Monday, November 1, 2010

Malcolm X on "house niggers"

I got email from a younger white woman from the Midwest who was upset by what I'd said when Ta-Nehisi Coates compared Malcolm X and Barack Obama. Here's my reply:

You seem to think that “house nigger” is simply a racist term, and anyone who uses it is being racist. Malcolm X used it in a much more specific way. Wikipedia is useful here:
He characterizes the house Negro as having a better life than the field Negro, and thus unwilling to leave the plantation, and potentially more likely to support existing power structures that favor whites over blacks. Malcolm X identified with the field Negro. The term is used against individuals[1][2], in critiques of attitudes within the African American community,[3] and as a borrowed term for critiquing parallel situations.[4]
I did not make the comparison between Malcolm X and Barack Obama; Ta-Nehisi Coates did. I only pointed out what Malcolm X said about black folks like Obama who promote capitalism and imperial wars on people of other races. Though there's no draft with the AfPak War, in one regard for Malcolm X, it's even worse than Vietnam: it’s against Muslims.

If you google “obama” and “house nigger” (or “nigga” or “niggah”), you’ll find I’m not the only person to remember Malcolm X’s words. One of the first hits I got was about American Muslims who call Obama a house nigger. The Urban Dictionary has this as a popular definition:
1. A black man in the White House, generally one exhibiting a toned-down version of African-American culture.
2. Barack Obama after November 4, 2008.
Black guy: Aw yeah, Obama won. That's mah niggah.
White guy: Aw yeah, Obama won. That's mah House nigger.
I'm grateful for your letter, because it helps me understand antiracists who have grown up knowing little about racism. You think certain words indicate racism, no matter what context they have, and you know less about the history of racism than I'd expected. You say, with the very best motives,
It is a hideously hurtful thing to do to another human being. Where does it end? Do you then turn to another black person approvingly and say, "now, you, *you* are instead a field nigger, good for you"? "I feel certain that 200 years ago, you would have died in agony from dehydration and being beaten to death, and I am so glad for you"? Where does this analogy end? Nowhere good. It ends nowhere civil or humane.
Do you think “field nigger” is a term for a rebel? Slave revolts came from both house and field negroes. “Field nigger” just means a black slave who works outside. No one would automatically beat any slave or keep water from them. Slaves were very expensive, and they were not entirely without rights—at least one white owner was convicted of murder for killing a black slave.

And yes, calling anyone a "house nigger" is a hurtful thing. Why do you think I or anyone would make a division between house niggers and field niggers if the subject isn't Malcolm X and black capitalists? The term is Malcolm's. It's only appropriate when talking about his thought.

Frankly, I can’t even begin to make a comparison between Malcolm X and Obama—to do that, you have to be a capitalist. Obama got the chance to join the ruling class and took it. Malcolm X would’ve had a much more comfortable life if he’d stayed in the Nation of Islam, but, unlike Obama, he could see beyond what life had given him.

ETA: I deleted the video I had used in favor of an earlier one. Around 1:50, he says, "In those days he was called a "house nigger." And that’s what we call him today, because we’ve still got some house niggers running around here." This is from "A Message to the Grassroots", given on Oct. 10, 1963. There's a full transcript here.