A coonhound from Mississippi

I should preface this story by saying that I should have spoken up, but I was in shock at the lack of shock around me.

In the last meeting with a fellowship cohort, there was some time for small talk in the beginning of the session. We talked about the weather and traffic and a number of other trivial things. Just before we were getting into serious business, one of the members of the cohort began talking about her dog, and the brief dialog went a little something like this:

“We just got a new dog and he isn’t quite adjusted to the snow.”
“Aww, poor thing. What kind of dog is it?”
“Oh, he’s a coonhound from Mississippi. He’s just the cutest thing!”
*my jaw drops*
“Aww, how nice!” “Too cute!”
*I begin to shoot angry yet blank stares at everyone lauding the notion of a cute coonhound*

I could not put into words how baffled and offended I was in this moment. First, there HAS TO be a proper name for the dog. There just has to! (Apparently this is the proper name *sigh*). Second, she bought a coonhound…from MISSISSIPPI. Does no one else see anything wrong with this picture?

I did some background research to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Sometimes terms get confused (like the time I was talking about the Watergate scandal and Deep Throat and one of my students thought it was a porno). Apparently there is dissension amongst authorities as to the origin of the dog’s name, although it is billed as one of the few “All-American” breeds. Some sources attribute the name to the dog’s historic 19th century function of chasing down raccoons. Others list the dog as a descendant of those used to track runaway slaves.

Given that the derogatory use of the term “coon” for blacks is derived from the word “raccoon” and the dog is a close relative of the bloodhound (well known for their use in tracking runaway slaves), it is not an illogical leap that this particular breed of dog could have gotten its name for its use of tracking down slaves. Or it could be that the dog actually got its name from its raccoon-hunting functions, after the end of slavery. If so, someone should have had the good sense to name the dog something else, and not doing so is yet another example of institutionalized privilege.

In this situation I’m going to err on the side of offended. The idea of a coonhound leaves a bad taste in my mouth, kind of like the idea of calling a ribbed tank top a “wifebeater” does for many feminists and women’s rights activists. The fact that said coonhound was from Mississippi made it that much worse. But this is just another example of the legacies of slavery and race in this country and the strange and unexpected ways that they come to light!

by Portia Allen-Kyle
#whyracestillmatters

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11 comments

  1. It bothers me that after knowing the context you still “err on the side of offended.” I thought the name was racist when I first heard it too. I even introduce my dog as a bluetick instead of a coonhound to avoid offending someone who is unaware of the name. This is a moment where even though it may be an unfortunate name, history shouldn’t pollute people’s idea of beautiful and sweet dogs.

    1. Hello Mike, and thank you for your comment! The main reason why I am still offended is that the limited history I was able to find was not enough to convince me that it wasn’t related to the history of slave tracking, especially given its relation to the bloodhound and the time period in which the name was given. And so without knowing there is no correction, I think a name such as “bluetick” would be a better (entirely non-offensive) option. Unfortunately, the social history often does not allow for things to be seen in isolation.

  2. Erm, is this a troll post?

  3. I love this post. I was recently at a cajun restaurant that featured a “coonhound” on the menu and I was the only one at the table who knew of the potential history of the name. No one seemed to think it was a serous offense, but I still think the use of the name is inappropriate. Please check out my blog! I write about race and ethnicity as well.

    http://beckhack.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/melting-pot/

  4. Kevin Kellogg · · Reply

    I’ve personally been the owner of three “coonhounds.” Two were black-and-tans, and one, the current one, is a redbone. There are six breeds of “coonhounds” all of which were originally bread in the US from the English foxhounds. In the same way that foxhounds, as the name suggests, were bread to hunt foxes, “coonhounds” were all bread to hunt raccoons. There is a long history of this practice. In the movie, “Where the red fern grows,” a boy purchases two red bone “coonhounds”, which he trains to hunt raccoons. At the peak of the film, the boy competes against another hunter who has a black-and-tan “coonhound.” While this movie is very sad, I encourage that you watch it. This breed of dogs are friendly towards people of darker skin complexion (I can personally attest to this). However, this breed of dogs do not like raccoons (I can also personally attest to this– a raccoon decided to move in under my front porch, my previous dog, a very gentile and friendly dog, was nonetheless very upset). I assure you that the name of these six breeds of dogs only bears historical and literal accuracy, without any racial connotations. It is, however, unfortunate that both people of recent African heritage have been referred to inappropriately and in a degrading way using part of the word “raccoon,” and that these breeds of dogs consequently has a linguistic relationship to this slur.

  5. Bluetick Owner · · Reply

    A little history on the coonhound that you’re forgetting. The early Englishman who came here, not surprisingly, we’re big fox hunters. However, this presents a problem. In Virginia, there was not a large red fox population (some say there were none at all till the English introduced them; however genetic testing seems to indicate that the current population is descended from Canada and moved here after the depletion of the Red Wolf population. But this is all a bit off topic.). The game in Virginia consists of grey foxes, raccoons, black bears, opossums, and mountain lions. This is significant because all of these animals do something that the Red Fox cannot, climb trees. Early foxhounds were easily confused by this. That’s where the coonhound came from. These dogs were bred with a higher IQ to hunt animals that climb trees like raccoons. This is what makes them unique and distenquishes them from the other types of hounds. And raccoons were are the safest and most plentiful of those animals to hunt. This is not to say that foxhounds cannot hunt raccoons, but coonhounds are much more proficient.

  6. Hi! I came across this while googling on the topic. I had a clarifying question for you: when you say that you were offended, are you offended by the name of the breed (institutionalized racism per your post), or the fact that your friends called the breed by this name, or both?

    I ask because I have a dog that is one-third red “coonhound.” This was the name of the breed given to us when we had a dna test done, and I never thought much of it until the other day when someone asked me the breed of our dog and I answered aloud. Then it sort of clicked that the name seemed pretty racist. The person I was talking to didn’t say anything but I was instantly worried that I could have offended them.

    Would you suggest people refer to the breed as something else on an individual level? Perhaps just “red hound” or “redbone hound”? Or, is it more an issue that the name should be formally changed? If the latter, how do you feel about people using it on an individual scale (perhaps admittedly a bit ignorant of the connotations)? I wouldn’t want to offend anyone but referring to it as a somewhat inaccurate name seemed strange as well.

    Thanks! Enjoyed the post.

  7. The coincidence, even if not necessarily intended, is WAY too obvious to believe that there’s no correlation. My belief is that the pejorative “coon”, in part, was derived from the name of the dogs bred and used to hunt down runaway slaves.

  8. If slavery is indeed the source of the dog’s name, my question to everyone would be: should we get rid of a name because it reminds us of the past? Not to be in-sensitive to someone or ignorant of a name, but simply for the fact that those that forget history, are doomed to repeat it.

    And if we forget what it may have been like for those slaves trying to get away and being hunted down by dogs, by doing away with historical references, may it in turn cause us to be all the more ignorant and in-sensitive?

    I would be cautious on the grounds of banishing words simply because they may be offensive, otherwise we get to a point of being the PC police and no one knows what they can or can’t or should or shouldn’t say because someone, God forbid, might get offended, and it starts attacking the very roots of freedom and being able to speak truth into society. We can get to the point where America is getting where some groups are considering it offensive just to say male or female, or mother or father, and trying to nationalize that offense, which is ridiculous and tyrannical, trying to get rid of the freedom of speech of the majority of people because they feel offended.

    Where does it end? When we stop being so careful of being politically correct, being as sensitive as possible, but not letting sensitivity get in the way of speaking the truth or remembering history.

  9. This is an odd one for me. Lately I’ve tried to find a better term for these beautiful animals, but calling them a Raccoon-hound is weird for me to get used too. There’s one big issue with your essay above. The historic function of the Coonhound to hunt down Raccoons (the animal) still exists today. The sport of Raccoon hunting (or as everyone in that sport calls it “Coon Hunting”) is about hunting Raccoons. I have met, and personally known MANY black “Coon Hunters”.

    The purpose this breed was bred for, and their primary function today is to hunt Raccoons. These breeds are also used to hunt bears, cougars, and a variety of other wild cats. Bloodhounds share the same nose as a Coonhounds, but not good for “treeing” a Raccoon. (Chasing it up a tree and keeping it there until the hunter arrives.) These hunts still continue today and there are even national ranking and competition systems. My father owned a Grand Night Champion, one of the highest levels a dog can reach in their competitions. He came in 5th in a couple “World” hunts in the 90s.

    These are beautiful animals that are worthy of love and respect. And, while I agree with you that the term is outdated, and worthy of a revisit I think it’s wrong to infer racism onto people who use the breed’s actual name. A name truly derived from a function that still exists (whether you agree with it or not) today. Slavery is not the source of the name. And these dogs were not solely bred to track down slaves. That is factually wrong. Hunting Raccoons is the source. In fact, the racial slur stems from early comparisons to the bigoted assumption that black people steal a lot at night and take advantage of their dark skin and the dark of night. So the term “Coonhound” definitely came about before people started using the term to racially refer to black people.

    Also, a large number of Coonhounds stem from breeds like the English Foxhound. In fact, the only breed we use (and mostly used in slave days) to hunt people are Bloodhounds. They were bred specifically to track down people. Thus, the name, Bloodhound. These breeds and the same techniques used to hunt slaves are still used today to hunt escaped convicts. Hunting people with a dog really hasn’t changed much in recent history. And while, theoretically, Coonhounds can be easily trained to “hunt” people. The same could be said for German Shepards, or any breed with a good nose.

    Some context on me: I’m not a hunter. My father was, and for years made his living catering specifically to this niche market. I have been to numerous competitions throughout my life. And in my younger years, taken on numerous hunts. The first animal I ever shot was a Raccoon (and not proud of it). This world was not for me. I’m 33 now, and I don’t hunt. I don’t go to these hunts, or participate in this world anymore. Growing up, I genuinely always took the “Coon” in Coonhound to refer to the animal. And only later in life, after learning and developing more, did I start to appreciate the loaded racial connotations in the term. (In my late teenage years I even had to give my father a lecture about “how” and “who” he uses the term with.) I love the breed so much though, that I plan of having more as pets some day. They are insanely sweet, loyal, and affectionate. My father was a big owner of English Coonhounds, sometimes referred to as Redticks. An obscure sub-version of the breed. List of sub-breeds follows:

    – Blueticks (dark blue, and gray with large and small “ticks” spots)
    – Black & Tans (most common, mostly black with tan patches around the head and feet)
    – Redbones (All red. Often mistook for Bloodhounds because of the similar coloring.)
    – Walkers (These look very similar to English Foxhounds. Probably the earliest of the breeds)
    – English (White with large, reddish spots. Sometimes with red small spots “Redticks”
    – Plots (A swirl of black and tan colors. This sub-breed is frequently used for bear-hunting and debate as to whether it’s a “true” Coonhound)

    Here’s a couple links to the major organizations I remember that regulate hunts.
    http://www.ukcdogs.com/Web.nsf/WebPages/Coonhounds/Home
    http://www.prohound.com/

  10. […] two-and-a-half years ago I wrote a post that involved a dog, a coonhound. At the time it was probably one of the most trivial, […]

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