Were There Slaves Like Stephen in 'Django'?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Whether so-called house slaves betrayed others in bondage.

Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen in Django Unchained (YouTube)

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

(The Root) -- Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 29: What were the biggest acts of betrayal within the enslaved community, and were they more likely to be committed by slaves who worked closely with their masters?

In a speech delivered to Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 4, 1965, Malcolm X, in one of his most memorable, humorous and devastatingly effective rhetorical performances, defined the difference between "The House Negro and the Field Negro":

"Back during slavery," Malcolm begins, "there were 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 … Whenever the master said 'we,' he said 'we.' That's how you can tell a house Negro."

Then, with devastating rhetorical effect, if not full historical accuracy, Malcolm breaks down the difference in how these two types of slaves behaved in relation to the master: "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 what about running away, or rebelling? According to Malcolm, the house Negro wanted nothing to do with either option: "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 that 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."

In contrast, Malcolm continues, there was the field Negro, who "hated his master": "When the house caught on fire, he didn't try to 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." And how did the field Negro feel about running away or staging a rebellion? "If someone come [sic] 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."

Malcolm, of course, was engaging in a high-flying rhetorical battle here. He was signifying, allegorically, on Martin Luther King Jr. and the "Big Six" leaders of the civil rights movement, rather than sharing a factual black history lesson with his young, militant SNCC audience about the real nature of the slave community. 

And in case anyone in the room the day he gave this speech may have missed the point of the allegory, Malcolm goes on to say that "Just as the slave master of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slave master 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 and peaceful and nonviolent. That's Tom making you nonviolent." Ouch!

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