When I was a child, my parents were vigilant about teaching me good language, and as a result were adamant about the words I should never, ever use. Of course, there was the N-word. Just as important, the S-word and the W-word… and the R-word too. But there was also another word that was banished from my dictionary, and as a child I never understood why.
(Call me naive, I certainly was.) It baffled me, this word. As a child I did not make the association to the animal racoon. Neither did I understand in any way how it could have any sort of slur attached to its meaning. And I can remember taking time and energy as a child to figure out wht this word might mean.
It wasn’t until I was well into my adulthood, in my second career as a pastor, that I had the a-ha moment. I had a member in his 80s, a wonderful farmer whose passion was racoon hunting. He explained to me the ins and outs of how to hunt racoons … that they are nocturnal, so you need to hunt at night, you use dogs to help. And as he explained it to me, he would always say “there’s nothing like a good coon hunt.” He said that often, but the very first time, it was like lightening struck and I understood.
Coon hunt. Raccoon hunting. Done at night, with dogs.
In the 1840’s and beyond…. escaped slaves were hunted for reward. They were hunted at night, with dogs and guns. Even after the Civil War, this continued. This is how our modern day police developed – as slave hunters that ran with dogs and guns through the night.
Hearing those words… “nothing like a good coon hunt”… I finally understood. I imagined that the men of the 1800s used coon hunting as coded language to talk about slave hunting. “Honey, I’m going coon hunting tonight.” or “hey Jed, wanna go coon hunting?” Using this coded language made it acceptable to talk about it with family and friends, in public spaces. And now I understood the connection. Hunting coons, meant hunting black people. That’s how the slur coon came to be.
image from Granger Historical Picture Archive. (c) 1840.
You may wonder why I am thinking of this today. Maybe it is because my 12 year old son just brought home the book “How the Red Fern Grows” and I am once again learning about raccoon hunting through the eyes of a young black boy, reminded of my own childhood misunderstandings and struck by the juxtaposition of the naivete.
Maybe, though, its because we have started to see the body cam footage of Breonna Taylor’s murder (which cops denied they had). If I am honest, when I look at those videos, and videos like THIS ONE from the death of Atatianna Jefferson, I think to myelf those cops just went coon hunting.
I can imagine, with disgust, that the cops started their shift by high-fiving each other, and saying “let’s go coon hunting tonight.”
Because the heart of racist hunters hasn’t changed that much in 180 years.
Because the use of coded language hasn’t changed that much in 180 years.
Whether we want to admit it or not, not much has changed in 180 years. And whether the language is, let’s go coon hunting, or stand by Proud Boys, we still have racists going on the hunt at night, with their guns and their dogs. And no matter how much our parents try to teach us not to use the bad words… if we don’t eradicate the hate behind them nothing will ever change.