“Every Race Has A Flag But The Coon” is the title of one of the very first “coon songs.” It represents contempt for Black people due to their lack of cohesiveness. That shortcoming was emphasized by the absence of a flag symbolically identifying all African people everywhere. We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the Red, Black and Green flag (#RBG100) and its “birth certificate” the Declaration of Rights of the Negro People of the World, which designated the colors.
It seems a close look at the song is in order. It intended to capitalize on the hatred, disdain and contempt embodied in its audience’s “melanin envy.” Ironically, the composition sparked an expansion of perception. The error in thought known as “Every Race Has A Flag But The Coon” resulted in a consolidation of energy during the first international convention of the U.N.I.A. during August 1920. That energy manifested itself as value and power. The energy, or NTU in the Swahili language, came forth embodied in the symbol representing the spiritual revitalization of ALL African people, Black people, Negro people at home and abroad, as well as, the origin of the entire human race on the continent of Africa.
It was not something we set out to do, this work of teaching the history of our flag, the Red, Black and Green. It was one of those things which makes us aware, we do not choose destiny, destiny chooses us.
A friend asked us to come to her elementary school classroom and teach her students the history of our flag. We initially had no interest in the assignment. In fact we did all we could to avoid having to complete the task. Nevertheless, history had other plans. We reluctantly took on the role of flag story teacher.
The day came. We completed our assignment. It was not so much that the task was less painful than we anticipated. It was the response of a group of young people to the idea they have a flag. Where their enthusiasm came from we have no idea. Could it be true “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction?” Has the concealment of our history led to a re-energizing of the spirit which gave birth to the flag on August 13, 1920?
So to the song “Every Race has a Flag but the Coon.” It is not a very interesting accumulation of lyrics, as songs go. However, it concentrates on globalizing the disdain and contempt for Black people deeply embedded in western culture. Nevertheless, we do not see anywhere that Will A Heelan and J. Fred Helf held any personal bias against Black people. In fact, as far as we can tell “Every Race” was the only coon song involving either of them. It seems they knew their audience more than anything else, so they wrote a song to capitalize on the market demand.
Nowhere in nature is there a requirement for the idea of a person known as a “coon.” Yet this song, along with the plethora of others, at least 600 in number, were written, composed and sung for decades. When Ernest Hogan used the term “coon” in his song “All Coons Look Alike to Me” it was not intended to be derogatory. H.L. Mencken gives a history of such the term which begins in 1741. At that time “coon” was a diminutive for raccoon. “Frontier rustic” is what it meant by 1832 and it was a term for Whig Party members by 1840. Interestingly, the Whig Party later became the Republican Party. Though Stuart Flexner claims the 1834 “Zip coon” did not identify anyone Black or white, the dialect used reflects an “ethnic” type. “Coon songs” were Whig political songs in the 1840s and 1850s.
Heelan and Helf wrote a song a year later entitled “When the Irish are on parade.” It received nowhere near the attention or success of “Every race.” Not only does sex sell, hate does too.
Let us look at the lyrics.
The leader of the Blackville Club arose last Labor night
And said, “When we were on parade today
I really felt so much ashamed, I wished I could turn white
‘Cause all the white folks march’d with banners gay
Just at de stand de German band
They waved their flag and played ‘De Wacht am Rhine’
The Scotch Brigade each man arrayed
In new plaid dresses marched to ‘Auld Lang Syne’
Even Spaniards and Sweeds, folks of all kinds and creeds
Had their banner except de coon alone
Ev’ry nation can brag ‘bout some kind of a flag
Why can’t we get an emblem of our own?”
For Ireland has her Harp and Shamrock
England floats her Lion bold
Even China waves a Dragon
Germany an Eagle gold
Bonny Scotland loves a Thistle
Turkey has her Crescent Moon
And what won’t Yankees do for their Red, White and Blue
Every race has a flag but the coon
He says, “Now I’ll suggest a flag that ought to win a prize
Just take a flannel shirt and paint it red
They draw a chicken on it with two poker dice for eyes
An’ have it wavin’ razors ‘round its head
To make it quaint, you’ve got to paint
A possum with a pork chop in his teeth
To give it tone, a big hambone
You sketch upon a banjo underneath
And be sure not to skip just a policy slip
Have it marked four eleven forty four
Then them Irish and Dutch, they can’t guy us so much
We should have had this emblem long before”
The “Blackville Club” obviously is a mocking reference to any organization intending to better the lives of Black people. The Universal Negro Improvement Association which gave the world the Red, Black and Green is one such group.