The House Negro

Jose Vilson Jose, Race

The House Negro

I’m sitting there with 2 of my favorite educators, exchanging laughs, gossip, and semi-Mexican food. I got a cold Corona in my hand, and the ladies have mojitos in their hands. We’re all sitting there, having discussions about politics and existentialism, when all of a sudden, a debate breaks out.

What is a house negro?

Excellent question in light of the recent debates about this really popular Presidential candidate whose been called everything from “galvanizing” and “inspirational” to “elitist” and “out-of-touch,” and one of the problems with this range of answers comes from the history of Black men and women who achieve a high level of success in a world that hasn’t always been accomodating to them. Upon reaching a certain level, the Black person is either percieved as extremely successful and a “credit to their race” or, and often by his or her own people, a house negro.

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, but during the period we describe as slavery time in this country (and in many others across the world), the house negro was usually 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. Often, 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.

Cornel West and Barack Obama

Cornel West and Barack Obama

Fast-forward to today, and because hindsight is 20/20, historians often disagree about the role of the house negro. Some look at this servant as just trying to survive. 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. Both of these portrayals serve as the basis for how Blacks (and to a large extent, Latinos) are viewed by their peers.

For example, some might call me a house negro because I went to private Catholic school for middle and high school, as well as a highly-recognized university (Syracuse, if you must ask), and even got my masters’, something not afforded to most people of my background. They may also refer to me as such because I can code-switch and have used “the White man’s tools” to excel in life, everything from learning how to put on a suit to speaking English well. On the other hand, some might call me a field negro because I came from the hood and still live in the hood. I came back to work in another hood as a public school educator, and while I didn’t necessarily partake in the negative aspects of the Lower East Side circa 1980-1999, I still have my roots firmly planted in the traditions and cultures of my neighborhood.

Am I a house negro? Even those who consider themselves field negroes find themselves participating in mostly White events and have traditionally White ideas and standards of living. And we further blur the lines if we don’t differentiate between a “house negro” and an “Uncle Tom.” People like Ward Connerly and Clarence Thomas for example, match well with most people’s ideas of this Uncle Tom figure, yet I suppose if someone asked them, they’d totally disavow themselves from those titles. People like Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey on the other hand often play jump rope between those definitions for some.

Personally, the debate alone made me rethink those ideas of house negro vs. field negro. Any thoughts? Yes, I’m inviting ALL of you to speak on it. It’s at least a forum for you to learn and share based on your experience.

jose, who isn’t filtering …