Commentary: Barack Obama is NOT a House Negro
Originally written in November 2008
“Back during slavery, when Black people like me talked to the slaves, they didn’t kill ’em, they sent some old house Negro along behind him to undo what he said. You have to read the history of slavery to understand this.
There were two kinds of Negroes. There was that old house Negro and the field Negro. And the house Negro always looked out for the master. When the field Negro got too much out of line, he held them back in check. He put ’em back on the plantation.
The house Negro could afford to do that because he lived better than the field Negro. He ate better, he dressed better, and lived in a better house. He lived right next to his master-in the attic or the basement. He ate the same food as the master ate and wore his same clothes. And he could talk just like the master-good diction. And he loved his master more than his master loved himself. That’s why he didn’t want his master hurt.” (From the speech “The house negro and the field negro” by Malcolm X)
I knew this was going to happen.
I knew that sooner or later some fool would call Barack Obama a house negro.
It was only a matter of time.
Unfortunately, it had to be a member of al-Qaida, and House Negro in Arabic translates as abeed al bayt, meaning house slave. Given that slave (abd) is a racist epiphet used against Black people in the Arab world the insult was compounded.
Thanks Al Zawahiri for further worsening African Americans’ perceptions of Arab Muslims…as if the whole history of the Arab slave trade in Africa, the war in Southern Sudan, and now Darfur wasn’t enough.
And of course now I, a Black Muslim woman, am going to have to explain to all my non-Muslim Black friends just what the hell he is on about.
Al Zawahiri is a big fan of Malcolm X. Malcolm X’s picture is supposedly hanging in the backdrop of this video along with a picture of Barack Obama praying at the Wailing Wall sporting a yarmulke. And we all know that Malcolm X liked to call Black people who he felt got along too well with white folks “house negroes”. So now, Al Zawahiri has been quoted as saying in reference to Barack Obama, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell: “It is true about you and people like you … what Malcolm X said about the house Negroes.” The tape also allegedly includes a recording of Malcolm X’s speech “The house negro and the field negro” delivered in Selma, Alabama in February 1965.” where he discusses his contempt for the “house negro.”
I first became concerned about the popularity among Muslims, particularly Muslims who aren’t of African descent, of the word “house negro” to refer to Muslims whose views of Islam they didn’t agree with.
I remember reading an article by British Muslim journalist and editor of Q-News Fareena Alam entitled ” A humane Muslim future” published online in opendemocracy in which she wrote: “Terrorism must be beaten, but it cannot be defeated with its own weapons – bombs, bullets, and the denial of human rights. We must not be afraid to follow the middle way, away from the extremes of literalism and, as Malcolm X would say, “house negroism”. Muslims, and all the world’s people, deserve better.”
In this article she is referring to Muslims who are political allies of the Imperialist West as products of “house negroism”. Fareena Alam is not an African American; I think she’s British Bangladeshi. I know what she was trying to say but how she said it blighted an otherwise worthy article.
There are just certain terms I believe you should not appropriate. “House Negro” is one of them.Why? Well, because to understand why Malcolm X had so much contempt for house Negroes you have to understand fully just what a house negro was in the context of American Southern Plantation society: a product of the rape of a Black female slave by a White slave owner. The house negro’s identity cannot and should not be compared to other people “selling out” their communities. To do so, is to totally show contempt for and ignorance of the traumatic legacy of slavery in the American South and the West Indies.
From The Autobiography of Malcolm X:
“Louise Little, my mother, who was born in Grenada, in the British West Indies, looked like a white woman. Her father was white. She had straight black hair, and her accent did not sound like a Negro’s. Of this white father of hers, I know nothing except her shame about it. I remember hearing her say she was glad that she had never seen him. It was, of course, because of him that I got my reddish-brown “mariny” color of skin, and my hair of the same color. I was the lightest child in our family. (Out in the world later on, in Boston and New York, I was among the millions of Negroes who were insane enough to feel that it was some kind of status symbol to be light-complexioned-that one was actually fortunate to be born thus. But, still later. I learned to hate every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me.)”
“House Negroes” were light-skinned and were given less physically straining labour than the “field negroes” who were often more recent imports from Africa, and who were forced to do hard labour and were more likely to receive brutal physical punishment.
In his speech “The house negro and the field negro” Malcolm asserts that he’s a “field negro”. But the truth is Brother looks a lot like a house negro. Malcolm X hated his light complexion. The house negro had a light complexion that was a direct result of his or her mixed race identity. The house negro is torn between two worlds; his or her loyalty to his or her master could very well be because they are blood relations. Malcolm X doesn’t say this but it’s understood…”You have to read the history of slavery to understand this.”
Although it is wrong to deliberately “sell out” our communities, the reality is we as Black people have the right to be individuals. We have the right to vote for who we want or pursue whatever political ideology we want and not be accused of being traitors to our race. When a Black person isn’t “left-wing” or “liberal” they are considered traitors to their race but if a White person is right-wing they are just considered a knob. Why should Black people continually be denied freedom of thought and action?
Barack Obama, as well as myself, are mixed race. We have White mothers. We are not the products of rape but of love…or at least lust. We were claimed as our mothers’ children. We were not denied. Our loyalties need not be divided unless Blacks deny us our individualities, our unique voices, the truth of our experience…and this they often do.
The truth is I have never really much admired Malcolm X. I still find him fascinating to read as a study of a conflicted mixed race man. In that way, his work has been invaluable to me. But he’s not someone I can say I look up to. He was searching, as so many of us are searching, for a place to belong, for acceptance, to come out of the fields and into the house that he could call a home.
When Malcolm X visited Mecca he was made a guest of the state by Prince Faysal “the absolute ruler of Arabia” as Malcolm X called him. Prince Faysal was eager for Malcolm X to learn the “true Islam”, not that of the Nation of Islam, and for him to spread this “true Islam” to his fellow Black Muslims, and hopefully, the entire United States of America. As Malcolm X said:
“America needs to understand Islam, because this was the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’-but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”
Unfortunately, that isn’t the experience of many Blacks within Muslim communities, particularly in North America. Even outside of the Muslim community, Blacks are experiencing racism from Arabs and other Muslims.
Quite frankly, given the extent of ethnic conflict that exists in the Muslim World between Muslims I don’t know how anyone could presume that Islam can solve the racial problems of the US if it can’t even solve the ethnic problems of the Muslim world. People living in glass houses really shouldn’t throw stones.
But Malcolm X didn’t know much about the history of either Africa or the Middle East. He might have heard very different stories if he had spoken with the Nuba of Sudan or the Afro-Shirazi of Zanzibar…but he didn’t. I understand why he was so moved by his experience coming from the racially segrated United States where for generations slave owners had denied their own children born of slave women (this was much less common, but not unheard of, in the Arab World). And let’s face it…Brother looked like an Arab (so does Barack Obama when you come to think about it).
Al Zawahiri considers Malcolm X an “honourable” Black Man because he believes that Malcolm X’s thought and actions were in line with his own. Spreading Islam across America now that is definitely Al Zawahiri’s cup of tea.
Al Zawahiri has contempt for Obama, Rice and Powell partly because they are agents of American Imperialist Foreign Policy in the Muslim World. Fair enough. But what I can’t take is that he also seems to have contempt for them because they are “uppity negroes”. If you have a problem with their politics that’s one thing but if you decide to attack them using racial slurs because you don’t like their politics it’s because you are a racist not because you are resisting American Imperialism. What Al Zawahiri is really saying is: “How Dare Black People Threaten the Muslim World…don’t they know they used to be our slaves?”
There are Arab and Muslim activists out there who are trying to resist American Imperialism and not being total racist jerks while doing it. They are also trying to fight the racism and the legacy of slavery within their communities. Al Zawahiri’s alleged statements have just made their job that much harder.
Yes I am Muslim but I am also African and I refuse to be any one’s “house negro”. Not the White Man’s or the Arab Man’s. Not the Christian’s or the Muslim’s. Not the West’s or the Anti-West’s. The continent of Africa has been devastated time and again by the hegemonic machinations of both these communities. I could just as easily make a case for reparations for slavery against Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Iraq, Saudi Arabia (remember Mecca was a major slave market), and Turkey as I could make against the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Spain, and Holland. So neither community should ever dare to demand my loyalty.