Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots” Revisited

2010 December 21
by Turk Studzel

Two years after the election of the nation’s first black president, Malcolm X’s famous 1963 speech grows increasingly relevant. As the Obama administration marches steadily to the right in its efforts to cater to the corporate oligarchy, his “progressive” base seems enfeebled by a “politics of timidity.” Where is a leader with Malcolm’s brutal honesty? The fake racial reconciliation that the Obama adminstration has embraced–“post-racial politics,” in the president’s empty phrase– only serves to conceal the vicious new version of Jim Crow that has arisen in the past three decades, i.e. the mass incarceration of black men in the War on Drugs and the continued degradation of the black community. But my words can’t do enough justice to those of Malcolm X, whose outraged analysis speaks volumes in the segment below:

Malcolm X speaking at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference on November 10, 1963, in Detroit (see here for full audio recording):

To understand this you have to go back to what the young brother here referred to as the house-Negro and the field-Negro—back during slavery. There was two kinds of slaves. There was the house-Negro and the field-Negro. The house-Negroes—they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good ’cause they ate his food—what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved their master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master’s house quicker than the master would. The house-Negro, if the master said, “We got a good house here,” the house-Negro would say, “Yeah, we got a good house here.” Whenever the master said “we,” he said “we.’ That’s how you can tell a house-Negro.

The president and the banksters--golfing on Martha's Vineyard with UBS Investment Bank's CEO Robert Wolf, seated, notable for paying $780 million to Treasury to settle the largest tax evasion case in U.S. history.

If the master’s house caught on fire, the house-Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house-Negro would say, “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” We sick! He identified himself with his master more than his master identified with himself. And if you came to the house-Negro and said, “Let’s run away, let’s escape, let’s separate,” the house-Negro would look at you and say, “Man, you crazy. What you mean, separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?” That was the house-Negro. 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 modern house-Negro loves his master. He wants to live near him. He’ll pay three times as much as the house is worth just to live near his master, and then brag about “I’m the only Negro out here.” “I’m the only one on my job.” “I’m the only one in this school.” You’re nothing but a house-Negro. And if someone comes to you right now and says, “Let’s separate,” you say the same thing that the house-Negro said on the plantation. “What you mean, separate? From America? This good white man? Where you going to get a better job than you get here?” I mean, this is what you say. “I ain’t left nothing in Africa,” that’s what you say. Why, you left your mind in Africa.

On that same plantation, there was the field-Negro. The field-Negro—those were the masses. There were always more Negroes in the field than there was Negroes in the house. The Negro in the field caught hell. He ate leftovers. In the house they ate high up on the hog. The Negro in the field didn’t get nothing but what was left of the insides of the hog. They call ’em “chitt’lings” nowadays. In those days they called them what they were: guts. That’s what you were a gut-eater. And some of you all still gut-eaters.

The field-Negro was beaten from morning to night. He lived in a shack, in a hut; He wore old, castoff clothes. He hated his master. I say he hated his master. He was intelligent. That house-Negro loved his master. But that field-Negro—remember, they were in the majority, and they hated the master. When the house caught on fire, he didn’t try and put it out; that field-Negro prayed for a wind, for a breeze. When the master got sick, the field-Negro prayed that he’d die. If someone come to the field-Negro and said, “Let’s separate, let’s run,” he didn’t say “Where we going?” He’d say, “Any place is better than here.” You’ve got field-Negroes in America today. I’m a field-Negro. The masses are the field-Negroes. When they see this man’s house on fire, you don’t hear these little Negroes talking about “our government is in trouble.” They say, “The government is in trouble.” Imagine a Negro: “Our government”! I even heard one say “our astronauts.” They won’t even let him near the plant and it’s “our astronauts”! “Our Navy”— that’s a Negro that’s out of his mind. That’s a Negro that’s out of his mind.

Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house-Negro, to keep the field-Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive…

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