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What’s a difference between a Jim Carrey movie, the Three Stooges, a Wayans Brother show, and a Flavor Flav sighting? Semantics, really.

Jim Carrey and the Three Stooges perfected the art of physical farce and slapstick humor. The Wayans Brothers and Flav perfected the art of coonery.

Of course, this would be true only in a context where BET exists and perceptual double standards existed for different races.

Oh wait.

Urban dictionary defines coonery as:

Antics and behavior displayed by certain underclass individuals in the Black culture, the end result being the embarrassment of the rest of the upstanding Black community.

“Embarassment of the rest of the upstanding Black community.” Which is another way of enforcing class disparities within the black race. Which is another way of, well, defining America.

One of the collateral damages of living in a capitalistic society is the inevitable division of classes. As income gaps increase between segments of society, the customs of these societal segments become disparate as well. White collar workers and blue-collars workers, for example, adopt different tastes, live in different areas and over time base their value off the accumulation of capital.

Capitalism.

In his magnum opus, Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith asserted that division of labor was necessary for maximum productivity. In fact, he said it was the crux of industrialized nations. His work is often cited by free-market fundamentalists (those who advocate letting the market wholly determine what’s viable). According to the laissez-faire principles that Smith “trumpeted,” coonery is a means to an end: money

But what’s increasingly left unacknowledged are Smith’s views later in the same book, in which he stated that division of labor results in mental mutilation in workers.

“They become ignorant and insular as their working lives are confined to a single repetitive task.”

The repetitive task in the case of the coonery industry is the ever-present depictions of “unflattering” black behavior on a mass scale for profit (unflattering behavior that is not for profit is another classification). The tradition of blackface reportedly started in the 1830s, with white folks coloring their faces black, entertaining masses – and there were masses entertained – with hyperbolic rituals of oblivious, village idiot-like behavior of slaves on the fields. Musicals and dancing and tomfoolery were at the center of the minstrelsy acts. Pretty much the anti-Frederick Douglass.

Then black folks took cue, and instead of slapping blackface in the face, they took over. Why? Because they needed money. Or they lacked self-respect. Or they needed money and lacked self-respect.

Capitalism birthed the industry of coonery.

Blackface existed for decades as the main vehicle for African Americans to break into show business. As U.S. influence around the world grew, blackface was right behind, gaining steam in the United Kingdom, countries throughout Asia and Australia. The image of blackface still exists worldwide (see video below).

Minstrelsy may have left mainstream U.S. culture, but the spirit lives on through various reincarnations. Same product, new name.

Martin Lawrence, Marlon Wayans, David Mann and Flavor Flav are a few African Americans who have picked up the cues that their white “brothers” started and ran with it. The success of Aaron McGruder and Dave Chappelle – two figures who made careers of skewering buffoonery – is owed to the tradition of coonery, albeit on a different twist.

They are all stakeholders in the industry of coonery. In this industry, bettering the perception of a group of people is tangential; making funnies is the main goal. There’s no money in channeling intelligent black people, common wisdom goes. The Cosby Show is a risky venture. But Ray J and Tyler Perry is guaranteed mulah.

And to many African-Americans’ credit, there has been tasteful art that has furthered the image of their race. Everybody Hates Chris, The Steve Harvey Show, Living Single and My Wife and Kids are shows that are funny but not demeaning. And oddly enough, they are all casualties in the industry of coonery.

Activists and regular citizens alike express aghast at the antics of Flavor Flav and Big Ass Chains while others recognize that there is a market for blackface behavior. Like any forward-thinking capitalist, executives in this country have found a way to package black talent and make elephant dollars off it.

All while rendering the target group entranced and distracted by laughter.

In capitalism, riches are dictated by market forces. So I guess that means we all are stakeholders in our diminished image. If a tree falls and no one hears it, then it doesn’t make a sound.

Folks were beat like cattle to place African-Americans in the position to succeed in this country.  If blackface behavior is success, then I guess those lashings weren’t in vain.

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  • if folks got rid of the teLIEvisions and stop letting media shape their views, it probably wouldn’t be a problem but most folks would rather have cable teLIEvision then spend the money on better food choices (e.g. grocery shopping at Costo’s or Food 4 Less vs Whole Foods and other natural grocers). Meaning if folks REALLY put there hard earned money where their mouths were I think there would be less uneasiness regarding the trash ALL media puts out. But, sh*t what do I know I haven’t worked outside my home in more than 8 years and my husband works in the VERY industry I speak of as an advertising exe (it’s actually HIM to taught me truth about how it all goes down).

  • Thanks for bringing up this topic, but I have to point out the unreflective classism implied throughout. The Cosby Show, Everybody Loves Chris, etc. are all shows that depict a Black middle class lifestyle available to only a small portion of our community, and which is touted as the goal we should all be working toward. The Wayans family is large, and have been working in the business for 20 years now, so I think it’s difficult to call all of those thousands of hours straight coonery – particularly looking back at In Living Color. In Living Color was true comedic brilliance, making fun of coonery itself, as well as mainstream white America. Their more recent work… less reflective, more formulaic.

    However, you bring up capitalism as the great ill – here we agree. It’s just important to remember that the forces of capitalism also determine what kind of blackness is ’embarrassing’ and which is ‘respectable’. I hope that we can get beyond a mindset in which all the images available to us are either working class coonery (“big chains”) or totally harmless, never going to rock the boat, middle class respectability (“Living Single”).