The word “coon” is heavy with history. But whose history determines how heavy?
In America, the word “coon” is met by many with hurt and disdain. A derogatory term often associated with African Americans whose personal politics, ethics or behavior are considered stereotypical or contradictory to those that support the African American community, the term coon isn’t taken very lightly. So it was much to my surprise when I was met with the term during one of my interviews at District Six. One of the ex-residents we had the opportunity to interview was once a performer in what is known in Cape Town as the “Coon Carnival.” He reminisced favorably about his time dancing and performing in the carnival and even brought in a book with more of the carnival’s history.
According to Wikipedia, Coon Carnival, formally known as Kaapse Klopse, is an annual minstrel festival that takes place on Jan. 2 in Cape Town. As many as 13,000 minstrels take to the streets dressed in bright colors, either carrying colorful umbrellas or playing an array of musical instruments. The minstrels are self-organized into klopse (“clubs” in Afrikaans). Participants are typically from Afrikaans’ working class, Cape Coloured families who have preserved the custom since the mid-19th century. People consider the festival as a rite of renewal that has been shaped by the Cape’s history. It is now referred to as the “Cape Town Minstrel Carnival,” but under apartheid, it was referred to as the “Coon Carnival.”
What’s interesting is that while it is supposedly referred to today as the “Cape Town Minstrel Carnival,” many of the people we have interacted with still use the moniker “Coon Carnival” with pride and admiration in regards to the event. This difference in term, based on my experience, is a microcosm for a larger issue of language and political correctness in Cape Town. Through the different interviews and experiences I’ve had while working in Cape Town, my race has been brought up in multiple conversations, and often in ways that haven’t always been polite. But to me, my understanding of “politeness” is closely linked with an expectation of political correctness. In America, it’s become very clear that certain things just shouldn’t be said. While this is also the case in South Africa, I think there is a certain emphasis and necessity of politically correct language that isn’t emphasized in the same way here, in Cape Town.
I’ve been asking myself as to why this is. It could be a generational issue. Since many of the people I encounter are ex-residents of District Six, many were teenagers during the apartheid. With this as the case, certain terms might have been normalized and the change in language might not have felt necessary. It could also be because Cape Town, while similar in its history to America, experienced a different history. These carnivals are typically celebrated by Cape Coloured families, an ethnic classification and cultural community that doesn’t find its home in America. It’s also a different community than the one that finds it so offensive in the states. Maybe they have reclaimed the word, deciding that the carnivals represent a sense of pride and joy and that the term should now, too. It could be all of these reasons. It could also be none of these reasons.
Perplexed by this cultural difference in significance, I also recognize what else this scenario represents. It represents the power of language, of history, and its ability to influence connotation and experience. This affects people’s feelings of belonging, of safety and identity. These thoughts seem so big in comparison to the moment that sparked them, but that’s been a consistent theme of my time here. All it takes is a conversation, a mural, a meeting, or a moment for contemplation to set in. I’m thankful for moments like these that challenge me and the subsequent moments of introspection and reflection they provide.