Back on May 7th I asked readers to submit what was their definition of “cooning” or a “sell-out.” I received a lot of responses that took me some time to examine. The following is my ode to the sometimes real, sometimes mythical so-called coons, buffoons, toms, turncoats and sell-outs.
She packed a gun for one reason and one reason alone.
Once you got on the railroad you didn’t get off. She couldn’t risk them being found out. She couldn’t allow one scared fool to ruin a chance at freedom. She went down into the rebellious south over and over again, a black Moses, working to set her people free. But she didn’t trust all of her people.
That’s why she carried the gun.
We’re all in this together. That’s the mantra of black America. Light, dark. Brown to almost white. Bound by shared sacrifice and suffering in victory and defeat. Bound by racism and the solidarity that comes with being in “the shit” together. And we’re still holding Harriet Tubman’s gun to the heads of every nigger who dares to step out of line.
The sell-out. The turncoat. The Tom. The fool who dares to threaten the majority who holds that gun. And they can fire at any given time. Sometimes it’s a misfire. Sometimes the aim is lethal. It can lead to banishment. Some might not think much of it, but the black community is small and banishment is painful for those who still feel they should belong. Who feel they are misunderstood. Who believe there was a misfire.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is routinely held up as the quintessential, so-called “Uncle Tom.” An individual accused of kissing white ass all the way to the top. But Thomas still laments being an outcast. He believes his works were done out of love for black Americans. But he was fatally wounded by that gun. He’s dead to most blacks. He’s finished. He has been judged, the jury has rendered its verdict and he has been executed right out of the diaspora.
What crime must a black commit to get shot? Doc L called it “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”.
Doc is describing the individual who seeks profit in the exploitation of “low class” black culture. He is describing individuals like Robert Johnson who created BET and Debra Lee who currently is at the helm of the network. Cartoonist Aaron McGruder dedicated a banned double-episode of “The Boondocks” based solely on Lee and BET head Reginald Hudlin.
This label encompasses enterprises like Radio One profiting from what many view as trashy rap music.
Many people described these acts and these actors as the ultimate definition of a “coon,” naming individuals like Flavor Flav and Armstrong Williams. Individuals who appeared to be knowing pawns in a rigged game.
But others charged that the real villains in the world of media based “sell-outs” are the corporations who promote these individuals. Commenter Monie made this pertinent point:
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.
Vcat shared the same view.
(W)e 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.
The vast majority of commenters stuck with the view that a sell-out is someone who behaves in a manner that harms the black community out of financial gain. A racial profiteer. Anti-Affirmative Action activist Ward Connerly has been labeled as falling into this category, targeted with accusations that his pockets are being lined by wealthy white male contractors who want the playing field to return to the field of old.
The gun of banishment was fired on Connerly a long time ago. But this is typical. His actions are perceived as dangerous, his motives suspect and his views not in line with the black mainstream.
While racial “clowns” like Flavor Flav are tolerated in hopes they can be reformed, black conservatives tend to catch the worst, being routinely shunned. The Congressional Black Caucus famously sparred with former Rep. JC Watts on a regular basis. Justice Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Shelbey Steele and Alan Keyes are eyed with suspicion, treated as anathema by the majority. They committed the primary sin of deferring from the masses.
Many who commented felt most black conservatives did not deserve the demonization they often receive by the black populace. Many felt the bulk of them are operating in what they believe are the best interests of the black community, even if there may be some disagreement over their views and methods.
Yet they remain shot with Harriet’s gun all the same. Dead to many blacks, quick on the trigger towards dissenters. One false move and you’re out of the race. A Negro without a home. While some prefer life outside in the snow, for others it’s like “Paradise Lost,” them being the archangel cast out of heaven.
But who is this sell-out? Who is this race traitor? Harriet has her hand on the trigger and she’s taken aim. Who’s goin
Scene from “The Boondocks” featuring the ultimate caricature of a self-loathing black man, Uncle Ruckus.
Is it a self-loathing, lonely Justice Thomas?
Is it the black misery profiteer? The altruistic business man like Damon Wayans character in “Bamboozled?”
The aldermen and women, the city council members who promise every year is the year they’re going to fix our schools and divert funds to their crumbing wards and districts?
Is it the man or woman who prefers the company of anyone but another black person? Is it the individual who marries outside of their race, the act perceived as a rebuke of blackness?
Is it that thick-lipped, grotesque picaninny of our nightmares? Cheshire cat grin on a coal black face, acting out scenes from Darius James’ “Negrophobia,” dancing for the crowd becoming everything we don’t want to acknowledge, everything we don’t want to see? The thing we try so hard to hide but resurfaces over again. We try to kill it but the mother fucker won’t die. He just changes shapes and takes on new forms. He is a phantom embedded on the American conscious. His barbarous stories of jungle bunnies and fat mammies, jiggling and jigging for blond glamazons and wealthy power brokers. Embarrassingly confirming for the low and high class the worst in us. Entertaining them all with our stories of violent gun play, bad, biggest nigger tales, Iceberg Slim and Snoop Dogg.
They can’t get enough and Harriet’s gun isn’t strong enough to take it out.
After thinking and study and reading the responses to my query on what a sell-out is, I can say that I agree with reader Bkylnbam the most: I don’t know.
Refining my opinion on what constitutes coon’ing and embarrassing portrayals of black folk in general has been a long, long journey of reflection, research, re-evaluation and introspection and it ain’t over yet. It is in fact this very issue that’s brought it back into the forefront of my consciousness … Now that I think about it, I’d say the jury is still out on this one.
Reader Andrea believes most blacks are sell-outs because they choose to not live up to their potential. She singles out black people who choose to “opt-out” of the shared burden of blackness, people who turn their backs on the struggle. She sets the bar high, but when I ponder her words I can see why she came to this conclusion. To blur or disassociate one’s blackness. To divest from the community. To stand idly by while suffering surrounds. To think blackness is a choice, not realizing that although you can check out any time you like, you can never leave.
Individuals like OJ Simpson, running back to blackness when in need. Individuals who declare they are undefined and above the racial construct until American knocks them off that perch, leaving them to cling to blackness, hoping for salvation.
The sell-out lives in all of us. We are in constant warfare with ourselves, with our definitions of blackness. We all have our guns and we’re all pointing at each other waiting for that one false move. That one sign of a defector contemplating a run back to the plantation. Sometimes our aim is straight. Sometimes we misfire. But no one is safe from being blasted if they dare to get out of line. We’re all in this together.
Until death we part.