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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In Memoriam: Malcolm X

We declare our right on this be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWhile I don't always agree with everything Malcolm X said - especially when it came to fighting bigotry with bigotry - I do understand completely why he said it, and I couldn't agree more with the above statement. As for this need we seem to have nowadays to always agree with everything someone says in order to admire them, I have no idea where it comes from. Probably, as the world becomes safer and more anodyne, this is one of the things we do to re-insert some drama into our lives.

In all honesty, I believe that Malcolm's legacy was to serve as a shadow self to Dr. King; maybe the in-your-face rhetoric of the one scared a few whites who were on the fence in the 1960s into supporting the more touchy-feely agenda of the other, and that's a victory in and of itself.

Today would have been Malcolm's 85th birthday; perhaps if he'd have survived his assassin's bullet, today he'd be a genial old grandfather taking a blue pencil to the more militant speeches he gave in consideration of his legacy, an option denied to him on that day in February 1965 when he fell. Then again, he might still be as fiery as ever, a feisty old firebrand giving publicity whores like Al Sharpton the occasional stern what-for.

Merely considering it, though, is the best way I can think of honouring his memory today.
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Remembering... Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis


As these things go, hers was not the worst ending in the world...

Okay, so she was by her husband's side when he was murdered, in November 1963; despite her frantic scramble out of the car - screaming 'They've killed my husband!'* - she didn't later descend into madness like Mary Todd Lincoln, nor did she end her days in obscurity like Lucretia Garfield or Ida McKinley. Among the wives of assassinated American Presidents, in fact, Jacqueline Kennedy may have found the elusive formula for turning her tragedy as First Widow into triumph merely by surviving what was to come.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy's own third act saw her transform from tastefully glamourous mourner in the latter half of the 1960s to tabloid fodder (and prey of paparazzo Ron Galella) throughout the 1970s as she married and then was widowed by** shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, to a literary editor first with Viking Press and then with Doubleday, before settling nicely into a well-balanced public/private life as the longtime companion of Maurice Tempelsman from the 1980s onward.

After her death - on this day in 1994, which came after a brief battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma - Central Park's main reservoir was renamed the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in her honour, while the White House's East Garden had already been renamed the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden in her honor by her successor, 'Lady Bird' Johnson, in recognition of Mrs Kennedy's efforts to make the Executive Mansion, and everything in it, 'the best'***.

*Which, in all fairness, they had.
**October 20th, 1968 and March 15th, 1975, respectively.
***Which she surely did; she routinely tops the list of favourite First Ladies, and both incoming and outgoing First Ladies are invariably compared to her.
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Pop History Moment: "Happy Birthday Mr. President"

On this day in 1962, during what would be her last public appearance - at a birthday tribute to US President John F. Kennedy held in Madison Square Garden - Marilyn Monroe walked onstage a woman and walked off it a goddess.

During her introduction by the President's brother-in-law, actor Peter Lawford, her tardiness (due as much to crippling stage fright as it was to her having to be sewn into her dress) was referred to when he called her 'the late Marilyn Monroe'; it was an eerily prescient statement...

Within three months she would be dead.
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POPnews - May 19th

[The Franklin Expedition exerts a strange pull over the Canadian psyche... In the same way island nations necessarily fear (and therefore revere) the sea, Canada's cultural identity is informed in just such a way by the North; our endless fascination with conquering it has long been tempered by its occasional retribution, the most spectacular incidence of which would be this one. Prompted mainly by Franklin's wife, Britain's Admiralty launched a search for the missing expedition in 1848; their efforts began yielding answers in 1850 with the discovery of relics on the east coast of Beechey Island, but the case isn't likely to ever be closed... In August 2008 Robert Grenier, a senior archaeologist with Parks Canada, and oral historian Dorothy Harley Eber began yet another quest for the doomed explorers.]

1535 - French explorer Jacques Cartier set sail on his second voyage to North America with three ships, 110 men, and Chief Donnacona's two sons (whom he'd kidnapped during his first voyage).

1536 - Anne Boleyn, the second wife of England's King Henry VIII, was beheaded for adultery.

1568 - England's Queen Elizabeth I had Mary, Queen of Scots, arrested upon her arrival in the town of Carlisle.

1649 - An Act declaring England a Commonwealth was passed by the so-called Long Parliament; the country would be a republic for the next eleven years, a time now known as the English Interregnum.

1780 - During New England's Dark Day a combination of thick smoke from forest fires, fog, and heavy cloud cover caused complete darkness to fall on Eastern Canada and the New England beginning at approximately 10:30 AM; the smoke, which didn't clear until the middle of the next night, was naturally taken by some to be a portent of the end times.

Photobucket1802 - The Légion d'Honneur was founded by Napoleon Bonaparte, when he was still First Consul of the First Republic. Designed to replace all the royal orders swept away by the French Revolution, it remains the highest decoration in France today and is divided into five various degrees: Chevalier (Knight), Officier (Officer), Commandeur (Commander), Grand Officier (Grand Officer) and Grand'Croix (Grand Cross). The Order has a maximum quota of 75 Grand Cross, 250 Grand Officers, 1,250 Commanders, 10,000 Officers and 113,425 (ordinary) Knights; as of 2000 the actual membership was 61 Grand Cross, 321 Grand Officers, 3,626 Commanders, 22,401 Officers and 87,371 Knights. Some of the first were given out by Napoleon himself in August 1804 at a military camp near Boulogne.

1845 - HMS Erebus and HMS Terror with 134 men under John Franklin set sail from Greenhithe, a port east of London on the River Thames, beginning their disastrous expedition through the Canadian Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage; all hands were lost in that first winter to scurvy, hypothermia, tuberculosis, and lead poisoning.

1848 - Following the American victory in the Mexican-American War the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was ratified by the Mexican Senate - having already been signed by both parties near Mexico City on February 2nd and ratified by the US on March 10th; the treaty ceded 1.36 million km² (525,000 square miles) of land including all of California, Nevada, and Utah along with parts of five other modern-day states for $15 million US.

1897 - Oscar Wilde was released from Reading Gaol, his health ruined and reputation in tatters, but his talent intact; while imprisoned Wilde wrote De Profundis, and upon his release he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, dedicated to fellow inmate Charles Thomas Wooldridge - a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards who was later executed at the facility for the murder of his wife Laura Ellen.

1961 - The Soviet Union's Venera 1 probe became the first man-made object to fly-by another planet when it passed Venus; however, it had lost contact with Earth a month earlier and did not send back data as it was intended to do.

1962 - A birthday salute to US President John F. Kennedy took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the highlight of which was Marilyn Monroe's infamous rendition of Happy Birthday; it would be her last public appearance before her death the following August.

1971 - The Mars 2 probe was launched by the Soviet Union.

1992 - Vice-President Dan Quayle criticized TV's Murphy Brown at a meeting of the Commonwealth Club of California saying, in part: '...Murphy Brown—a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman - [mocks] the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice'.' His comments were the butt of jokes throughout the summer, and even though the show's star Candice Bergen later said she agreed with the bulk of the speech, the show's season premiere that fall was the last word in revenge by comedy. Of course, he might have been taken more seriously had he been able to spell the word 'potato'...
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