Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fo'evah Coonin'

So, last night, in an attempt to embrace the ensuing insomnia that's been plaguing me these past couple weeks, I plugged my headphones into some '90s hip-hop and curled up on the couch to David Wondrich's Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot 1843-1924. In it, Wondrich acerbically details the birth of American popular music: the minstrel/"coon" show.

Apparently, the whole phenomenon started in the 1840s with a group called the Virginia Minstrels, who combined the African banjo and the European fiddle with more than a dash of burnt cork for their faces and "Negro dialect" for their tongues. They instantly became a national--and later, an international--sensation. I guess as our nation crept towards the Civil War, white folks felt somehow reassured by this black-faced view of the Negro just a-pickin' and a-grinnin' on the plantation. The minstrels' white audiences also felt that these caricatures of African servitude presented an "authentic" look into Negro life.

White groups in black face sprouted up all over and were wildly popular. They dominated American entertainment until the unthinkable happened. A group of black coons calling themselves the "Georgia minstrels" done stoled they thunder. White folks ate 'em up. Georgia minstrels started popping up everywhere. Black folks, it was felt, were just better at cooning than white folks (obviously, this was before the advent of reality TV). They were just more "authentic" on portraying that happy-go-lucky plantation life.

White minstrels, suddenly being crowded out of an entertainment field that they themselves had created (like Bizarro World Pat Boones), didn't know what to do about this new threat. There wasn't much they could do in this battle for "authenticity." People suddenly wanted black faces beneath the black face they saw and heard on stage. So, these white minstrels did what any Madison Avenue marketeer would tell you to do with a declining product ... they re-branded themselves. White coons were no longer such. They started calling their shows "Nigger minstrels."

So, while shaking my head in an "Only in America" moment, listening to Channel Live admonishing their fellow rappers to stop using "Bitch" and "Nigger" so much, it all suddenly came together ... all the bitches ... the niggers ... the Spike Lee and Tyler Perry battles over "cooning" ... an old Ta-Nehisi Coates article I'd just read about the protracted predominance of "gangsta rap" though the lifestyle they describe has long-since stopped being representative of even the poorest inner-city black male (let alone the rest of us ... not to mention the rappers themselves) ... the endless white fascination with black music ... with the "authentic" nigger experience ... the eternal perversion of black reality to satisfy this warped notion of authenticity ... and how much money has been made in the last century and a half by exploiting this phenomenon ... it all instantly became clear, and, for the first time in a long while, the history of hip-hop in the last 20 years made absolutely perfect sense.


  1. Bill, great reality. Maybe a more detailed examination of all this in the form of a hard back investigation is in order. . . or a novel that integrates and explains all this history.

  2. Funny you should mention it. That is exactly what my new novel is about. :)