“Coon.” For some Howard University students, the word is used in everyday conversation.
As in, “That person’s coonin’.” Or doing the Chicken Noodle Soup dance. That’s “coonin’,” too.
“I guess we use it in the same sense people use the ‘N word,’” says Alesha Johnson, a sophomore broadcast journalism major.
Others though, cite the word’s derogatory history and say they would never take part in its use.
“I think it’s positively asinine that students use it. The ‘n’ word is one thing,” says Zelena Williams, a freshman print journalism major. “You can’t say you’re doing the same thing you’re doing with the ‘n’ word.”
The term’s usage as a slang word became popular on Howard’s campus in the spring of 2005, and it has carried on among many students.
Whether students use the word depends mainly on the student’s personal interpretation of its history and meaning.
“Cooning to me is a negative stereotype embodying all the negative stereotypes placed on Black people,” says Jephree White, a junior audio production major. She encourages students to research the word before deciding whether to use it in conversation.
But some students say they understand enough about the word’s history to justify using it.
“I feel like I’m educated enough that, when I’m joking around, I can pretend to be ignorant. I know the history of the word and what it means,” says Johnson.
In his history of African-Americans in film, “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks,” film historian Donald Bogle wrote, “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.”
Dr. Russell L. Adams, professor emeritus of African-American studies at Howard, says, “students are using it in ignorance, not realizing that older folks, White especially, will say, ‘Poor things. They really are ignorant as to what we used to do to them.’ Black people will say, ‘Someone has failed to tell them.’”
Some authorities say the word comes from “raccoon,” but according to Adams, it stems from the Portuguese word “barracoon,” meaning prisoner in a cage.
“The word ‘barracoon’ translates into English as the word barrack, barrier, something that holds you back,” he says, adding that Whites adapted and shortened the word when looking for slave labor.
“They would say, ‘I need some coons,’ meaning they were in need of some Black folks who were already locked up because they’ve already been broken in for service,” Adams says.
The students who use the word today aren’t aware of what they are saying, Adams says. Meanwhile, older generations recognize the word as an insult.”
“I’m from the generation that when you use the word ‘coon,’ you’re starting a fight and you hope you win,” Adams says.
“My great-great grandparents would say ‘Stop cooning!’ when the kids started acting up,” adds Dr. Lila Ammons, chair of the African-American studies department.
Like curse words, the context of “coon” can change depending on the group using it, says Howard sociology professor Ivor L. Livingston.
Johnson says that the way she and her friends use the word changes its meaning altogether.
“Words are just symbols. Any connotations attached to them, positive or negative, are just what you make them to be,” she says.
However, Ammons argues that the word still has a broader context outside each individual’s circle, and that a group of friends does not possess the power to change its broader definition.
“People in the academic community look to Webster, not to each other,” she says.
It’s unclear where the contemporary use of the word originated. Some students claim to have heard it in their hometowns, while others say they have never encountered it outside campus.
White, who first heard the word used at Howard, says, “It’s mostly an HU phenomenon. When I go [to my hometown] I don’t hear it.” She says students use it to refer to their peers’ behavior, particularly when they are acting foolish.
“I mostly hear it used sarcastically. They’re using it to make fun,” she says.
Adams attributes its ease of adaptation to the current social structure.
“The sadness about some parts of desegregation is that there is a segregation of ignorance,” he says. “Any group that forgets how stuff happened then is bound to be a victim of what is happening now.”
— Traver Riggins, a Howard University student, writes for The Hilltop, the university’s student newspaper.
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