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.