John Minton and David Evans, “The Coon in the Box”: A Global Folktale in African-American Tradition.
FF Communications No. 277. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Academia Scientiarum Fennica), 2001. 112 pp.
Hard (ISBN 951-41-0895-7), €12
Soft (ISBN 951-41-0896-5), €10

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Archer Taylor often began his folklore articles with a text that he himself had heard. A real-life experience had whetted his curiousity and led him to unearth analogs. Thus he was able to provide the newly-collected text with a rich background, and, conversely, the old variants came to participate in the immediacy of the almost-living one. His analysis usually permitted him to form conclusions regarding the history of the tradition, its earlier forms, and its paths of diffusion. “The Coon in the Box” had a somewhat similar inception. In the early 1970s, David Evans heard the tale from an informant and presented a paper on the subject. Then, independently, in 1997, John Minton spoke on the same subject. The two authors made contact and the present study is the result their collaboration. Not only does this book begin with a freshly-collected text, but more are presented later (pp. 71–76, 84). The presence of these narrators, whom the authors met in the course of fieldwork on folksongs, is also manifested through photographs. In addition, comments about the story from other narrators (62–63) help to give this comparative study a human dimension unusual (and welcome) in this type of research.

Although it is popular in black American tradition, the tale of “The Coon in the Box” is an uncomfortable tale for would-be politically-correct citizens of the modern world. It depends on a homonym or pun: the shortened name of the animal, raccoon, is a slang term for African Americans.

To curry favor or avoid work, John, a clever slave or black tenant farmer, styles himself a fortune teller. As proof, he pretends to divine the location of a horse or other objects he himself has hidden; or he eavesdrops on Old Marster [sic] to discover the next day’s itinerary; or he guesses the catch from Old Marster’s hunts. Or a cook who has stolen Old Miss’s wedding band confides in John, who feeds it to a turkey and then pretends to divine its location. The subterfuge backfires, however, when Old Marster decides to test John’s powers, often at the prompting of a skeptical neighbor wih whom he makes an extravagant wager. Placing a raccoon under a pot or in a box, Old Marster demands that John identify its contents. Bemoaning his lot – “Well Marster, you caught the old coon at last” – the imposter unwittingly speaks the answer. Having passed the test, he escapes punishment or is rewarded with valuables or with his freedom. (Abridged from p. 34.)

The first part of the tale establishes that John is a trickster, and demonstrates how he is able to make Old Marster believe that he has supernatural access to knowledge. The coon in the box episode follows as a climax with a punch line: in the face of a seemingly impossible task, as John admits defeat and expects to be punished for losing the wager, the very expression of his defeat leads him to victory.

The authors identify this tale as AT 1641, “Doctor Know-All” (KHM No. 98). They have analyzed 29 versions of “The Coon in the Box”, all of them American and all but one of them African-American. They have also analyzed 22 New World texts of “Doctor Know-All” and three fragmentary texts, all of which are coded in sufficient detail that future researchers may save themselves considerable trouble. This analysis shows that the motif of the Coon developed from a British form in which the protagonist, who was named Fox or was a foxy (clever) character, bemoans, “You caught the old fox at last”. In “The Coon in the Box”, the introductory incidents determine the subtypes: the stolen horse, the ring in the turkey, divining the day’s agenda or the hunt’s catch, etc. The authors note thematic consistency in their material: all the incidents involve hidden objects and many of them feature an animal. Just as the coon is hidden in the box, so the horse is hidden in the woods or the ring in the turkey. In order to overhear what his master plans to do the next day, the slave hides himself. Furthermore, episodes that occasionally combine with “The Coon in the Box” are also similar to it in structure (87–89).

Naturally, this study conforms in many ways to historic-geographic norms. The authors concur with the received opinion that the tale originated in (or at least that the evidence available points to) Asia. With regard to the material that they personally have examined, they trace the American tales to Europe (Ireland, in particular). The dates of the inception of “coon” as a slang word (ca 1830) and the appearance of the earliest variant of “The Coon in the Box” (1888) set the limits of the subtype’s original appearance. The authors construct an inclusive archetype that contains both the stolen horse and the ring in the turkey episodes (67–68). With regard to a motif in which the trickster’s wife burns a house down, the authors consider the possibility of commercial contacts between eastern Asia, the Caribbean, and Spain (48). For the detail motif of a ring lost while washing clothes, they weigh the likelihood of genetic relationship versus polygenesis resulting from real-life experience (58, n. 39). They note that as the tale has been adapted to different eras, its main characters have changed from a king and a peasant to a master and a slave to a landlord and tenant farmer (57). They address the limits of the tale’s variation, including the seeming repulsion of the different subtypes (that is, the horse episode and the ring episode which are mutually exclusive [49]).

Having completed their historic-geographic duties, the authors go on to consider the cultural context and meaning of the tale. They observe that, at the end of the tale, whether John is freed from slavery, wins a car or a chicken dinner, or merely has saved his life, he is not much better off than he was in the beginning, and they describe a similar attitude of resignation in other episodes that combine with this tale (83–89). On a linguistic level, it seems that the slang word “coon” originally meant a clever fellow, like “fox”, and only later, around 1860, did it come to refer to an African American man. It is even likely, they maintain, that this particular story motivated the change in the word’s meaning (63). The notion of the slave as trickster is of course very common in African-American tales, and the authors quickly zoom in on detail motifs. They mention the genre of “coon songs”, in particular one called “Traveling Coon” (89–92). They discuss pots and other containers as powerful symbols in African and African-American traditions, for example a reported practice in which a rooster under a pot leads to the discovery of a thief (mot. J1141.1. [97]). They conclude that “The Coon in the Box” is a syncretic development in African American tradition rather than a continuation of European tradition.

A project like this demands concentrated work, and authors of such studies sometimes develop a tendency to see the world refracted through their subject (I know this from personal experience). This is particularly true when the subject is a resonant one, as this tale certainly is. The introduction to the monograph leads up to the idea of the “lucky guess”: just as John, not knowing what was under the pot, called out “coon”, so, according to the authors, Richard M. Dorson, in annotating a text of this tale which he had collected, called out, “European origin”, without sifting through the evidence. This comparison is an appealing one, but it is misleading. In the search for origins of African-American tales, there are only four possibilities: the American tradition can be African, European, both, or neither. However, the problem in story of “The Coon in the Box” is not a multiple-choice test. It would not be funny if John had to guess which of four animals (say, a fox, a raccoon, a robin, and a cricket, to take examples from this tale type) the pot contained, and guessed rightly. The hearer’s amazement and amusement in AT 1641 come from the fact that just about anything could be in the box or under the pot, that John is at his wits’ end, and that his very exclamation of defeat turns out to be the right answer.

Although Dorson’s pronouncement concerning the overwhelming degree of European origin for African-American folktales has been proven wrong, he maintained his belief until his death and he certainly never expressed defeat. And in spite of his limited research on AT 1641 (the authors consider it superficial, but others might call it efficient), he had fairly good reasons to call this particular tale European. He could certainly recognize the subtypes with the lost horse and ring as belonging to AT 1641, and observe that the change from Fox to Coon is less than that from Cricket to Fox. Moreover, the center of Dorson’s decuction in incontrovertable because raccoons are American animals, so even if an African form of this episode is discovered, it will not include a raccoon.

It is surely significant that the debate over African versus European origins of African-American folktales gained momentum at the same time that historic-geographic studies elsewhere had wound down. So do public concerns influence the subjects and goals of folktale research.

Christine Goldberg
Los Angeles, California, U. S. A.

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