The House Negro And The Field Negro
Speech by Malcolm X:
If the federal government does not find it within its power and ability to investigate a criminal organization such as the Klan, then you and I are within our rights to wire Secretary-General U Thank of the United Nations and charge the federal government in this country, behind Lyndon B. Johnson with being derelict in its duty to protect the human rights of twenty-two million Black people in this country. And in their failure to protect our human rights, they are violating the United Nations Charter, and they are not qualified to continue to sit in that international body and talk about what human rights should be done in other countries on this earth. [Applause]…
I have to say this, then I’ll sit down. Back during slavery, when Black people like me talked to the slaves, they didn’t kill ‘em, they sent some old house Negro along behind him to undo what he said. You have to read the history of slavery to understand this.
There were two kinds of Negroes. There was that old house Negro and the field Negro. And the house Negro always looked out for his master. When the field Negro got too much out of line, he held them back in check. He put ‘em back on the plantation.
The house Negro could afford to do that because he lived better than the field Negro. He ate better, he dressed better, and he lived in a better house. He lived right up next to his master-in the attic or the basement. He ate the same food his master ate and wore his same clothes. And he could talk just like his master-good diction. And he loved his master more than his master loved himself. That’s why he didn’t want his master hurt.
If the master got sick, he’d say, “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” [Laughter] When the master’s house caught afire, he’d try and put the fire out. He didn’t want his master’s house burned. He never wanted his master’s property threatened. And he was more defensive of it than the master was. That was the house Negro.
But then you had some field Negroes, who lived in huts, had nothing to lose. They wore the worst kind of clothes. They ate the worst food. And they caught hell. They felt the sting of the lash. They hated their master. Oh yes, they did.
If the master got sick, they’d pray that the master died. [Laughter and Applause] If the master’d house caught afire, they’d pray for a strong wind to come along. [Laughter] This was the difference between the two.
And today you still have house Negroes and field Negroes [Applause] I’m a field Negro. If I can’t live in the house as a human being, I’m praying for a wind to come along. If the master won’t treat me right and he’s sick, I’ll tell the doctor to go in the other direction. [Laughter] But if all of us are going to live as human beings, as brothers, then I’m for a society of human beings that can practice brotherhood. [Applause]
But before I sit down, I want to thank you for listening to me. I hope I haven’t put anybody on the spot. I’m not intending to try and stir you up and make you do something that you wouldn’t have done anyway. [Laughter and Applause]
I pray that God will bless you in everything that you do. I pray that you will grow intellectually, so that you can understand the problems of the world and where you fit into, in that world picture. And I pray that all the fear that has ever been in your heart will be taken out, and when you look at that man, if you know he’s nothing but a coward, you won’t fear him. If he wasn’t a coward, he wouldn’t gang up on you. He wouldn’t need to sneak around here [Applause]. This is how they function. They function in mobs-that’s a coward. They put on a sheet so you won’t know who they are-that’s a coward.
No! The time will come when that sheet will be tipped off. If the federal government doesn’t take it off, we’ll take it off.
Definition: House Negro is a pejorative term for a black person, used to compare someone to a house slave of a slave owner from the historic period of legal slavery in the US. The term comes from a speech, Message to the Grass Roots, given by African American activist Malcolm X, where he explains that during slavery, there were two kinds of slaves, “house Negroes” who worked in the master’s house and “field Negroes” who performed the manual labor outside. He characterizes the house Negro as having a better life than the field negro, and thus unwilling to leave the plantation, and potentially more likely to support existing power structures that favor whites over blacks. The term is used against individuals, in critiques of attitudes within the African American community, and as a borrowed term for critiquing parallel situations.
For purposes of this conversation, we only focused on the United States, so the time periods get fuzzy as we get more international. Now, the debate rages on about the role and perception of the house negroes. A Black servant who never had to work in the fields with other Blacks, given better clothing, and sometimes given a chance to learn a little more than the field negro. This created tensions between the field and house negros, as (some) field negros percieved house negroes as haughty and pretentious while (some) house negroes looked down on field work and found field negroes disengaging. Story: Black lawmakers who have largely held their tongues during President Barack Obama’s first year in office are stepping up their demands that the nation’s first black president do more for minority communities hit hardest by the recession. Black lawmakers appear to be losing their patience after watching him dedicate more than $1 trillion to prop up banks and corporations and fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while double-digit unemployment among blacks crept even higher. Democratic Rep. John Conyers, a founding member of the CBC and the longest-serving African American member of the House said, “I have been saying I don’t agree with him on Afghanistan. I think he screwed up on health care reform, on Guantanamo.” During Obama’s campaign, many black leaders pressed him to take more of a stand on the challenges facing minorities. Most voiced criticisms privately for fear of jeopardizing his candidacy or undercutting his popularity after his election. “Tensions between the field and house negros.” The Congressional Black Caucus say Obama isn’t considering race enough when he makes decisions on jobs, the economy, health care and other issues. The 42-member Congressional Black Caucus flexed its influence last week when 10 of its members held up a financial regulation bill backed by the administration until leaders agreed to add about $3 billion in foreclosure relief for struggling homeowners. The unemployment rate among African-Americans is nearly 16 percent, almost double the 9 percent rate for whites. Roughly one in four blacks lives in poverty, compared with about 11 percent of whites. Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee pointed to the fact that 24 percent of blacks currently live below the poverty line and that African Americans are 55 percent more likely to be unemployed than other Americans. Obama was a black caucus member in the Senate before winning the White House last year, but he has never had a close relationship with the group. In recent interviews, he has addressed their criticisms by saying he must represent the entire country, not any one population, and the best way to help low-income communities is to improve the overall economy. “The house Negro as having a better life than the field negro.”
Who is the only one ‘Bowing’? If the house negro didn’t do what she or he did to stay in the house, they’d have a higher risk for mortality, and they often served as the conduits for change amongst White plantation owners to developing better relationships across the races. Others take the view that house negroes are nothing but Uncle Toms, negroes who would rather grovel at the knees for a White man’s mercy and gratitude, even at the cost of his own people.
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