On Donald Bogle’s “Coons” And Black Media Trust

After reading a number of posts from US Blacks on various outlets using this term “coon” in a way that made me feel comfortable, I decided to revisit Donald Bogle’s “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks In American Films”. His opening chapter,”Black Beginnings: from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Birth of a Nation”, extends his now ubiquitously familiar framework. In it, he writes:

 

The pickaninny was the first of the coon types to make its screen debut…Thomas Alva Edison proved to be a pioneer in the exploitation and exploration of this type when he presented Ten Pickaninnies in 1904, a forerunner of the Hal Roach Our Gang series. During his camera experiments in 1893, Edison had photographed some blacks as “interesting side effects.” In Ten Pickaninnies, the side effects moved to the forefront of the action as a group of nameless Negro children romped and ran about while being referred to as snowballs, cherubs, coons, bad chillun, inky kids, smoky kids, black lambs, cute ebonies, and chubbie ebonies.

 

In all the versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the slave child Topsy was presented as a lively pickaninny, used solely for comic relief.

pg. 7

 

The final member of the coon triumvirate is the uncle remus. Harmless and congenial, he is a first cousin to the tom, yet he distinguishes himself by his quaint, naive, and comic philosophizing. During the silent period he was only hinted at. He did not come into full flower until the 1930s and 1940s with films such as The Green Pastures(1936) and Song of the South(1946). Remus’s mirth, like tom’s contentment and the coon’s antics, has always been used to indicate the black man’s satisfaction with the system and his place in it.

pg 8

 

As far as the audiences were concerned, the toms, the coons, the mulattoes, the mammies, and the bucks embodied all the aspects and facets of the black experience itself. The audience’s deep-set prejudice against any “foreigners” accounts for the typing of all minorities in all American films. But no minority was so relentlessly or fiercely typed as the black man. Audiences rejected even subtle modifications of the black caricatures. When Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world in 1908, filmed sequences of him knocking out white Tommy Burns so disturbed the “racial pride” of white America that they were banned for fear of race riots. Thereafter, black boxers in films were invariably defeated by their white opponents. Similarly, when the first film versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were released in the South, advertisements announced that the black characters were portrayed by white actors. Even at this stage the evolving film industry feared offending its dominant white audiences.

pg 17

 

What I wanted to highlight in these two passages lightly removed from their chapter’s surrounding context is this notion of mythic types. Ultimately, Bogle is not just saying a particular behavior set performed by US Blacks is being a coon. He is fairly directly saying a particular set of behaviors was utilized by Whyte film makers to present US Blacks to US Whyte audiences in a particular way. Black actors that would eventually begin to be given roles in Whyte produced films would be typecast in these sorts of roles. These roles, these scripted characters, presented through media helped to continue to define patterns of US Black subordination to US Whytes. This is not a nod towards further intonations of US Black respectability politics from US Black bourgeois sectors.

 

I do not personally use this term “coon” in a loose, affectionate, or joking manner. How I see it being applied by one group of US Blacks to another group is blatant classism and elitism. It is another one of those reasons I have adopted my Black Media Trust framework for critical thinking.There is a line that has to be drawn when dealing with US Blacks as a group obligated to strangers based on outside oppressors in a land they are forced to call their own.

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