UNN.com Throwback Week — Revisiting the Field Negro and the House Negro


This is a post that I pulled from August 2009, barely 8 months into Obama’s new presidency, after a summer doing an internship in Jacksonville, Florida and about to enter my final year of graduate school.  Sit back and enjoy, and leave a comment. JLL

Recently as we’ve decided to talk a bit more candidly and intelligently about race in our own community, I’ve heard a slightly different take on the whole “light skinned” vs. “dark skinned” debate, or in other words, the whole field Negro versus house Negro dichotomy.  I had approached this topic back in May 2008 referring to “plantation politics” on the heels of the Jeremiah Wright debacle and the Obama campaign, but a year and some change later, my view point has changed somewhat.

Now, if you want the traditional approach to the whole thing, just dip over to The Field Negro’s blog spot and I’m sure for the most part he’ll give you what you’re looking for.  Or even check out the Malcolm X clip from YouTube when most certainly planted in our minds how we should view the field Negro versus the house Negro.  But in all honesty and fairness, I don’t read his blog quite everyday, so while I’m not trying to throw salt at him for where he stands on the issue, but I think partly that sort of mentality, in hindsight is what was part of the problem.

Spurred by AverageBro’s current blog for today entitled “The Lightskinned/Darkskinned Paradox,” and his typical ensuing question, “Why is it ok to hate on lightskinned, longhaired women, yet brownskinned sistas are “keepin’ it real’?” it got me to thinking about this thang and I started thinking back on this one conversation I had with two intergenerational women on campus.  Both of the women were what would be considered light skinned.  One was 50-something and the other was 26.  One grew up in St. Louis and the other grew up in Miami respectively.  And both of them told stories of woe based on their skin color.

light skinned vs dark skinned 2Initially I was saying to myself, what heartaches could you all have possibly experienced because of your skin color if you were always getting picked and chosen for the special jobs and being teachers pets and what not.  They went on to educate me that indeed while that may have been the case with some of the students that had “that look,” that they caught hell on the playground.  The playground just being the catch-all for all of their interactions with the kids; the rest of the students hated on them because they saw the favoritism showed them and it was more than apparent that it boiled down to hair and skin color.

I mean, take for instance, just this summer an older gentleman told me of his trips from Baton Rouge to a smaller town 50 miles west of the city to go to the Yambilee Fest when he was a teenager in the 1950s and that a blind lady would sit at the door and feel the young persons hair to see if they were eligible to get inside.  He told how he had tried his best to make his hair lay straight, and still he couldn’t get in.  He would have been in a prime position to just start hatin’ on the light skinned, straight haired kids who qualified to make it inside.

Even just this morning as I was waiting for my car to be repaired at the dealership, a young man came in carrying a baby that looked NOTHING like him.  The baby looked rather white if you want my honest opinion.  Blondish curly hair and very light skinned.  Now the man with him, presumably his father, was still of the lighter complexion, but his hair was still nappy enough to lock up and he did have dreadlocks.  As a result, the baby was rather friendly and got some comments from some of the other patrons.  I just can’t help but wonder would these same patrons have extended the same effusive emotions toward a darker skinned toddler with kinkier hair that maybe hadn’t grown in all the way.

Honest answer, I think it goes back to the idea of Willie Lynch.

Whether that letter was true or not, it makes sense in 2009.  Whites during slavery were quite successful at dividing and conquering those Africans in America.  How so Uppity?  I’m glad you asked.  Let the record show that a field Negro and a house Negro were both still slaves.  I think we keep on forgetting that.  While most of us try and identify with a field Negro motif decrying the fact that we were out in the fields busting our asses with manual labor from sunup to sundown all day everyday, sweating and getting darker and darker by the second as our skin was being not kissed, but burned by natures sun, we still forget or rather choose to forget that being inside the house was a different kind of torture.

plantation-slavesThe benefits of being in the house did not always outweigh the fact that one was still a slave.  Being in the house perhaps afforded some shade from the sun, some better clothes and perhaps a better diet, but at what cost?  The black women inside the house were still doing heavy manual labor with regards to cooking, doing laundry over a washboard on Mondays, which often did require one to leave the house and go to a running creek.  Or a house Negress was often times the “wet” nurse to the mistress’ children: in other words she breast fed the children of the white woman of the house.  Or often times the women were the object of sexual abuse (in tandem maybe) with that of the master of the house.  While the field Negroes were able to be away from that which had enslaved them, the house Negroes were forced every waking minute to be in the service of master and or mistress and had a whole different set of psychological difficulties to deal with.

Bottom line, a slave was still a slave.

Over the generations as miscegenation became a bit more prevalent and we saw the emergence of the caste system of mulattoes, quadroons and octaroons, then whites just merely capitalized on the division of labor and just made it yet another part of the seasoning of slaves and added yet another lock and link to the chains of psychological slavery.  And also, many times the ones working in the house over the years would actually be the direct blood descendants of the master of the house.  Also, please note that this is not all in the context of the proverbial hundred plus acred plantation with upwards of 50 slaves, this was often times the dichotomy between two or three slaves that one small “middle-class” equivalent family had scraped up to purchase.

I said all this to say that I think we need to quickly revisit this idea of “she acting like a house Negro” with reference to someone like a Condoleeza Rice. While I may at times wonder how in the hell was she able to sit under Bush and still maintain her black dignity, fact of the matter is that she is a testament to black women with brown skin breaking some sort of color barrier.  Or even referring to Clarence Thomas as a house Negro as well, or rather categorizing “house Negro” behavior as that which seeks to maintain the status quo or behavior that seeks to go along to get along, I think is as equally counterproductive as the labeling of certain blacks as house Negroes.

The reasoning is because who’s to say that house Negro behavior is the best for blacks in the long run.  No, I’m not suggesting we take a Clarence Thomas approach, not by a long shot, but who’s to say that “field Negro” rationale is the best.

Audre Lord has the famous quote that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”   While on the surface that sounds hot, the more I think about that concept, the more I disagree with it as an absolute.  Let’s say that the tools used to build the masters house were a hammer, a screwdriver and a saw–all acceptable utensils used in the building of a house.  That quote to me suggests that the field Negroes need to attack the house with some axes, some pitchforks, some anvils and just outright bulldoze the joint down from the outside.  The problem is that generally the master would already be on his porch with a shotgun waiting for us.  And even if the house Negroes did succeed in dismantling the house, there would be more than enough white folk waiting to quell the “mob of field Negroes” with plenty of shotguns and ropes and nooses.

Wouldn’t it be a much more stealth approach if on the inside the house Negroes would go and find the masters tools and began quietly, secretly, and above all strategically removing nails with the same hammer that had been driven in by the hammer of oppression that would helped maintain the walls that supported this masters house.  Or strategically getting a saw and cutting away underneath the house at the joists and 2 x 4 beams that upheld the masters house so that one day when the house Negro planned to be out of the house that just magically the house started to collapse and the masters wouldn’t even know what hit them–and then everyone else would blame it on termites.

I’m just saying.

I think we need to think this whole thing through again.

To what extent do you buy into the idea of the “field Negro” and “house Negro”?  Do you think it’s healthy or do you think I’m just way off base on this one.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

6 thoughts on “UNN.com Throwback Week — Revisiting the Field Negro and the House Negro

  1. Good spin on the idea.

    Gotta say though, the ‘dismantling from the inside’ didnt work too well in liberation of African countries. A measure of external physical and economic violence was necessary to bring the colonial house down.
    The ironic thing is that those same liberating parties are now clinging onto power and ‘dismantling from the inside’ does not seem to working – a bit difficult to take arms against our brothers now.

  2. Rather than using the terms “House Negro” and “Field Negro,” I would prefer that blacks use the term “sell out.” By sell out, I mean those blacks who would cooperate with whites in their effort to suppress or demean blacks.

    Using that definition, then, blacks could be termed “sell outs” whether they slaved in the fields or in the house. Regrettably, I know many from the field and the house who are “sell outs.”

    Blacks in the house work in proximity to whites, and there are many who do. And that’s neither good nor bad. Blacks in the field are those who work primarily in black communities, among us, that is. And that is neither good nor bad. We need blacks working in both capacities.

    It’s only bad when these blacks from the field, or the house, begin to work against our black interest (our efforts to throw off the yoke of oppression and open up opportunities for blacks) for a gain or another–money, fame, or power.

    Yet, despite our wish to classify, we mustn’t forget who the real enemy is. Blacks didn’t happily walk into slavery, nor were they the ones who put the chains around their ankles or on their wrists.

    Slavery, Jim Crow, and racism created pathologies on both sides of the racial divide. For blacks, it was chiefly colorism, which spawned other pathologies.

    Yet, it’s good to keep in mind the cause of our problem: It will allow us to maintain perspective while condemning those who would sell us out.

  3. Not all house Negroes were light skinned. The butler, livery, jockey, chef, blacksmith are hardly ever depicted as light skinned or is the “mammy” (wet nurse).

    In this day and age it is not color it is a euphemism to call someone a house or field Negro. Believe me, it wasn’t only light skinned folk trying to preserve the house during Jim Crow; going along to get along was many a Negro’s condition. Why do you think there so many young people in the Civil Rights movement, they had no investment in the status quo.

    1. Hathor October 8, 2010 at 10:41 pm

      “Not all house Negroes were light skinned.”
      Not then or now. Some of the most fiercely “black and I’m proud” people I know are “light skinned.”

  4. Oh man. I remember when I was young. I worked with this “light skinned” black man who absolutely hated white people. Talk about fierce?!

  5. sigh. this again?

    Wouldn’t it be a much more stealth approach if on the inside the house Negroes would

    why is it every essay i read on African American blogs on this topic end in this sort of construct? yes, it’s all up to us “light skinned’d” folk. we have all the power, we can convince our white friends to bring freedom and equality to everyone if only we just tried harder. etc. it’s really tiresome. and yes, some “inside the House” negroes? also dark skinned. “Mammy” has more influence than the light-skinned girl with the fan cooling off the master’s wife at the dinner table, and that’s a dialectic i’d like to see explored more.

    Frankly, i’d really like to see an end to this discussion. you’re not wrong, my light skin gives me a perspective that perhaps darker skinned folks (of any “race) can’t see as easily, as well as a certain (highly limited) “privilege.” but here’s what i know: this is a worthless, counter productive discussion, for our community, right now. the real problems? wealth. class. education. it’s in fact pretty easy to get ghost white folks to share a home, classroom, workplace, etc., with the darkest of us, compared to how hard it is to get the uber-rich to accept and share power and responsibility with the underclass. the world’s richest people right now? darker than i am, fo sh’zle.

    color comparison games went out in the 1890s. i’m waiting for the community to catch up. yes, i’m angry. flame away, but i’ve been living this my whole life, getting it from “both sides.” it’s really tiresome and counterproductive.

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