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.


  1. When you talk about choices Obama has made, I have to ask you to contemplate two things: McCain/Palin in the White House, and Hillary/whoever in the White House. These were our other choices.

    If Obama had decided at some point during the election to leave the movement, as Malcolm X did, I think we would be worse off now. So it's difficult for me to see the tradeoff you're talking about as being in any way parallel to the choice Malcolm X made.

    In a world of absolutes, perhaps Obama should have done the only thing that was right. By "the only thing that was right," I mean what you think he should have done, because you clearly feel qualified to make his decisions for him.

    But this is not a world of absolutes, and it is not a world where Will Shetterly or Ted Lemon is qualified to make decisions for Barack Obama. Barack has to walk his path. We can criticize from the sidelines, but we do so with incomplete information.

    Your notion that Barack should have a common cause with some group of people based on the fact that his skin is the same color grouping as theirs is in fact the foundation upon which racism and racial prejudice are built. I know your intentions are good, but you might want to think about that.

  2. Ted, re your last paragraph, uh, no. That's what the anti-racists are implying with their "Malcolm X would never call Obama a house nigger" speculations--that it's all about what Zora Neale Hurston called "skinfolks".

    But by the end of his life, Shabazz (I prefer the name he preferred then) was into "by any means necessary", and his target had broadened. He said, "I do believe that there will be a clash between East and West. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don't think that it will be based upon the color of the skin…."

    Obama continues the systems of exploitation, and it's not based upon the color of the skin.

    As for Obama versus McCain, I could give you a long list of things Obama hasn't done, but I'll just note the big one: He hasn't used the bully pulpet to push for any progressive issues.

    But then, he never was one. Remember Adolph Reed Jr.'s comment about him in 1996?

    If you'd like a list of things where Obama and McCain are alike, Cindy Sheehan has it: US: myth of the two party system - Opinion - Al Jazeera English.

  3. I sure hope Ted Lemon is a satire. But something tells me Ted Lemon is serious. Which almost makes me cry.

  4. Charles, Ted's a friend, and a generous fellow whose heart is very much in the right place, but we disagree about politics constantly.

    I was thinking a little more about Obama and Malcolm (this morning, I'm favoring his request to be called Brother Malcolm). I can say this much in sympathy for Obama: it's harder to want to break out of a gilded cage than a grim one. Which is part of Malcolm's observation about house niggers.

    I disagree with conservatives constantly, but I came across two comments on Obama from here that seem very accurate:

    Hugh Hewitt, reviewing Game Change, a conservative look at Obama, said, "The portrait of the president is really an effort in poison-pen pointillism, where hundreds and hundreds of razor sharp paragraphs combine to create a deeply disquieting picture of the new president. President Obama is presented as insecure and needy of reassurance (p. 25), self-important, cynical and megalomaniacal (pp 30-31), petulant and spoiled (p. 111), touchy and vain (p. 112), hypocritical (p. 119), overweening (p. 184) and deceptive (p. 120.)"

    Christopher Chantrill said, "If President Bush was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, President Obama has been spoon-fed royal jelly by the worker bees in the liberal hive all his adult life. Even now, we know of no occasion in a charmed life when Barack Obama has risen above the shibboleths and routine thuggeries of political faction."

    I might say "upper-class liberal", but they're right in this: Obama had a life of great privilege, and his sympathies continue to be with people like him, the folks who live in million dollar homes.

  5. Regardless of whether House or Field precedes it, I'm pretty sure Malcolm would have been less than happy to see white people using his statements as an excuse to use the word "nigger."

  6. Stace, what evidence do you have that Malcolm thought white people should not use "nigger" in any context? In my youth, racists who beat me called me a nigger lover. Must I now say they called me a n-word lover?

    I agree that insulting words should be used carefully. That's why I only use the word when talking about someone else's terminology. Given Malcolm's opinion of black capitalist supporters of imperial wars, do you really think he would not say Obama is a 'house nigger'?

  7. I'm not going to presume what Malcolm would call anyone, as a white person. And I have no evidence about his opinions of white people using that word in all contexts, but I would bet he would have some discomfort about a white guy using that word to refer to a black man, particularly one who had the nerve to get some power.

    And y'know, I just don't get why, knowing how hurtful that word is for a lot of people coming from a white person, anyone would want to use that word as much as you seem to.

    And yes, I've been called that phrase too, and if I were speaking about it publicly, like on a blog, I would use a euphemism. N word lover works. "Blank Lover' works. Both without exposing anyone to the unpleasantness of a white person actually using that word.

  8. Stace, if you want to know what Malcolm thought, read his words--and pay attention to whether they're said before or after his break with NOI. I keep being amazed by the number of folks who get upset about him who have only read Haley's edit of the Autobiography or seen the movie.

    I use "nigger" because it was used in the time I write about, it is used now, and euphemisms have always struck me as hypocritical: if everyone knows what you're talking about, just cowboy up and say it.

    This "whites can't say 'nigger' at any time, under any circumstances" is a fairly recent development among middle and upper class liberals. It makes it really hard to talk about history or racism.

  9. See, and it strikes me as an easy way to not add to someone's hurt.

    And I knew from the time I was, we'll say maybe 6, so thirty years ago, that white people didn't get to say that word. And the neighborhood I learned that in was, well, not middle class. Not even working class. I was in a welfare class neighborhood, about as multiracial as you were gonna get in madison wisconsin in 1980, and it was clear as day to me that white people who were not either assholes or ignorant as hell did not use that word. Like, the moment I realised my grandmother was in fact ignorant, was when she used a slang term incorporating that word, in public, but thought it was okay because she wasn't calling anyone that word. I was 7, and knew better.

  10. Also, I've read some Malcolm, just I guess not enough to know his thoughts on white people and the n word off hand.

  11. Stace, yes, you are all kinds of morally superior for using euphemisms. I, on the other hand, am either an asshole or ignorant as hell because I marched for integration, and was bullied and beaten in my youth for speaking up for the equality of black folks, and know what Malcolm X wrote. I can live with that.

    When you read Huckleberry Finn, do you cross out the bad words? Or have you never read Huckleberry Finn because you know it's a racist book?

  12. I'm not claiming superiority, I just don't buy your excuses for why that word is cool. Using it may not mean that one is either an asshole or ignorant, but it is the impression it gives off to me, because, well, either you're ignorant of the fact it causes more pain, or you don't care, or feel your point is more valuable than not further hurting someone's hurt, which falls into asshole territory in my book. I'll allow it's possible someone's point in using that word could actually be that important. I can see maybe using it to point out what someone is hinting at, but otherwise, nope.

    And me saying that word comes off as portraying either ignorance or assholishness has nothing to do with your past anti-racist work. It has to do with the words you are saying now.

    And no, when I read Huck Finn, I read it as is, but if I were reading it in public, I'd find a way to work around it, or talk about the inclusion of that word so people who would be hurt by it could decide whether to expose themselves to something that hurts them.

    I'm not for censorship, I'm for kindness.

  13. I will just point out, Will, that in the video you've posted here, Malcolm uses "Negro" -- which today seems almost as anachronistic as "colored" -- not "nigger".

    Just sayin'...

  14. I've been watching this for a of couple days, reading TNC, your LJ, and here, so I thought I'd try to tease out some of my issues with what's going on, in my own head.

    1. The TNC post read to me as making a glancing reference to Obama, and far more of a reference to Malcolm X himself. And as I read the discussion in the comments, the issue was less, "Don't use nigger," and more, "You are attempting to create an alternate history where Malcolm X would have opportunity to comment on Barack Obama, that seems unproductive, could you stop?"

    Your then labeling it an ideological anti-racist issue seems a bit curious, to me.

    2. I personally have no particular issue with using "nigger" in its historical context, when, for example, quoting the usage directly. I think the issue (for me) about your use of the construction under discussion is that (despite your words in this post), you nonetheless still seem to treat it as a neutral usage. For me, when it's used by African-Americans, it's meant to feel like a quite strong slap in the face, like an insult. A reproof from an equal, meant to sting. I don't have a comparative feeling for when Caucasians use it, because they /don't/. The power differential is too strong.

    And I don't think you and your family being called "nigger lovers" means you have some kind of immunity. It certainly means that you and your family were doing good work at a crucial time, though.

  15. Stace, I'm not saying using the word is cool. I've written an awful lot in my life. Quote me one example of me using "nigger" to insult anyone. I don't do that.

    But Malcolm X talked about house niggers, and anyone who wants to compare Malcolm to Obama should know what Malcolm thought of people like Obama.

    You gave a great last line, but the result of your kind of kindness is censorship. I believe in history, warts and all. Sure, explain the context--that's why I mention Malcolm. But then be honest. By using euphemisms, you give words more power...they're so bad they cannot even be said.

    DSD, my bad for not playing the video before posting it. It's a later speech than the one I was remembering, and it sounds like it's been edited, so I'm very surprised that the uploader gave it that title. I've replaced it with a more famous speech from '63; the phrase occurs around 1:50.


    1. I'm not following you. We often look at how historical figures would see the present. "WWJD" is the most famous example. We know what the man thought when he was killed. Applying his thought is easy. If it wasn't, why would we study what anyone thought?

    The ideology comes from folks going, "White people must never use that word because they bear the sin of their parents using it." Never mind that black slave owners used it, too.

    2. If you don't have an equivalent reproof, it's not a reproof from an equal. It's a reproof from someone who wants to blame you for things you never did.

    I thank you for the last paragraph, but it's irrelevant, because what you do now is always more important than what you did long ago. The only reason I mention it is that if I can't say "nigger lover," I can't describe my own past.

  16. It's not those of us trying not to use that word giving it that power. It's those who've used it to demean people.

    And it isn't censorship. I'm not suggesting it should be outlawed, only that it is kinder not to use it, knowing it hurts people.

  17. Stace, you may not mean to do what you're doing, but you don't understand the power of the taboo. Lenny Bruce was right: "The point? That the word's suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy got on television and said, 'Tonight I'd like to introduce the niggers in my cabinet,' and he yelled 'niggerniggerniggerniggernigger' at every nigger he saw... till nigger didn't mean anything any more... you'd never make any four-year-old nigger cry when he came home from school."

  18. I disagree on the source of the power of that word. I also disagree that white people being more comfortable saying that word will lessen how it hurts black people. I think black people reclaiming it has that potential, and that any lessening of the hurt of that word so far is from that reclaiming. And really, it can't be fully reclaimed by black people as long as white people keep insisting it is ours to say. Once it's been completely reclaimed, then maybe white people can say it without it carrying the gross hurt it does now.

  19. Stace, I'm not interested in using "nigger" in anything other than a discussion of people's ideas. If black people want to reclaim the word, cool, but I'm not about to call anyone "nigger." In Dogland, there's a scene where the kid learns about the word. That's how I learned about it. A part of me still thinks that if I call someone a nigger, my dad's going to spank me until I can't sit down, because it's an awful thing to do. Calling people "nigger" was something done by the people who called my mom with anonymous death threats. So it just ain't gonna happen.

    On the other hand, when I'm talking about things like how Malcolm X saw the world, yeah, I use the word. Where I come from, that's how you treat equals. Euphemisms are for children.

  20. Can a self-described "white person" actually tell us how all black people feel about a word? That a word hurts them all so bad. Isn't that a bit paternalistic?
    (note that I'm chicken shit for not signing my name)

  21. Ah, Anonymous, good question!

    Something Malcolm said two days before he was killed: "I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown nor red. When you are dealing with humanity as one family, there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being, or one human being living around and with another human being."

    So the racialism in deciding what white people may say or do was rejected by Malcolm.

    A favorite fact: Black people are so diverse that 40% of them think they can no longer be described as a single race. Anyone who pretends to speak for all of them is a liar or a fool. Some blacks want other blacks to be able to use "nigger", and some want everyone to use it until all the sting is gone from it.

    Folks may argue that won't work, but in my lifetime, I've watched "fuck" become far more socially acceptable. In my youth, if you said, "Fuck you," you were prepared to go to blows.