The Black Brand and “Coonery”

Kurt von Behrmann
9 min readFeb 12, 2020

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Cooning, behaving in a Black negative stereotypical manner for White Audiences usually for some personal social or economic gain.

February is Black History Month. It is a time to examine the artistic, intellectual and cultural contributions of African-Americans. This month I wanted to examine an issue that for me is one that strikes at the heart of Black Identity and Black Pride itself.

I recall my Grandfather, who gave me my first lecture opportunity at 12. It was recounting what my trip to Ghana meant to me, and its significance. My Grandfather taught a High School night class. The subject was Black History. I remember reading some of those books that recounted names like Juan Caballo. He was of Native American and Black ancestry who lead Native Americans as a de facto Chief.

An image of Juan Caballo also known as John Horse

When I attended Saint Francis Episcopalian High School in Louisville, Kentucky, I was the first Black person to graduate from that school. My American History books contained a sea of names and faces, but Juan Caballo and anyone like him was absent.

Flashing to the present with streaming channels and internet omnipresent, it is a vastly different world from the one I lived in at age 12. What my family gave me was a sense of history and pride of our deep history as African-Americans. We were also proud of our Native American and British American ancestry. There was a sense of dignity that was instilled in me early about who I was and what I was. As German as my father was, and as much as I love him and his culture, I never stopped being that inquisitive Black boy that attended an affluent High School. I never forgot who I was. And I never did.

As I see I reflect on the riots of the past, the political groups, the unrest of the 60’s and the hedonism of the 70’s and now a post terrorist world of climate change and divisive American politics, I had to reflect on where we are as Black people and what puts us at such risk.

This essay discusses perhaps one of the biggest problems that impacts Black pride, Black identity and our own issues with self esteem and self denial, even internal hate. And much of it can be traced to when Black stopped being a political identity and became just another Brand to sell more and more stuff.

The Black Brand and “Coonery”

When images like these that denigrate gender and ethnicity dominate, at what price is there to be paid when this is all you see.

Increasingly The African-American identity, the ethnicity, the culture, is being molded, manipulated and marketed that emphasize the ridiculous, the salacious and most disturbingly of all self-ridicule.

Buffoonery has replaced artistic achievement now that Black has become a commodity. This has been to the severe detriment of Black self-respect. Instead of having a defined Black socio-political identity, Black has been transformed into a marketable brand based on hackneyed formulaic stereotypes. The results, as to be expected, has had dangerous consequences for an American ethnic identity already at risk.

Via assorted media, Black is not seen as an ethnic group, or even a group with an agency. Now it is defined and identified by images and behaviors that are easily identifiable . The markers are obvious, easy to locate and conjure up the negative nearly uniformly.

Black as a Brand, something to be sold and marketed, is steeped in a foundation of values that the larger society views as undesirable. The markers of Black as a brand are all rooted in the provocative marked by self-absorbed consumerism.

The whore, the pimp, the over sexed adolescent, the violent adult, the glorification of criminal life, gang life and organized crime, augmented by consumerism in the form of status symbol items such as clothes, automobiles, jewelry, homes, cosmetics and the like are defining features of the Black brand.

Playing an important part is music and dance that emphasizes the sexual and value systems that prize physical beauty, economic success and certain clothing as signatures of achievement. The Black brand is rooted in a hedonistic value system that places the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate driver and motivator of action and achievement. Success is measured in the acquisition of material items to the near exclusion of all else.

When you embrace the Master, and do anything to be accepted, what costs is there for Black Culture and Youth?

The focus is placed on the individual. Group success and shared success are not a part of the equation. There is no real group identity, but an individual one. If the pursuit of success, fame and value involves tacking it from another in the group, this is seen as justifiable. In this system, the means always justify the ends. It is not how you arrive at goal, it is that you have arrived.

When it comes to the values that Black as a Brand has created, they are not created in isolation from the mainstream. There is a considerable amount of overlap in the values of the larger culture.

The profound difference is that they are not openly celebrated in the dominate culture as they are as Black as a Brand. The more negative is balanced by altruistic intentions, morality, concern for group, intellectual achievement and other more positive attributes. While there is clearly a celebration of material success, it tends to be much less demonstrative and more subtle. Sexuality maybe the same, but mainstream society compartmentalizes it, conceals it and only celebrates it within confined spaces. The primary difference between the White Mainstream and Black as a Brand is that one is overt and the other covert.

One salient feature of Black as a Brand is that there is a substantial amount of “Coonery” at the epicenter.

When singer songwriter Kanye West had his now famous meeting with President Trump, how was this allowed to even happen? This was the perfect opportunity to present a successful Black Man as a mad man, or even a fool. And why did they let this disgraceful event continue with a man who clearly had mental health issues?

The pejorative term “Coonery” or being a “Coon” refers to when an African-American behaves in a stereotypically demeaning manor for the entertainment of white audiences in order to gain social and/or economic gain. Those that engage in this act are often seen as displaying a decidedly “underclass” behavior. This behavior been historically frowned upon in the African-American Community for obvious reasons; it dehumanizes the humanity of Black people.

There has always been a strong powerful resentment of and resistance to demeaning behavior that benefits an individual at the expense of the group. Yet,it still persists. Media, music, films and culture consistently play to the idea of the African-American as the court jester for the white world. Without anything to counter this, clownish behavior sits at the heart of Black as a Brand. What makes seeing it difficult is that it can be carefully camouflaged as part of an ethnic identity. Even something that may appear innocent can have undertones that point to decidedly horrific views of African-Americans.

Sheryl Underwood got into deep hot water over comments regarding Black hair. She also openly admitted on the air that C.B.S. encourage her to speak in a stereotypical Black dialect for the show.

When Black as a Brand masks itself as an authentic African-American experience, the result is the dehumanization of all people of African descent. When seen as “lesser than,” and as little more than characters reduced to base human behavior, it becomes easier to justify the mistreatment of Black people.

If they are seen as inferiors and clowns, they can also be seen as needing, if not demanding, to be viewed as such. When openly engaging in “coonish” acts, this creates the impression of not only satisfaction, but celebration of a society that views you as non-human. You become an object. You are seen as incapable of having complex emotions and feelings. Minus those markers of civilization, the coon becomes a tamed savage, and little more. The first act of dehumanization is removing complex emotions from that which is to be dominated. You cannot subjugate and equal. The first phase is dehumanization.

For White populations and individuals, the Black Brand presents not just a distorted view of authentic African American experiences, but a totally inaccurate one. When Black is viewed as sub human and incapable of intellectual achievement, it creates fear. Blacks are not only undesirable; Black is viewed as a threat. This not only reinforces racist views, it justifies them. The danger of Black as a Brand marketing ghetto culture, and negative Black imagery and values cannot be overstated. In the context o U.S. history, it is damaging to the future and present economic and social advancement of African Americans in all aspects of American life.

There is another side effect of Black as a Brand that not only harms Black people, but well intended Whites as well. The view of Blacks as lessor has also fostered the idea of Blacks as perpetual victims in need of salvation by generous Whites. The problem with this view is that it is based deeply in the notion that Black People are not capable of self-agency. It works under that assumption that Black People can do well, but only when removed from their culture and under the guidance of White people. This may seem well meaning, and the intentions indeed maybe good, but if your view of those you assist as being decided lessor, the matrix of dominated and dominator is still maintained.

At the 2019 Met Gala, Tiffany Haddish brought Fried Chicken. Who is the real butt of this joke? And, who pays for it considering how negative Black imagery has become.

Let me make this clear. I am not advocating that White people do not become involved with aiding African Americans. I do not believe in a divided America. I am a product of. Many African Americans are. One of the sad impacts of socio economic segregation is that African American issues are seen as divorced from the mainstream of American politics. It is not seen as integral part of the future of the United Sates that impacts all American.

Another disturbing side of Black as a Brand is open hostility to White Culture. Presented as authentic, wide spread Black hostility to anything White is presented as an integral part of Black behavior and cultural identity.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, Acclaimed Artist, Writer and Poet. The dignified face of the culture.

Economically successful Black comics play to packed houses filled with Whites ready and willing to pay for the privilege of seeing their culture mocked by Black comics. This is yet another variation of “Cooning” it up for the public to consume. The comic is still debasing themselves as they ridicule the mainstream. This is what I call “distraction cooning.” On the surface this may look like Black Empowerment. The reality is that the exaggerated speech, mannerisms and the like glorify “ghetto” culture and view mainstream White America as stiff, uninspired and sterile. The net result is a sophisticated form of “coonery” that still finds the Black comic often as the butt of the joke, or the joke.

The danger for all of this is “hucksterism,” and “profiteering“ of off Black anguish is that it prevents any real meaningful dialogue regarding the pressing issues that impact Black American from taking place. Collateral damage includes Black youth patterning themselves off of negative imagery and the denigration of Black Culture, achievement, pride and self-worth. The justification of Black as a Brand and Cooning, from the most cynical perspective, is that at the very least someone Black is being paid. Certainly an individual or even individuals profit, both Black and White, from the Black Brand, but at what cost to the security, safety and long term economic growth of America.

There has been an economic, social and moral cost that Black as a Brand has taken. We may have yet to see the full consequences when individual gain over rides the concerns of an entire ethnic group and the larger society at a whole.

My Art web Site

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