Editor’s Note: In the history of Black rhetorical discourse, there are numerous mythological constructs including the “house/field negro”, “Uncle Tom”, “Willie Lynch” and others which are both outdated and outmoded by our ability to speak clearly to the traits which operate against the building of community across social divisions. In the clip below which is the first acquaintance many have with the “house/field negro” concept, Malcolm employs it as an oratorical flourish to the larger point that he refuses to be submissive to a system which seeks to destroy his people. In moving the term beyond the pulpit, we exchange a layer of critical thinking for a colloquial shorthand covering a whole slew of attributes which we consider detrimental to the Black community while being interpreted widely amongst the members of that group. I left religion and jettisoned the need or desire to have a “Good Word” preached for me ages ago. As I can think a scant more deeply about these topics, I choose to do so and call those around me to consider them as well.
I thought sharing this passage might make us consider more thoughtfully how we engage these terms. No one is bound to respect the struggle of an ancestor whose every action may have been taken in the context of survival, but there were a multitude of experiences and dispositions amongst house and field negroes that we can glean from reading narrative testimonies. House negroes were no more likely to love massa’ and field negroes were no more likely to kill an overseer. In fact, during the Civil War, house negroes found themselves in a uniquely subversive position to listen and convey information to those outside about the positioning of Northern troops. This is not something requiring exhaustive debate, but merely a means to help us find an evolutionary language when crafting anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-exploitative progressive humanist dialogue which furthers action of the same type. Survival is a form of resistance.
Excerpt From Text: The utter disregard of the comfort on the slaves, in little things can scarcely be conceived of by those who have not been a component part of slaveholding communities….In South Carolina musketoes [!] swarm in myriads, more than half the year–they are so excessively annoying at night that no family thinks of sleeping without nets…yet slaves are never provided with them…and yet these very masters and mistresses will be so kind to their horses as to provide them with fly nets…
Only two meals a day are allowed the house slaves–the first at twelve o’clock….They are often kept from their meals by way of punishment. No table is provided for them to eat from….Each takes his plate or tin pan and iron spoon and holds it in the hand or on the lap. I never saw slaves seated round a table to partake of any meal.
As the general rule, no lights of any kind, no firewood–no towels, basins, or soap, no tables, chairs or other furniture, are provided….I have repeatedly known slave children to be kept the whole winter’s evening, sitting on the stair-case in a cold entry, just to be at hand to snuff candles or hand a tumbler of water from the side-board, or go on errands from one room to another. It may be asked why they were not permitted to stay in the parlor, when they would still be more at hand. I answer, because waiters are not allowed to sit in the presence of their owners, and as children who were kept running all day, would of course get very tired of standing for two or three hours, they were allowed to go into the entry and sit on the staircase until rung for. Another reason is, that even slaveholders at times find the presence of slaves very annoying; they cannot exercise entire freedom before them on all subjects.
I have also known instances where seamstresses were kept in cold entries to work by the staircase lamps for one or two hours, every evening in winter–they could not see without standing up all the time, though the work was often too large and heavy for them to sew upon it in that position without great inconvenience, and yet they were expected to do the work as well with their cold fingers, and standing up, as if they had been sitting by a comfortable fire and provided with the necessary light. House slaves suffer a great deal also from not being allowed to leave the house without permission. If they wish to go even for a draught of water, they must ask leave, and if they stay longer than the mistress thinks necessary, they are liable to be punished….
It frequently happens that relatives, among slaves, are separated for weeks or months, by the husband or brother being taken by the master on a journey, to attend on his horses and himself.–When they return, the white husband seeks the wife of his love; but the black husband must wait to see his wife, until mistress pleases to let her chambermaid leave her room….
The sufferings to which slaves are subject by separations of various kinds, cannot be imagined by those unacquainted with the working out of the system behind the curtain. Take the following instances.
Chambermaids and seamstresses often sleep in their mistresses’ apartments, but with no bedding at all. I know of an instance of a woman who has been married eleven years, and yet has never been allowed to sleep out of her mistress’s chamber.–This is a great hardship to slaves. When we consider that house slaves are rarely allowed social intercourse during the day, as their work generally separates them; the barbarity of such an arrangement is obvious. It is peculiarly a hardship in the above case, as the husband of the women does not “belong” to her “owner” and because he is subject to dreadful attacks of illness, and can have but little attention from this wife in the day. And yet her mistress, who is an old lady, gives her the highest character as a faithful servant, and told a friend of mine, that she was “entirely dependent upon her for all her comforts; she dressed and undressed her, gave her all her food, and was so necessary to her that she could not do without her.” I may add, that this couple are tenderly attached to each other….*
Persons who own plantations and yet live in cities, often take children from their parents as soon as they are weaned, and send them into the country; because they do not want the time of the mother taken up by attendance upon her own children, it being too valuable to the mistress. As a favor, she is, in some cases, permitted to go to see them once a year….Parents are almost never consulted as to the disposition to be made of their children; they have as little control over them, as have domestic animals over the disposal of their young. Every natural and social feeling and affection are violated with indifference; slaves are treated as though they did not possess them.
Another way in which the feelings of slaves are trifled with and often deeply wounded, is by changing their names; if, at the time they are brought into a family, there is another slave of the same name; or if the owner happens, for some other reason, not to like the name of the new comer. I have known slaves very much grieved at having the names of their children thus changed, when they had been called after a dear relation….
The slave suffers also greatly from being continually watched. The system of espionage which is constantly kept up over slaves is the most worrying and intolerable that can be imagined….
In the course of my testimony I have entered somewhat into the minutiae of slavery, because this is part of the subject often overlooked, and cannot be appreciated by any but those who have been witnesses, and entered into sympathy with the slaves as human beings. Slaveholders think nothing of them, because they regard their slaves as property, the mere instruments of their convenience and pleasure. One who is a slaveholder at heart never recognises a human being in a slave.
*The case here referred to is that of Stephen and Juba. See pp. 42-45.
Testimony of Angelina Grimké Weld, in [Theodore D. Weld], American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839).
The unabridged testimony of Angelina Grimké Weld can be located here.