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Caricatures of African Americans: The Coon
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Description & History of the Coon Caricature
The coon caricature is one of the most degrading and insulting of all anti-Black caricatures. The name itself, an abbreviation of raccoon, is dehumanizing. The coon was portrayed as a lazy, easily frightened, inarticulate, good-for-nothing buffoon.  Although he often worked as a servant, was not happy with his status. He was, simply, too lazy or too cynical to attempt to change his lowly position.

The coon caricature was born during American slavery. Slave masters and overseers often described slaves as "slow," "lazy," and "wants pushing."  The master and the slave operated with different motives: the master desired to obtain from the slave the greatest labor, by any means; and the slave desired to do the least labor while avoiding punishment. Slaves resisted slavery in a variety of ways, including running away, and by use of
The Lazy Coon
The Lazy Coon
Engraving
Engraving
physical violence.  More often, however, they engaged in practical day-to-day acts of resistance called “silent sabotage”.  They worked slowly, performed their tasks poorly, “accidentally” broke tools, faked illness, pretended not to understand orders, and sometimes pilfered items (usually food) from the master.  Slave masters attributed the slaves' poor work performance to an inherent inferiority that manifested itself in what they called “shiftlessness”, and in general stupidity.  It is thus ironic that, in trying to create a small space of personal freedom, Black behavior provided what Whites considered to be evidence of Black inferiority. This perception was incorporated into the Coon caricature, along with extremely exaggerated physical characteristics, including big red lips, big feet and ears, and bulging eyes.
Beginning in the 1830s, a distinctly American form of theater began to emerge called the minstrel show, consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by Whites in blackface (a makeup made from burnt cork). Minstrel shows were a send up of Black culture. They existed to portray Blacks in all of the various caricatures of them for the benefit of mostly White audiences. The coon caricature was one of the stock characters of the minstrel show. Audiences laughed at the ignorant, lazy, slow-talking fool who
Minstrel Performer
Minstrel Performer
Minstrel Performers
Minstrel Performers
The cast of a minstrel show, all in blackface
The cast of a minstrel show, all in blackface
Zip Coon
Zip Coon
An urban coon romances his urban girl in this 1900s postcard
An urban coon romances his urban girl in this image from a 1900s postcard
avoided work and other responsibilities. With African Americans freed by the Civil War, minstrel shows transformed the coon into a comic caricature of the emancipated Black, either a "Zip Coon" or an "Urban Coon". Zip Coons were urban Black dandies, who "put on airs" by dressing up fancy in imitation of affluent Whites. The humor was in the situational irony. The character was ignorant of his foolish appearance. He thought he was as smart as Whites, but his frequent misuse of language and application of warped logic was humorously pathetic. Urban Coons had similar characteristics but also engaged in gambling, dice, and the frequent use of razor blades for solving petty squabbles with other coons. The minstrel coon's ultimate goal was leisure. For him, that was time spent strutting, styling, fighting
1910s postcard
1910s postcard
other coons, avoiding honorable vocations, eating watermelons, and engaging in general buffoonery. If the coon was married, he avoided his domestic responsibilities, argued with his wife, and ultimately allowed her to dominate him. The Coon caricature inspired a short-lived, but intense genre of music around the turn of the 20th century (discussed in a separate section), both in sheet music and in the developing recorded music industry. Minstrel shows began to decline in popularity around the beginning of the 20th century (replaced by vaudeville), and was dead as a form of professional entertainment by 1910, although amateur minstrel shows continued to be performed by local theater and high school productions until the 1960s. By the time the coon made the transition from minstrel shows to film and other forms of popular culture, he was for many White Americans an actual racial
1894 Sheet Music
1894 Sheet Music
type. It was not uncommon for Whites to distinguish between “Niggers” (Coons and Bucks) and “Negroes” (Toms and Mammies), with both terms used in the popular culture.
 
Cinematic Coons
The coon, like the mammy and Tom, have a long history in the movies. Coons abounded in the silent era in such films as Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1907), The Sambo Series (1909-1911), How Rastus Got His Turkey (1910) and Chicken Thief (1910 or 1911). These early coons laid the foundation for the greatest movie coon actor of all time, Stepin Fetchit. During the 1930s, Fetchit played the quintessential slow-talking, shuffling, lazy, dimwitted rascal. His characters could never correctly pronounce a multi-syllabic word. Studio executives, thinking he was illiterate, allowed him to improvise some of his
Stepin' Fetchit tobacco card
Stepin' Fetchit tobacco card
Stepin' Fetchit autographed postcard
Stepin' Fetchit autographed postcard (2 views)
Stepin' Fetchit in Judge Priest (1934)
Stepin' Fetchit in Judge Priest (1934)
Fetchit parody in Clean Pastures
Fetchit parody in Clean Pastures
Urban coon from Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs
Urban coon from Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs
film Watch Clean Pastures
lines. Fetchit's coonish acting was aided by his physical appearance. He was tall and skinny, with a shaved head and a way of creating a vacant look in his eyes as he shuffled. Fetchit's coon characters were racially insulted, and sometimes physically abused by White characters. In Judge Priest (1934), Fetchit was pushed and shoved, and verbally insulted by Will Rogers, and yet he followed the White star around the film, speaking in a barely intelligible dialect and scratching his head in an apelike manner. Fetchit himself was parodied in a 1937 Warner Brothers cartoon, Clean Pastures, where a coon angel is tasked with bringing more Black souls from Harlem up to heaven. He meets with no success, until rhythm is introduced, and then the other Blacks dance their way into heaven. Other cartoons also featured the
coon, most notably in the Universal/Walter Lanz short Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat. The cartoon is set in the South, in a town called Lazy Town, where Blacks are so lazy they can barely move, and have to use their fingers to keep their eyelids open. Only when a light-skinned, glamorized Harlem girl shows up do the town's inhabitants discover more pep.

Stepin' Fetchit was the first Black actor to achieve mainstream success. He became a real racial type to many White Americans. He was so successful that he spawned several imitators, including Willie Best (Sleep 'n Eat), who appeared in 124 films, and Mantan Moreland, an actor with the physical ability to make his eyes bulge out when acting scared, which he used most notably in his role of the scared manservant of Charlie Chan in numerous films.
The lazy coon
A Lazy Town coon, from Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat
filmWatch the cartoon
Willie Best (right) in The Littlest Rebel (1935) with Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson
Willie Best (right) in The Littlest Rebel (1935) with Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson
Mantan Mooreland
Mantan Moreland from Charlie Chan films
In 1978 Fetchit was elected to the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. But his body of work is remembered as the most extreme embodiment of the coon caricature. He unuccessfully attempted a comeback in the 1950s, but by then his coon caricature was just embarrassing. Despite this legacy, the coon caricature has made something of a comeback in the modern era. In his most recent form, he is anthropomorphic, giving rise to yet another excuse, "how can that be racist if it's not even human?" An honest evaluation of these new images makes it clear, however, that several movie directors have introduced modern coons into their films as comic relief, just like the minstrels of old, and their "human" characteristics are unmistakably coonish.
In 1999 Star Wars: Episode I:The Phantom Menace was released. The George Lucas film included a character named Jar Jar Binks that many critics immediately recognized as a modern Fetchit character: Jar Jar wore raggedy clothes, he was a bumbling idiot whose clumsiness had gotten him banished from his city, his amphibian-like appearance included bulging eyes; he spoke Caribbean-accented pidgin English, his ears suggested dreadlocks; he was superstitious and afraid, and he existed in the film purely for comic relief--to be laughed at. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal described Jar Jar as a "Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen" (the actress most famous for her portrayal of "Prissy" in Gone With the Wind). David Pilgrim of the Jim Crow Museum wrote, "This incident suggests that Fetchit's legacy is to be remembered as a coon caricature: lazy, bewildered, stammering, shuffling, and good-for-little except buffoonery."
Jar Jar Binks
Jar Jar Binks
Jar Jar Binks
Jar Jar Binks
 
In 2009, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen "transformed" the coon caricature into a pair of rap-jive-talkin', squabbling, illiterate (when asked to translate some ancient Cybertronian language they say, ‘we don’t do much readin’) gold-tooth sportin', eye bulging, big-eared idiot robots. The "twins," Mudflap and Skids, were immediately lambasted by several critics and film historians. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times said that "the characters [...] indicate that minstrelsy remains as much in fashion in Hollywood as when, well, Jar Jar Binks was set loose by George Lucas". Critic Scott Mendelson
Transformers coon
Transformers coon
Transformers coon
Transformers coon
said "To say that these two are the most astonishingly racist caricatures that I've ever seen in a mainstream motion picture would be an understatement". One cultural commentator referred to them as "Little Black Sambots." Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't It Cool News, asked his readers "not to support this film" because "you'll be taking [your children] to see a film with the lowest forms of humor, stereotypes and racism around." Director Michael Bay attempted to defend the caricatures as "good clean fun", a variant of the "if it's funny, it's not offensive" common excuse.
 
Some of the work above was based on research conducted by Dr. David Pilgrim from the Jim Crow Museum. For a more comprehensive look at these caricatures, visit the museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, or online at: http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/
 
Gallery of Coon Imagery
Ashtray, c.1890s
Ashtray, c.1890s
Victorian trade card: St. Louis Beef Canning Company
Victorian trade card: St. Louis Beef Canning Company
1900s Postcard: "I'se A'Waitin' For Yer Josie"
1900s Postcard: "I'se A'Waitin' For Yer Josie"
1900s Postcard: Painless Dentistry
1900s Postcard: Painless Dentistry
1900s Postcard: Skinning a Coon
1900s Postcard: Skinning a Coon
Stereoview (blackface): How much ob dis road am you 'titled to, suh?
Stereoview (blackface): How much ob dis road am you 'titled to, suh?
Ad for William H. West's Big Minstrel Jubilee
Ad for William H. West's Big Minstrel Jubilee
Trade card for Minard's Liniment: A Colored Bawl
Trade card for Minard's Liniment: A Colored Bawl
Victorian Trade Card for Sampson's Secret Cure
Victorian Trade Card for Sampson's Secret Cure
Sam-Bo Fishing Lure
Sam-Bo Fishing Lure (2 views)
1902 cartoon with coon servant
1902 cartoon with coon servant
1905 Postcard: A Coon Trees a Possum
1905 Postcard: A Coon Trees a Possum
1906 Postcard: Kiss the Gentleman
1906 Postcard: Kiss the Gentleman
1907 Postcard: I Have Been Hustling For a Living
1907 Postcard: I Have Been Hustling For a Living
1913 Postcard: There Was Some Sport
1913 Postcard: There Was Some Sport

1882 Jolly Nigger Bank advertising card
1882 Jolly Nigger Bank advertising card

Jolly Nigger Bank
Jolly Nigger Bank
Jolly Nigger Bank
Jolly Nigger Bank
1900s Postcard: Dis-Pos-Zess means Move
1900s Postcard: Dis-Pos-Zess means Move
1900s Postcard
1900s Postcard: Nigger, 'fore we married youse said you'd lay down your life for me; Now youse won't even lay down de carpet
Nigger Head Tees
Nigger Head Tees
1929 advertisement for a Jolly Nigger                                   Puzzle, from a Johnson Smith and Company Catalogue
1929 advertisement for a Jolly Nigger Puzzle, from a Johnson Smith and Company Catalogue (2 views)
Coin Bank, c.1930s
Coin Bank, c.1930s
1930s Christmas Card: Greetings, Dese bones am sho' loaded
1930s Christmas Card: Greetings, Dese bones am sho' loaded
Hobo Figurine, c. 1930s
Hobo Figurine, c. 1930s
Postcard: Ain't yo' jes' glad to heah ah'm heah?
Postcard: Ain't yo' jes' glad to heah ah'm heah?
Smoking Sambo (modern reproduction)
Smoking Sambo (modern reproduction)
Snake Eyes game, c.1930s
Snake Eyes game, c.1930s
Postcard: I may look like a coon But I haint!
Postcard: I may look like a coon But I haint!
Boone Jiggers Pickled Egg Jar, c.1940s
Boone Jiggers Pickled Egg Jar, c.1940s
Fishing Lure, c.1940s
Fishing Lure, c.1940s
Halloween Mask, c.1940s
Halloween Mask, c.1940s
Hobo Cartoon, c.1940s
Hobo Cartoon, c.1940s
Old Maid card game, c.1940s
Old Maid card game, c.1940s (2 views)
Postcard: Greetings from New Orleans, LA; Dixieland, c.1940s
Postcard: Greetings from New Orleans, LA; Dixieland, c.1940s
c.1940s Postcard: "I may be a 'little shaver'--but I got mah eye on somethin' big!"
c.1940s Postcard: "I may be a 'little shaver'--but I got mah eye on somethin' big!"
c.1940s Postcard: "I'm prepared in case you git fresh...and I have'ta git out and walk!"
c.1940s Postcard: "I'm prepared in case you git fresh...and I have'ta git out and walk!"
Postcard: Out on a Foul
Postcard: Out on a Foul
1905 Cartoon from Harper's Weekly
1905 Cartoon from Harper's Weekly (4 views)
1905 Cartoon from Harper's Weekly
1905 Cartoon from Harper's Weekly
Bottle Opener
Bottle Opener
Ashtray
Ashtray
Jack O' Lantern
Jack O' Lantern
Postcard: Mah New Boy Frien' is Very Touchy!
Postcard: Mah New Boy Frien' is Very Touchy!
1940s Postcard: This is a Pair-O-Dice for Military Training
1940s Postcard: This is a Pair-O-Dice for Military Training
Guide to Black Slang, Playby Magazine, 1976
Guide to Black Slang, Playboy Magazine, 1976
2003 Mighty Beanz "Ally Oop" bean; series II no. 74
2003 Mighty Beanz "Ally Oop" bean; series II no. 74
     

 

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Last modified November 25, 2012