On January 23, 1963, Malcolm X gave a speech at Michigan State University in which he described two camps of Negro: the house Negro and the field Negro. In that speech, he goes on to lay out the differences in the characteristics of the two. The house Negro presumably loves and adores his master. They eat the same food and live under the same roof. He uses the plural “we” in his conversation with the master, ostensibly to identify with the master’s condition.
“Yes, massa, we have food.”
“Massa, is we cold?”
The field Negro on the other hand is a treated as a repugnant minority, an undesirable and inferior in terms of his humanity but the engine that made genteel life and society run smoothly nevertheless. In Malcolm X’s analogy, the field Negro hates the master. If there’s fire in the big house he prays for breeze to facilitate its destruction. If the master was sick, he’d pray for him to die.
This was a powerful analogy, and the peculiarities from the imagery it excites are something we still use as a reference in pop culture and politics today. For instance, in a conversation with Wanlov about the recent treatment of African artists at the BET Awards (something I hope to tackle later on), he had this to say about the artist’s willing participation in the demeaning ceremony:
There’s a lot of history and many parallels to draw between what is happening in Diaspora relations today and post-Emancipation and Jim Crow America and blackness/Africaness, but I want to stay on topic and discuss the house Negro trope, even though my insides are burning to take that rabbit trail.
It’s never pleasant to disagree with one’s heroes, but I think in this instance, Malcolm X was wrong in his diagnosis of the house Negro condition and the circumstances they lived under.
I recently read an article on Vox that tackles the plight of the house Negro in part. Margaret Biser, a plantation historical tour guide and the article’s author, describes the myriad of questions she sometimes gets from white members of her tour group. They are staggering in their presumptions and ignorance.
“Did the slaves appreciate the care they received from their mistress,” one young mother asked haughtily.
“House slaves had it pretty good, didn’t they?” one man asked, looking for validation of his presumptions.
Biser hints that she makes it a point to show the printed notices for bounties on runaway slaves, the majority of whom – shockingly – were house slaves. Life in the Big House was not as cozy as we’d all like to imagine it to have been.
Frederick Douglas, who was himself was the mixed race product of a plantation rape, was brought into the Big House at a young age to serve its members, one of whom was his father. He was contracted out to work at a neighboring home, where he learned the alphabet from the mistress of the home. Her husband soon put a stop to it, but Douglass would go on to pick up the fundamentals and then master literacy by shadowing white children in the neighborhood. He would later famously write:
“To educate a man is to unfit him to be a slave.”
Frederick Douglas’ story is not unique, as hundreds of house slaves would subversively learn to read, write, and gather news of current events while they were in service in the Big House. Although it was dangerous, they would then pass some of that knowledge to their compatriots in the field. One can only imagine the incredible burden and the tightrope act these men and women had to walk to preserve their lives. In waking up every day to pretend you were dumber than you were just to survive. There are stories of child slaves who were severely punished for blurting out the answers to quizzes while in service to their young masters/mistresses as they received tutelage. In most cases, they were sent to the field to work to shield them from access to knowledge.
Harriet Tubman worked as both a field hand and a house slave from the time she was 8 years old. She describes preferring field work to the horror of the house. As a young child, she was contracted to a neighboring farm to serve as a “nanny” to a white family. The mistress was an unreasonable – and in my estimation, plain crazy – woman who would whip Harriet horribly if her baby should happen to cry. The psychological and physical abuse of the house Negro is something that rarely gets talked about, but it should only make sense when you are in such close proximity with your captors and tormentors.
For instance, we rarely talk about the sexual violence that both male AND female slaves who worked in the Big House routinely faced. In an effort to protect white female virtue, chastity and purity, male slaves who worked in and around the Big House (the butler, the gardener, the driver) were frequently castrated. This made them docile and robbed them of their virility. Of course, stories about of Black slave women who were themselves the product of rape who would go on to bear offspring who were the products of rape. Sally Hemings, the “mistress” of Thomas Jefferson who bore him six children may be the most noted of these. What is really sick about this “relationship” is that Sally was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife. Black women who worked in the Big House in any capacity were never afforded any agency over their bodies and could find themselves under sexual attack from the master, his sons or any privileged guest who entered the home.
The violence that house Negros faced was not always meted out by men in power. White women were frequently purveyors of some of the worst pain imaginable. In a slave narrative recounted by Henry Louis (Skip) Gates on PBS, he describes how a young girl new to the kitchen made a series of small, but inconsequential mistakes, much to the anger of the mistress of the house. One day, unable to bear the arc of the girl’s learning curve, she picked up a coal pot apparatus from the oven and in a rage, flung the embers at the young child. An older slave who had worked for the family a long time jumped in front of the child and shielded her from the fire with her forearm, sustaining horrific burns. From that day, whenever the white mistress came into the kitchen, the older slave would roll up her sleeves to remind her of the demonic fit and latent penchant cruelty. Whenever she was asked what happened to her arm, the old woman would reply quietly “Ask Missy.” Her retort was a solemn, but defiant act.
You know what’s sad? In a stunning display of supremacy (perhaps motivated by shame, but probably more so by privilege), Ben Affleck has sued Skip Gates for revealing his own family’s slave owning past, leading PBS to temporarily cancel his show. Now, these and other stories are at risk of going uncovered and untold.
The truth is, life in the Big House was horrible. House slave at the end of their rope sometimes sought to poison their owners or would grind up glass in their food or would put a little Shug Avery pee in their lemonade if they didn’t want to outright kill them that day. I believe it is a falsehood to confer upon these ancient souls the blanket of joyous obsequiousness that pop culture has woven for them. Perhaps the most undeserving of these stereotypes is Uncle Tom.
Fact is, most folks who use the term “Uncle Tom” as a pejorative have never read the book and never will. These people will be shocked to learn that Uncle Tom died protecting Black female life at the hands of a crazed and cruel white slave owner. Tom refused to divulge the location Cassy, a woman who Simon Legree had purchased to be his sex slave whom Tom encourages to run away. In the book, Tom is beaten to death. In the movie version, he is hung up like raw hide and his body split in two with an axe after his beating. There’s your Uncle Tom house Negro.
It saddens me to think that we continue to perpetuate these sorts of divisions amongst ourselves (we, meaning Black people), when all it does is work in the service of white supremacy. History is literally being re-written before our eyes, or bleached out at the very least. To hear some white folk tell it, slavery was nothing more than a contractual agreement between blacks and whites for the benefit of the human species. “Cooperation”, I’ve seen some call it.
I urge everyone to read up more on Black life. Pre-slavery, post-slavery, current events. Let’s honor our ancestors by educating ourselves, rather than assigning them rude appellations and making assumptions about how they made it through. I worked as a maid for a summer two years ago, cleaning some of Atlanta’s biggest (and most humble) homes. I’ve endured the stares, the scrutiny, the condescending conversation. And even though I got paid, trust me when I say working in de Big House is no walk in the park.