The word “coon” (1742) currently has three main meanings, here listed in order of appearance in written English:
- Short for raccoon (Procyon lotor), a woodland animal native to North America that is hunted and is known for stealing. By 1742.
- A racial slur meaning a Black person. Gets its dehumanizing power from #1. By 1837.
- A Black person who sells out and kisses up to White people, especially those who defend Whites against Blacks; an Uncle Tom, what Malcolm X called a House Negro. “Stacey Dash is a coon.” Gets its insulting power from #2. By 2005.
In written White American English, the first two are common.
In written Black American English, it seems the first was common before 1860, the third common since at least 2005. The second was common in between, but mainly to talk about how White people view Black people.
“Coon” as a slur reached its height in the US during Jim Crow times:
- There were coon songs and coon cards.
- In 1896 “All Coons Look Alike” was a top song.
- From the 1920s to the 1950s there was a Coon Chicken Inn restaurant chain.
- In the 1960s, Martin Luther King was called “Martin Luther Coon” by Whites both North and South.
The slur is still with us: in 2016 Black comedian Leslie Jones was called a “big lipped coon” on Twitter.
“Coon” was also used as “mere description”, from at least 1892 to 1944. For example, in the Memphis Ledger on June 8th 1892:
“If Lillie Bailey, a rather pretty white girl, seventeen years of age, who is now at the city hospital, would be somewhat less reserved about her disgrace there would be some very nauseating details in the story of her life. She is the mother of a little coon. The truth might reveal fearful depravity or the evidence of a rank outrage.”
Minstrel shows in the 1800s travelled the US. One of the main blackface characters was Zip Coon. The song “Zip Coon” came out just three years before the word first appeared in print as a slur.
Hollywood in the early 1900s picked up where the minstrel shows left off. Film historian Donald Bogle:
“Before its death, the coon developed into the most blatantly degrading of all Black stereotypes. The pure coons emerged as no-account niggers, those unreliable, crazy, lazy, subhuman creatures good for nothing more than eating watermelons, stealing chickens, shooting crap or butchering the English language.”
Stepin Fetchit, a Black actor, made over a million dollars playing the coon stereotype – which makes him a coon in sense number three! In fact, it seems that the third sense came from talking about Black entertainers who play to White stereotypes about Black people, something that still goes on.
Willie D in his song “Coon” (2016) uses the third sense:
If you’re selling out your people you’re a coon
If you hate your own kind you’re a coon
Bootlickers shuck and jive you’re a coon
His examples: Charles Barkley, Don Lemon, Stacey Dash, Steven A. Smith, Raven-Symone, Sheriff David Clarke and non-Whites who support Donald Trump, among others.
– Abagond, 2016.
- The coon stereotype
- posts where I use coon #3:
- other examples of coon #3:
- Donald Trump
- The N-word
- Jim Crow