149.9 × 240 cm.
Edition of 5
The racial slur 'coon' dates back to at least 1837 and is said to derive from the word 'barracoon', from the Portuguese 'barraca', meaning "slave depot, pen or rough enclosure for black slaves in transit". The term gained popularity through its use in a series of ragtime songs dubbed 'coon songs' in the late 1800's. These abhorrent 'coon songs' portrayed blacks as unmarried, promiscuous, libidinous and prone to violence. The genre became so popular in the US that songwriters would add the word to preexisting songs, to cash in on the craze.
James Dormon, a former professor of history and American studies at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, has suggested that "coon songs" can be seen as a "sociopsychological mechanism for justifying segregation and subordination." The songs portrayed African Americans as posing a threat to the social order and suggested that they had to be controlled.
One of three songs cited as "firmly establishing the term coon in the American vocabulary" is Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon, (above) by Will A. Heelan, and J. Fred Helf. The 1900 hit inspired the creation of the Pan-African flag twenty years later, proposed by the members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. Marcus Garvey, who founded the organization, was quoted as saying:
"Show me the race or the nation without a flag, and I will show you a race of people without any pride. Aye! In song and mimicry they have said, "Every race has a flag but the coon." How true! Aye! But that was said of us four years ago. They can't say it now...."
Journalist Charles Mowbray White, who interviewed Garvey at the time, has asserted that "Garvey said red because of sympathy for the 'Reds of the world', and the Green their sympathy for the Irish in their fight for freedom, and the Black- [for] the Negro."
A UNIA document from 1921, refers to the colour choice as "Red is the color of the blood which men must shed for their redemption and liberty; black is the color of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; green is the color of the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland." More recently, the UNIA has referred to the colours as representing "red: the blood that unites all people of Black African ancestry, and shed for liberation; black: black people whose existence as a nation, though not a nation-state, is affirmed by the existence of the flag; and green: the abundant natural wealth of Africa."
In 1990 artist David Hammons produced African-American Flag, which hybridized the colours of the Pan-African flag with the stars and stripes of "old glory". The work was originally conceived for the 1990 group exhibition “Black USA” at the Museum Overholland in Amsterdam and reportedly inspired by the Watts Riots that took place in Los Angeles in the summer of 1965.
Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn has said African-American Flag is “a flag for a new nation, a flag for a new insight, it is a new flag for a new form and a new truth.”
The work is now highly sought after by collectors and museums. One of the edition is found in the Pizzuti Collection in Columbus, Ohio, and another was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem, twenty three years ago, a gift from the Hudgins Family in memory of Jack Tilton. The Broad in Los Angeles acquired one in June 2019, the first work by the artist to enter the museum’s permanent collection.
In 2017, two editions of the work were offered at auction, for the first time. One sold for $2.05 million via Phillips’ in May, while another sold for more than $2.1 million from Sotheby’s, in November. Kenny Schachter at Art Net news speculated that Hammons himself may have been the consigner in the first sale.
Small reproductions of the flag often appear at Black Lives Matter protests, as does the image reproduced on T-shirts.