The coon stereotype (1600s – ) is one of the main ways white Americans have of looking at black men. It sees black men as being not particularly bright or hard-working, as shiftless and good-for-nothing, as someone you cannot count on, who would rather live off of the work of others. Whites saw them that way as slaves and still tend to see them that way even now.
Coons, in the pure, lived in slow motion: they moved slowly and talked slowly. They could never manage to speak proper English and always messed up long words. They were easy to fool and take advantage of. They loved to eat watermelon and play games of chance. When they had money they dressed to show off. They avoided marriage, creating matriarchs, but when they did marry they were ruled by their Sapphire wives. They have big smiles and wide-open eyes. They were friendly, not violent, but could not be trusted with anything.
From what we know, blacks as slaves were worked hard. Before the British stopped the slave trade and slaves were still cheap, they were sometimes worked to death. Someone in Barbados had worked it out: you got the most for your money if you could work a slave to death in seven years. And they did.
So, like many of these stereotypes, this one is less about how black people truly are and more about hiding an uncomfortable truth about white people: that whites are not hard-working enough, that they would rather live off the work of others. It comes from the guilt of owning and using slaves.
The coon image has been firmly planted in the American mind, first by minstrel shows in the 1800s and then by Hollywood.
Coons were common in American films in the 1930s and 1940s. The black actor Stepin Fetchit became rich and famous playing coons. He thought he was helping the cause of black people. It was kind of like Halle Berry winning an Oscar for playing a Jezebel character. You can be liked by whites for the wrong reasons.
Part of the coon thing is to speak bad English. It shows whites what little intelligence blacks have. The English you hear coons speak in Hollywood films was taught to them by whites – it is not something that blacks spoke themselves in those days, if ever. “”I’se be catchin’ ma feets nah, boss.”
In the 1950s even whites stopped laughing at coons, but you still see them in films. Tyrese Gibson in John Singleton’s “Baby Boy” (2001) comes to mind, though he grows out of it. Some say Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars films was one too.
These days the coon stereotype is used to excuse the low position of black men compared to whites: you need brains and hard work to succeed in America and, the stereotype says, too many black men are just too coon to keep up.