the person thinks the behavior is normalized and proper with respectability. Both actions by campaign for appeasement, approval, and/or reward.

  7. Great post Snob,You are really hitting on all cylinders right now. You are giving us your best stuff. Thanks!!But to your point, I never could get into Chris Tucker in rush hour or Jackie Chan for that matter. With Chris Tucker yelling all of the time and being the perpetual womanizer or woman chaser. That trilogy just always reeked of cooneration to me.And I LOVE Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney, so I like a good racial joke mind you, but some stuff is just corny and then it gets degrading.My mom refused to watch Monique’s show, because she could not stand to watch the “big girl” chase behind the man all of the time. She really saw it as a white or mainstream view of undesirable black women. Some in the majority culture just can’t imagine what man would want a BIG BLACK woman. Funny how in our reality, the much adored “big momma” was sometimes actually BIG and happily married for 40, 50 or 60 years. And “big daddy” was usually a thinner not so bad looking older man. And I see plenty of hefty sistahs strolling with their man today.So I think you are right that it seems to be more coonerific when it is the white medias view of what is funny about us juxtaposed with what we actually laugh at amongst ourselves.

  8. I am just gonna risk it and say Bill Cosby. Here is why, I don’t believe him when he claims his desire to “uplift” the race is just about wanting better for black all around. I believe that it embarrassed and wishes to disassociate himself from blacks living in poverty. When one considers that his circle is privileged and that economically he has been particularly dependent upon the approval of whites, I believe that he is a “coon”. He is performing not for blacks but for white approval.

  9. Snob,I live in Baltimore.I hated the shows they filmed here. The Corner and The Wire were all critically acclaimed for their “real life depiction” of inner city life. Okay.When all of these real-life shows , rap songs, and performers just show ONE ASPECT of Black life; it tends to ‘coon’ all of us.I had a white guy actually come up at my job ( i used to work in a bar)to me and say ” Hey, why don’t you take me to the corner; you’re from the hood ( he used ‘air quotes’), right?So I told him “I don’t live in the ‘hood,’ but I will take you to it and then leave you there, How’s about that, Sport?”Then I told the bouncer( black) what he said to me, and he told ‘Dude’ that, “Don’t worry, I you don’t want to go to the hood with her, we’ll just bring the hood to you, azz****. ‘Dude’ didn’t like that too much, so he and hs friend left.Those shows, combined with the ‘coonery’ that some of our performers demonstrate has permeated our culture so much, that our children mimic it as though it is a statement of blackness to them. It is seen as the norm of black behavior; not the exception. It is created by the performers and profited by corporate america. And, some of the patrons of all this “authentic black buffonery” haven’t the sense to know that we are all being played.It’s like that Spike Lee Movie a few years ago that put those images of black face out there, but all of the characters were destroyed even though they all profitted from those garish images.We can’t blame whitey anymore.We must blame ourselves for perpetuating the stereotypes, and not counteracting them with images of our own.Stop blaming the media, too.If you are mad about the images that you see on tv about us; counteract them with your behavior. Get some good, positive images of us in your life. Better yet. be the change you want to see. Volunteer in your community, donate time to a charitable organization.I will be looking for an internship in a few weeks. I want to volunteer for a black non-profit. I hope that this will provide a positive influence in someone’s life. I want to show the world that not all of us are “shinin'”

  10. deedlelee: “Art” and its “realism” can be tricky because, as you wrote, it can cut both ways. It’s true that in contemporary black life the views are overwhelmingly urban and poor. Ghetto fantasies, as I often call them. Morality plays with gun shots and n-words.I’ve never seen “The Corner” or “The Wire,” so I can’t speak on whether they fall into the category of “art” or teeter into the realm of self-parody and stereotype. I know both shows received a lot of acclaim for their gritty “realism.”I choose not to watch “black” targeted shows that I deem “ignorant.” I wasn’t a big fan of “The Parkers,” for example. There was something buffoonish and demoralizing to watch an attractive, but heavyset woman relentless pursue a man who did not want her.It was pathetic. I try to support art that I think is challenging and creative. Sadly, TV does not always provide ample opportunities for that and Spike Lee doesn’t make as many movies as he used to. So you’re sort of trapped. I just read a lot of books and watch DVDs. The fine arts community in black American really needs to be resuscitated and taken off life support. We could be making small, independent films. There could be a minority, black/brown version of “Sundance.” God knows we have enough wealthy African Americans to fund it. Get Oprah, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Quincy Jones and Will Smith together, maybe toss in a Magic Johnson or a John Singleton and you’ve got yourself some well funded independent cinema, like the Tribeca Film Festival Robert Deniro backs.It’s possible. People just have to want it and make the effort. Believe me. If there were an outlet like that offered to black film students and amateur filmmakers across the country they would participate in it, given that Sundance is so hard to get into.You might get some better art into the mainstream through it if it’s marketed properly with magazine coverage and the “right” kind of corporate sponsorship (preferably nothing “low end.” No KFC or menthol cigarettes.)But that’s my two cents.

  11. I defend The Corner and The Wire because I taught in B’more and at the school that was the prototype of the school on the show the 4th season. I worked with Ed Burns who wrote and created those shows and for what I saw, coming from the Dirt Road South, balancing getting eggs out of the chicken yard but running into the house to see Soul Train, and going to parochial school but sitting through riding in the car to get pass the KKK rallies on my families’ street, just as my childhood is foreign to NYers or Black kids from LA, so is the life of the streets in B’more. It is valid. I saw it. I lived it. It is a part of our dirty pathology to deny the validity that Blacks were that carnal and barbaric in a city less than an hour from the nations’ capital. Yeah, B’more can tout The Mitchell Family or The Rawlings and the hub of the NAACP, but it is the place where most Blacks want to deny how life is for the Have-Nots. Again…this is proof positive that we are all sell-outs because this young woman felt embarrassed. We have some serious egos to feel so superior that because we are not the indicted ones then we are not complicit of the crimes. What I know of B’more is that it is driven by those to prove “I am a Good Black Person” and look down on others. It is so bourgie for Blacks to not have shit to show for.The Alpha Headquarters is there but it is a silly, superficial place where Blacks pontificate. How the hell you have a statue of Frederick Douglass on the campus of Morgan State and when I visited and brought Uppity Negro to the campus, they balked. They are so ass-backwards in B’more “worrying how things look” that they really don’t want to get down and dirty and show and prove. Frederick Douglass was called THE Uppity Negro and the bourgie class in B’More hated what I was doing. They just wanted to go to galas and brag about Reginald Lewis or Mfume like that was collective works in getting dirty. They never…never…never…wanted to be associated with the hard-luck life of the poor and the pathological gang mentality of their own they left behind that started to feed off of their own.Please! So what that White Man said that. It sounds like she was ashamed and part of the problem. You just can’t pageant-walk “I’m a Good Black Person”. This what is wrong with us. We are selling out when we do it. Too many people don’t understand this…and this is the status quo empty behavior we grew up on watching our family members validate to prove they were worthy. Our families and our sensibilities are fucked up. I am glad The Corner and The Wire was produced because we are habitual about lying about how things look. It’s so damn rudimentary.

  12. Oh…and…Black Middle Class members nor Black Media touted The Wire because it was a fucking flashlight in our faces that we were not one-dimensional victims. See…we like to see ourselves as the victims but not the assistants of lead victimizers or lead victimizer ourselves. It showed how corrupt and dysfunctional Black families were, the churches, and the civic leaders. However the show also showed that of the Whites in B’more. But that is our issue: we like to see ourselves POSITIVE no matter that what The Corner and The Wire was could have just been a documentary. It was represented as drama ’cause you catch catch the people spotlighting that all for a documentary. So he re-presented and it made The Black Establishment uneasy.But just like I said about your “outing” of the Greek process, they have a way of not saying anything as their way of shunning the idea that their is relevance in anyone putting them on blast. I loved that David Simon and Ed Burns but everybody on blast…not just Blacks. That there however is a very sophisticated reality and most Blacks are not used to understanding that we are not one-dimensional. All Big Mommas are not unconditional protectors…some sell-out and pimp their own family members. Not all principals are self-less martyrs. A lot just want to get the hell out of paying dues in a school and get into the administration. I am tired of how linear we are. We just think is we draw a line separating ourselves from visual riff-raff that is all we have to do to apply for the status of hero. We really think it is that simple. We think if we do some volunteer work and sign up for some charity then it exempts us from being relative to the problems.

  13. To me… a coon is a person who displays themselves as a lesser form of a human being. But I like your definition Black Snob.

  14. to andrea:A-MEN!!! You are speaking the truth my friend! You are hitting on all cylinders…I’m glad that people enjoyed my essay on “L.A. Confidential”… That was me at age 20 or so; fiercely militant (almost thuggish even) when it came to mocking Hollywood depictions of Black folk. I still feel mostly the same all these years later, but I left out something very very important: while it’s a good thing that a positive image of Black people be projected to those who view us from a distance, and that mocking depictions be mitigated and discouraged to the extent that they reasonably can, it is actually very DANGEROUS to get *too* caught up in this idea.That we should incessantly and obsessively worry about what White people think of us is itself a troubling thought; especially when it compromises our art, or supresses important truths. I highlighted “LA Confidential” because it is a classic (yet recent) example of white writers/producers/directors casting Black men as violent yet cowardly buffoons. The mocking laughter of that White audience was so upsetting (and rightfully so) because White directors and producers willfully and purposely manipulated those three young Black men in perfect concordance with the age-old tradition of the minstrel show. But when we find ourselves embarrassed by so much that is characteristically “Black” (rappers, comedians, athletes etc.) we should stop to think about *why* we are embarrassed, as well as the true cost of censoring the Black Experience. John Witherspoon is a coon no doubt … but that Brother is one hilarious, uniquely talented comic actor (“That’s yo a** Mr. Postman”). 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Trying” is laden with violent themes… but it is great art (I’m a big hip-hop fan, btw) much as the film “Goodfellas” and the show “Sopranos” are as well. Should we supress or censor these because they may embarrass us? I think it’s not a good idea.I’m especially glad that Andrea rebuts so elegantly on behalf of HBO’s “The Wire.” If you don’t know by now, “The Wire” was, among other things, an urgent, uncompromising wake-up call to all those who might (or might not) concern themselves with the plight of urban decay. I wish it were created/produced by Black people, but it’s way too important a work/document to dismiss simply because it’s the brainchild of two White guys who have had a first-hand look at the story they tell.There is no honest way to tell the important, desperate, urgent story of the American Black ghetto without its constituent violence, moral turpitude and tragedy. Amid the grim portrayal, anyone taking a complete and honest look cannot help but to see that, while certainly the criminals in the street bear responsibility for their own actions, many of them are the unwilling and unwitting products of a system, charged with the task of protecting, caring for and educating them, that has failed miserably.

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