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What should Black folk do with the word coon?

If being called a coon wounds the spirit, that’s the point

Through peculiar public theatrics, Kanye West and Terry Crews transformed these trying months into the Summer of the Coon.

The slur, because of West’s fraught relationship with President Donald Trump, has hounded the rapper over the last few years. His decision to enter the presidential race, although he has no chance of winning as Republican operatives boost his candidacy, launched renewed coon accusations at him. Most recently, at a disturbing campaign rally in July, West declared that Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves,” but rather, “she just had the slaves go work for other white people.” Many responded with coon taunts.

Crews’ behavior, although far less problematic, has likewise attracted coon criticisms.

In this time of racial reckoning, critics charged him with authoring tweets that distract from the racial justice message and instead focus on defeating straw man arguments. These sentiments probably inspired rapper Rick Ross’ caustic line about the actor: “Terry Crews is another coon who was basically bought.”

Tired of being constantly called a coon, Crews sought to reclaim it to much derision:

Moving away from West and Crews, should Black folk even be uttering an epithet fraught with such an ugly history?

I think the answer has to be yes — it describes a particular Black person who can exist. We should pressure people not to behave like coons, not pressure Black folk against calling out people whose behaviors meet the definition.

Let’s start with the epithet’s history.

Coon, derived from racoon, originates from a minstrel character, Zip Coon, first portrayed in the 1830s by a white actor in blackface. Perhaps Zip Coon’s signature song sounds familiar:

The coon character long survived in plays and American cinema, most notably in the performances of Stepin Fetchit in the 1930s. Historian Donald Bogle described the coon character with brutal precision: “Before its death, the coon developed into the most blatantly degrading of all Black stereotypes. The pure coons emerged as no-account n—–s, those unreliable, crazy, lazy, subhuman creatures good for nothing more than eating watermelons, stealing chickens, shooting crap or butchering the English language.”

Black folk have repurposed coon, transforming it into an intraracial slur to castigate a certain type of Black person who betrays the race. I’ve written about racial betrayal in my book, In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty, but I didn’t specifically deal with the epithet coon. But a coon, as used today, tracks fairly closely with Uncle Tom. I say a coon is a Black person who puts on a specific performance for white people — a performance whereby a Black person says things or performs acts to ingratiate himself or herself in exchange for the social rewards white folk can grant. It’s a quid pro quo. I dance the way you want me to, and you shower me with benefits I covet. I am not calling West or Crews a coon. I use the extreme case of Uncle Tom to booster my point that using coon against Black folk who are complicit with white supremacy is defensible.

Here’s an extreme case: Take, for instance, a Black radio host who says Black people should thank God for slavery and defends Jim Crow. Such remarks excuse white supremacy in exchange for economic rewards that accrue to a Black person willing to utter such nonsense.

Also, in the truest sense of the word, I think “cooning” is necessarily a public act. One cannot coon in the dark. Returning to the minstrel character, he performed his act onstage. Central to the damage the coon inflicts upon the broader Black population is that the coon’s behavior can be witnessed by many. If a Black guy says in the privacy of his own home that racism doesn’t exist, he’s obviously wrong. Yet, his behavior, I don’t think, doesn’t meet the exact definition of cooning. The moment he goes on television and says it, however, we have reached a CLE — coon-level event.

Thus, we have this definition: (1) Public performance and either (2) the quid pro quo scenario or (3) behavior that excuses/denies obvious instances of racism or white supremacy. Anyone who meets this definition, by doing (1) and then either (2) or (3), is guilty of cooning.

I’m sure most Black folk grimace in misery after being derogated with such an offensive slur. I wrote a piece explaining why I no longer use the N-word. I reasoned that I could not divorce the slur from its original meaning, that I could not divorce the slur from the internalized oppression of my ancestors. Coon sprang forth from a similar, although far less egregious, set of historical realities. Why not just make this word off-limits too?

The answer comes down to self-protection. All populations have interests. Once a person act against the interests of their population, the person becomes a traitor. And populations must guard against the damage a traitor can unleash on the rest of the group.

Black folk have group interests — an opposition to white supremacy, a desire to secure happiness in a world where anti-Black racism dedicates itself to deny life’s joys.

Epithets such as coon instill intraracial discipline — they teach individual Black folk that certain behaviors that damage the group’s interests will not be tolerated and will incur penalties. Black folk who work on behalf of white supremacy deserve criticism, but that doesn’t strip them of their Blackness.

Yes, being called a coon tends to wound the spirit. But black folk must be allowed to protect themselves against members who sabotage the race’s wellbeing.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.