Monday, July 6, 2009

A Modern Day Esau and Jacob; or, The Coon Doesn't Fall Far from the Tree

When my brother and I were coming up, we were as different as night and day. Our relationship perhaps approximated the relationship of the two Biblical brothers Esau and Jacob.

I was the quiet, cerebral bookworm type who preferred those spaces inhabited by women. In stark contrast, he was excitable and aggressive—boisterous at times—and preferred those spaces inhabited by men.

I spent my free moments inside, quietly reading and writing in a corner as I enjoyed the polite conversation and company of my grandmother, my mother and my aunts. He, on the other hand, spent his days outside with my dad and my uncles, talking loudly and rudely and measuring his strength and manhood against others.

And while I almost rarely got in trouble, trouble was his middle name. He stayed into something. In fact, several times he was whipped or punished for something I had done. Even when I attempted to step in and own up to whatever he was on the hook for, no one would even believe me. And they thought of me as even more noble for attempting to stand up for my brother.

When we went off to college at about the same time, he decided within the first year or year and a half that college was not for him. He wanted to get paid and get paid right away. And eight years or so later when I finally finished and was overjoyed to get an appointment which paid me a little over half the amount I owed in student loans per year, everyone overlooked that he was a self-made man, a legitimate entrepreneur earning well over six figures. My family celebrated with a party; my brother was but a footnote on the program.

You would probably think that there would be bad blood between us. But have always been close. Very close. I once tried to apologize to him. I wanted him to know that I saw what was going on, and I did not think it was fair even if it was out of my hands. But he just shook his head. He explained to me that he knew since we were little that I couldn’t take whippings because I couldn’t stand the pain. But he, on the other hand, did not mind the pain. He told me that I was always too sensitive, that I never could stand harsh criticism. He, on the other hand, did not care.

I think we both realized long ago that like it or not, within the social dynamics of our family, our roles and the manner in which we were perceived were inextricably linked; we were defined each through the other. I was what I was perceived to be only because of what he was perceived not to be. My light shone so brightly only because others refused to see the brilliance of his.

All of that is real touching, Max, but what are you getting at? What are you trying to say?

Well, I said all of that just to say this.

Since I have been a part of the black blogosphere, and especially in the days following the BET Music Awards, we have been a little hard on—how do I say this?—our less cultured brethren and cousins. When it comes to pointing out and ridiculing coon-ish behavior, we don’t miss a trick. I have at least two sites in my blog roll at this very time, the very purpose of which are to root out and ridicule coonery.

Don’t get me wrong. My purpose is not to admonish any one person or any one blog or any group of persons. I just want to make a point. And notice that I use we so as to implicate myself.

But the question becomes, is our ridicule meant to solve a problem or provide remedy for inappropriate behavior? Or is our ridicule meant to make us feel better about ourselves? To make us feel more comfortable about our stations in life?

My wife made a very cogent observation this evening. I didn’t watch the original broadcast of the BET Awards show. But I TiVO’d it so that I could watch it later. So after watching the whole despicable spectacle, I stood and proclaimed just what an abject pack of coonery it was. My wife simply looked up from her book and pointed out that I already knew what the show was all about. After all, I had spent the whole week reading about it. So, why would I take the time to watch something that I knew would only upset me?

Of all the utterly horrible reviews I read the previous week, not one that I can think of stated that they turned it off. I, like everyone else, watched it to the very last credit. And in some perverse way, I was entertained by it all, even if I did not approve.

Similarly, we ridicule Tyler Perry for the particular coonalarity of his movies and television shows, but I am willing to bet most of us have watched at least one of his movies or his TV shows or both.

We like to participate in the foolishness but from a distance. It’s like throwing a rock and hiding your hand. I am perhaps most guilty of this. Despite the degrees, despite the Greek letters, despite the house in the suburbs and the foreign cars, I like to get down in the dirt with the best of them, then return to my black middle class surroundings and shake my head.

Zora Neale Hurston made a similar argument years ago in her questioning of the low culture/high culture dichotomy seperating African American art and culture. And every now and then I have to remind myself of who I am and where I come from. I am but one step up from the streets myself.

And furthermore, I and those of my cousins for whom high coonery is the order of the day share a common culture. And we are inextricably linked in the cultural imagination of the larger culture. If our light shines brightly, it is only because the brilliance of their potential is ignored. It is only because in my carriage, in my use of the language, in my dress and behavior, I am measured by their lack thereof; I am what I am because of what they are not.

And when the criticism comes from those places outside the African American community, it is they who deflect it though it is aimed at all of us. In the comfort of our imagined selves, I'm not sure we can withstand the criticism. I'm not sure we can take the pain.

But for fear of suffering the fate of Icarus and allowing pride and arrogance to carry me too close to the sun of my own self-importance and privilege, I have to keep reminding myself that the coon never falls far from the tree.


KST said...

Nice post. Can't add anything, so I'll just co-sign. And, you just helped me figure out why a post at another blog site has left me feeling very uneasy all day.

uglyblackjohn said...

I think much of it has to do with some sort of revenge for the childhood tauntings given by the "Coons" that were directed towards the "Nerds".

The Icarus model seems be the norm.
Unfortunately, most who have made it any higher than the waves end up thinking that they belong closer to the Sun.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I agree with you 100% I mean God has given everyone a measure of common sense.

Some things from the show were just plain wrong. Regardless of whether you consider yourself low cultured or highcultured. I'm talking about the Drake/Lil Wayne performance now.

Other things could fall into our so called cousins doing things the way they know how. In that category I would put Jamie hogging the spotlight, teleprompter problems, timing issues, etc.

By the way...I heard BET posted an apology somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Loved the post. I got so emotional reading about you and your brother. Great post

Who are those two little cute chocolate drops? They are so darn adorable


RiPPa said...

Damn this was good! I cannot break it down as eloquently as you already have my brother. However, I will say this:

For us as a people who have all been the source of idle chatter of a derogatory nature by the dominant culture we can't help ourselves. In some sick twisted way, thou we may not approve, we watch just to be sure that we ourselves are not smitten with the bug of coonism or coonish behavior.

BET is like a three legged dog: painful to look at, but somehow we can't help but to look.

Issa Rae said...

I still haven't seen the BET Awards. My mom was watching them yesterday and kept calling me in to come see it, she was oblivious about all of the controversy behind it. I just can't bring myself to watch the entire thing. I watched Maxwell's performance and that's pretty much it.

What's the age difference between you and your brother?

Max Reddick said...


Thanks for stopping by! Always glad to see you.

@ugly black john

"Unfortunately, most who have made it any higher than the waves end up thinking that they belong closer to the Sun."

I could not have said it better myself. Got to steal this one!

@ Anon

I did not say the show was not dead wrong, the question I asked was if it was so wrong, why did we watch the whole thing. If we were really that horrified by the whole spectacle, we should have turned it off.

@ Simone

Found those two handsome litte guys on flickr.

@ RiPPa

We measure ourselves against their foolishness. But sometimes I think we are secretly jealous that we cannot be foolish right along with them. We feel left out, so we lash out by complaining and poking fun at them.

@ Issa Rae

My brother and I are 10 1/2 months apart. No jokes please! :)

Anonymous said...

Max Reddick -

I enjoyed and was stimulated by your post. I have read the occasional comments that you have left over at Prometheus6.

The issues and questions that you raised merit consideration but I doubt if I can add anything of value to the discussion. I have never, for example, watched the BET Awards programs and I did not tune in at all to the memorial service for Michael Jackson.

By the same token, I have never viewed, for example, dozens of other television programs and specials targeted toward African American viewers either. (Yes, all of Tyler Perry's productions, too, have managed to elude my attention save for the promotional advertisements run on their behalf.)

I don't look down on my brothers and sisters, including family members, who regularly watch and discuss these programs. Many years ago I came to the conclusion that we just have different tastes in popular culture and that's the way the prune wrinkles. I look for other qualities they possess to admire and I always assume that I am no closer to the sun than they are.

Max Reddick said...

PT Cruiser,

First of all, if you are the site administrator or if you know the site administator over at Promentheus 6, please accept or pass on my thanks for linking to my post on yesterday. I really appreciate the support. I looked for a email address on the site but could find none.

Yes, the range of taste within our culture is vast. But we decide what tastes are valid and invalid based on our subject positions. But all tastes, all subject positions are valid, and taken in totality, all work toward the beautification of our culture.


Qwami Ade said...

Excellent post! I've yet to see the award broadcast and possibly never will. Man, your eloquent honesty shines brighter than that suit Magic was sportin' @the NBA Championship Finals. I'm really digin' your blogs.


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