Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Malcolm X: The House Negro Versus The Field Negro

There is a schism in the black community as old as slavery in America itself; this is the dichotomy Malcolm X is attempting to explain here. I use the terms I do in the title because they are the terms Malcolm himself uses in his speech; had he used the other N-word, though - although I suppose 'Negro' ought to more rightly be considered 'the other N-word' given the current prevalence of its more inflammatory partner - I wouldn't have. I've made my position clear on the N-word and its proper usage many times before*.

What Malcolm either fails to comprehend or simply chooses to ignore for either political purpose or rhetorical expediency (or both) is that different people survive in different ways; rather than condemning the House Negro (albeit in the polite way that was his usual style but which the media frequently chose not to depict, lest his message become too popular) he could have chosen to understand that the so-called Uncle Tom** did what he did to survive. But he doesn't, at least not here. Chris Rock, in many ways Malcolm's intellectual successor, makes it clear in his act that 'there are black folks and there are n-words', delivering a similar message***, with the same punch, sweetened but not diluted by its having been expressed in comedy terms.

Of course, the attitudes Malcolm is describing here aren't confined to any specific group or otherwise arbitrarily assigned subset; they are universal. Many people (I hesitate to say most, although I'm thinking it) are the product of received knowledge. They either vote the way their parents voted or against them in a shallow kind of rebellion, think the way their friends think because they've surrounded themselves with people who think the way they do, and never really examine anything crucial for themselves; it's scary to be an individual, there is safety in numbers, and our long-held beliefs are essentially such a comfort to us that to eschew them would throw our lives into chaos.

Today, all around us, there are House Whites and Field Whites as well, not to mention some who are a little of both; those who accept and actively propagate the status quo in support of some mythical past that never existed, those who work to overthrow it in support of change which after all is inevitable, or a growing class of radical centrists like myself who are tired of their society being pulled apart in a tug of war between extremists of either stripe. As a dynamic it's far more complex even than conservative and liberal, as there are progressives on the right and regressives on the left. Whether or not Malcolm was comfortable with the notion, black and white are more similar than many (again, I'm trying not to think most) might care to consider, united as they are by their joint membership in the only race that really matters: the human race.

*In short, white people have used up their entire share, and aren't ever allowed to use it any more.
**Another often mis-used phrase which would take too much time to clarify here.

***Similar, but not the same; Rock's black folks, unlike Malcolm's House Negroes, aren't sell-outs - and in fact are as scared of the Field Negroes Malcolm is championing as anyone rightly ought to be.

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Daniel said...

I've never seen this speech, I think i've heard some of it (no doubt grossly out of context) on an album by Ice Cube or some such. So I was looking forward to watching it. Alas, I'm informed it's no longer available...
Offensive to a large number of people, YouTube?

michael sean morris said...

It's still available here as of the posting of this comment. I just watched it again.