The House Negro

Jose VilsonJose, Race10 Comments

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 …

Comments 10

  1. At this point, the mythic dimensions of the terms probably well outweigh the 19th century realities. If I remember correctly, about 10% of African Americans in the antebellum South were free Blacks (many living in cities), and really didn’t fit into either category. Then there were African Americans living in the North (usually disfranchised). But the question of loyalty remains, and with it the question of how independent one’s identity, thoughts, and words are. Zora Neal Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison among those playing out those ideas in the first half of the 20th century in literature, with Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, and others adding different dimensions in film, etc. This is an onion of an issue, with lots of layers and either sharp or sweet, depending on the preparation.

    Incidentally I VERY much like the term “playing jump rope” in contrast to “code switching.” Much better on the balance and fancy footwork involved.

    Sherman Dorns last blog post..Tuesday bits, September 16

  2. I’ll start off my remarks by stating, unequivocally, that a white guy (me) commenting on the nooks and crannies of a term like “house negro” is like me and Jose sitting down and having a debate about menstrual cycles … that is, I’m commenting from a completely etic vantage point, about a thing I can only observe and never truly experience. That being said .. a few points.

    1) I think it … “silly” isn’t the right word, perhaps “not useful” … to apply a 19th concept (i.e. house negro) to the 21st century and expect there to be useful connections between the NOW and the THEN, especially when the THEN is a condition which none of us, even current day African Americans, can fully comprehend. It’s like trying to make sense of decisions people make during war, or in the holocaust, or under any extreme circumstance.

    2) Nonetheless, there definitely is a dual-ness (I was going to say a “duality” but felt the word was a bit to high-highfalutin’ ) to the experience that black people have. As Jose describes, doomed to not succeed and damned if they do succeed.

    3) I think the same can be said, to some extent, of women. Without starting up a whole discussion about politics, I think we can see analogous things going on in the presidential race with Hillary and Palin, a sort of … “don’t be to lady-like” but “don’t be to un-lady-like” dilemma.

    4) As to the question itself from Jose “am I a house negro” — Jose, you is what you is. People on both sides of you will have think they know what you are and what you should be — as long as you ignore them and are who you ought be, why bother worrying about the question at all?

    Bronx2020s last blog post..Teach For America info Webinar — live!

  3. What an interesting post!

    I didn’t know the concept of house negro vs. field negro, so I read your post with lots of interest.

    I wonder though. In a society where, at least in theory, all people have equal rights and equal possibilities, is it still fair to use concepts from an era in which this wasn’t the case? In other words, can you blame people today for using the rights they were given?

    I know that there are a lot of people that only have these possibilities in theory, and in reality grow up in neighborhoods and economical and social backgrounds that prevent them from climbing up the social ladder. But why blame the people that did clime that ladder?

    Taking you as an example, you are an amazing example of making use of the opportunities given to you, and investing them in order to help others.

    Frumteachers last blog post..To my brave student

  4. PS. I agree with Bronx2020’s comment regarding the Holocaust. Reading your post made me think of kapos, people that in the concentrationcamps were put in charge of their own people. Of course, many people blamed them after the war for surviving by turning against their own people. And maybe it was right to blame them.

    But how could we, from our time and place, judge decisions they made during those horrible times? What would we do in their place?

    Frumteachers last blog post..To my brave student

  5. I can’t comment on the larger topic, but I find it incredible that a guy with 9 houses and a wife who wears $300,000 dresses can call a guy who came up from where Obama did elitist–and even more incredible how MSM lets them get away with such nonsense.

    Things are looking up a little though, according to Rasmussen.

    NYC Educators last blog post..Correction

  6. Jose,

    This is my first time visiting your blog. Interesting and thought-provoking posts… a little different from the norm. I will certainly visit more often!

    Interesting topic. Living in Canada, growing up in Jamaica and having visited a number of African countries, it is my opinion, based primarily on my experiences, that this whole business as refering to someone as a “house negro” is primarily an African-American (AA) phenomenon. Regardless of it’s historical context, today it is used by AA (primarily so-called Black progressives), against other AA people who don’t hold their views and/or beliefs. It has become a form of a “groupthink” control mechanism, based on demonizing another Black person in the eyes of the AA community, so as to discredit whatever views or arguments they hold and hopefully shame them into returning to the thinking of the fold.

    There is also it’s use to refer to certain AA, (by other AA) who have chosen to live, work, speak, travel and engage in a lifestyle that is not considered “Black” or “Ghetto”…. whatever those terms may represent!? You are then refered to as “acting white” and/or a “house negro”.

    Although I state above that it is primarily an African-American concept, even in Jamaica growing up, there are terms used to describe those who were looked upon as a kind of “house negro”. However, this was based more on your economic (and therefore social class) more than on your opinions. Those in the middle and upper classes… “establishment Jamaicans”… were refered to as “Baldheads”, as opposed to “Dreads”. This came from the idea that Rastafarians, who wore “dread”-locks were anti-establishment/revolutionaries… while those who cut their hair, “baldheads” did so to conform with the (neo)colonial standard of an acceptable Black person. You ever listen to the Bob Marley song “Crazy Baldhead”?

    Dreadlocks has now became an acceptable fashion statement and Bob Marley a worldwide cultural icon, but when I was growing up in Jamaica, wearing dreadlocks could literally get you killed. People forget (or don’t know) that in Jamaica, in the 70’s, some in the political establishment tried to kill Bob Marley because of his political and social stance. They saw it as too revolutionary and a threat to the status quo!

    Growing up in Jamaica and in Canada, I have been called a “baldhead”, or told that I sound “white”, because I don’t speak with an accent or with lots of Jamaican slang (although when I am around certain of my peeps you would think we just got off the boat!).

    There is a lot more to the issue. At the end of the day I believe just be true to yourself and be who you are. I found that those who resort to name-calling do so because they want to be you… since they don’t have the depth and strength of character to be themselves. Well that’s what I tell myself anyway [;o)

  7. long time no read from me. I have been busy trying to get it all together. in any event I don’t know how well such language applies. However, what I will not stand for is how condelezza rice seeing the world in the shape it is in and still following the policies of that administration despite all that she knows.. while a lot of people like to ride colin powell for being a black republican but what i can say for him is that regardless of his party affiliation he seemed not to let that get in the way of his recognition of truth and integrity.

    so if i had to apply such arcane language i would almost with certainty proclaim condelzza rice to be a house negro. not because she was literally in the house but because I am certain that she allowed her beliefs to be trampled by an institution when she was power to say or do something about it.

    I have no problem with anybody working their way up. Its what they do once they get there. No they do not have any obligation to act retarded once they get a position of power but they do have an obligation to not lose their common sense. It is people who conveniently forget where they came from is who I generally have problems. No. they do not have to be out there with their black fist up in the air but affecting positive change is the mandate and the standard I hold any steward of good fortune and standing to regardless of race.

  8. I had to think about how to approach my response on this subject.

    I do not honestly have a suitable-to-me definition for a field negro or a house negro. Those two terms are not really ones that I use to describe other black people’s behavior.

    I find that after years of listening to these terms being tossed around primarily because of the discomfort that someone else feels over apperance, education or conduct of another black person, those are not ways that I use to describe another person’s behavior.

    When a black person moves up onto the next level~that is how it is supposed to be. That is how I define progress. Not everyone appreciates the effort and energy that goes into progression. It does not negate their/our blackness.

    Who is black enough to determine how black another individual is? Blackness is a state of mind. Blackness is also generational ly different. My parents definition of blackness is different than mine. My definiton of blackness is different than my children’s.

    I often wonder why we find it so necessary to use these terms? What purpose do they honestly serve? Granted they are cultural expressions of our displeasure over another’s behavior. But in reality, I do not grasp the bottom line advantage that comes from using these two terms.

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