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!
Dr. King, by the way, confessed to the great psychologist Kenneth Clark that these gibes from Malcolm about being an Uncle Tom cut him to the quick, a moving exchange that you can watch on YouTube.
I thought about Malcolm X's speech while I was watching Django Unchained. Among several outstanding performances by the stellar cast of Quentin Tarantino's film, Samuel L. Jackson's was astonishingly brilliant and, in my opinion, deserving of an Academy Award nomination. Jackson's character, Stephen, puts Malcolm X's stereotype of the house Negro to shame. Stephen is a house slave on steroids, the self-loathing black man par excellence, who hates the field slaves almost as much as he hates his own black self.
Jackson's performance was so effective that it will be difficult for our generation to think of the house Negro without recalling Stephen; Jackson, in other words, has, with devastating effectiveness, transformed a stereotype into an archetype, the mark of the brilliance of one of our most talented actors.
Samuel Jackson's creepy, maliciously evil Stephen made me think about the history of the dynamics within the slave community historically: Did slaves such as Stephen really exist? And was Malcolm X right about in his black-and-white depiction of the "politics," as it were, between house and field?
With all due respect to Malcolm, the answer is: not really, though there are always exceptions.
If Given the Chance
In the first place, it is important to remember that the historical record is full of masters expressing their fears that their house servants were trying to poison them! As Robin Kelley and Earl Lewis explain in To Make Our World Anew: Vol. 1: A History of African Americans to 1880, "As early as 1755 a Charleston slave woman was burned at the stake for poisoning her master, and in 1769 a special issue of the South Carolina Gazette carried the story of a slave woman who had poisoned her master's infant child."
And there were many other cases of poisoning and allegations of poisoning, such as "a slave named Julia who [in 1785 in New Orleans] was said to have confessed to putting ground glass in her mistress's food," according to Ned Sublette in The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. She was given 200 lashes and placed in the stocks "for two hours a day for eight days."
In addition, historically, as Frederick Douglass eloquently points out, the slave who had access to literacy — far more likely to have been a house slave, to use Malcolm's formulation, than a field slave — found the urge to achieve physical freedom, to run away, well-nigh irresistible. Once they were literate, they understood even more fundamentally than when illiterate that they were intellectual equals, by nature, with their masters, and that the deprivation of the right to learn to read and write was another form of slavery — metaphysical slavery. And so, these literate slaves (whether living in the house or in the field, and in the house and then the field, like Douglass did) spent a lot of time plotting their escape. Few slaves — whether literate or not, whether working in the house or the field — really wanted to remain slaves, and we can see this clearly by their behavior during the Civil War.
But some house servants, however, did conform to Malcolm's harsh generalization about them. Henry Bibb, in his slave narrative of 1849, charges house slaves with a penchant for duplicity: "Domestic slaves are often found to be traitors to their own people, for the purpose of gaining favor with their masters; and they are encouraged and trained up by them to report every plot they know of being formed about stealing anything or running away, or anything of the kind; and for which they are paid." Still, it would be wrong to take Bibb's characterization as typical of house slaves, since we know that the evidence is much more mixed. Like that of every other kind of human being, the behavior of African-American slaves could be quite complicated — all too human, we might say.
The overwhelming percentage of the slaves, by definition, would have worked in the field. And as soon as these field slaves were given the opportunity, afforded by the North's policy of harboring fugitive slaves as "contrabands" during the Civil War (even before the Emancipation Proclamation), most who were able to do so simply picked up and ran away to Union lines. But this ebony wave was composed of its fair share of former house slaves desperately seeking their freedom, as well as people who had worked in the fields. In fact, historians estimate that as many as 500,000 slaves — from both the house and the field — fled from their masters' plantations as fast as they could to find safe harbor and freedom behind Northern lines. You can say that these half a million black people freed themselves during the Civil War, just as the tens of thousands of fugitive slaves did before the war started.
But not all slaves sought freedom when given the opportunity, and some even betrayed the attempts of their fellow slaves to stage rebellions. And here, Malcolm's hyperbolic allegory has some basis in historical fact. We can think of this small group of slaves as the ancestors of Samuel L. Jackson's character, Stephen, and we even know some of their names, and the rewards they received for their acts of betrayal, thanks to the research of several scholars, especially Junius P. Rodriguez's Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion.
It Only Takes One
Historians trace the first major slave conspiracy in Colonial America to Gloucester County, Va., in 1663. This early attempt to strike a blow for freedom was unusual in that it was "a conspiracy of slaves and indentured servants who planned 'to destroy their masters and afterwards to set up for themselves,' " as Mary Miley Theobald writes in her helpful essay, "Slave Conspiracies in Colonial Virginia."
The plot was unsuccessful, however, because "as would happen again and again, [it] was betrayed from inside." In this instance, an indentured servant named Berkenhead foiled the plot, for which he "received a reward of five thousand pounds of tobacco plus his freedom. Several bloody heads dangled from local chimney tops as a gruesome warning to others." We don't know if Berkenhead was white or black, but the historian Herbert Aptheker in his classic work American Negro Slave Revolts says that "he was probably a white indentured servant," but we don't know for sure.
But what about betrayals that we can definitely attribute to black people? Unfortunately, there were several. Theobold tells us about a rebellion of African-Americans slaves planned for Easter Sunday, 1710, in Virginia, that was betrayed by a slave named Will, who "got his freedom" in return, while his master, "Robert Ruffin, was reimbursed for his value with £40 of public money." The two black leaders of the plot were tired, convicted and executed.
In June of 1740, a slave named Peter "betrayed a serious plot that involved possibly 150 to 200 slaves who planned to capture and burn Charleston itself." According to Peter Wood's Black Majority, 60 of the conspirators were tried, and 50 were executed. That same year, up in Prince George's County, Md., according to Cheryl Janifer LaRoche in a National Park Service report (pdf), "Maryland courts received depositions from several African Americans … relating to a most wicked and dangerous Conspiracy having been formed by them to destroy his Majesty's Subjects within the Province, and to possess themselves of the Whole Country."
Saturday, August 30, 1800, was the date that Gabriel Prosser, a literate blacksmith, had planned to lead a major rebellion in Richmond, Va. Delayed by a torrential rain, the plan fell apart when several slaves, one aptly named Pharoah, exposed Gabriel's plans, according to historian Donald Yacovone. Although Gabriel escaped, he was later betrayed again by another slave named Billy, seeking the $300 reward that had been placed on Gabriel's head. According to Douglas Egerton in Gabriel's Rebellion, Gabriel, 23 of his co-conspirators and his two brothers, Solomon and Martin, were hanged for their role in the plot. Billy received $50.
Denmark Vesey, who won $1,500 in a lottery in Charleston, S.C., in 1799, used the money to purchase his freedom. By 1822, he had formed the plans for a large rebellion of slaves to unfold on Bastille Day, July 14. According to Ira Berlin, Vesey's plot was betrayed by two slaves, Peter Prioleau and George Wilson, and a free person of color named William Penceel.
Frederick Douglass' early attempt to escape his enslavement on the Freeland Farm in Maryland in 1836 was betrayed most probably, according to his biographer, David Blight, by a slave named Sandy. "Upon discovery," LaRoche relates, "Douglass and his four companions were bound together and taken to the Easton jail."
One of the largest groups of slaves to attempt to flee their enslavement occurred in Washington, D.C., in 1848. Seventy-seven slaves tried to escape on board the ship The Pearl, but were captured on Chesapeake Bay. According to the historian John H. Paynter, they were betrayed by a man named Judson Diggs, after one of the participants refused to pay him for taking him to the dock. Diggs himself had been a slave until gaining his freedom in 1845, just three years before the attempted escape on The Pearl.
As Paynter put it in a 1916 article in the Journal of Negro History, "Fate, which occasionally plays such strange and cruel tricks in the lives of men, presented in this instance a Machiavellian combination of opposing forces, that was disastrous to the enterprise of the fugitives. Judson Diggs, one of their own people, a man who in all reason might have been expected to sympathize with their effort, took upon himself the role of Judas. Judson was a drayman and had hauled some packages to the wharf for one of the slaves, who was without funds to pay the charge, and although he was solemnly promised that the money should be sent to him, he proceeded at once to wreak vengeance through a betrayal of the entire party."
Former slave Isaac Johnson relates a horrific outcome of a slave betrayed in his slave narrative of 1901. As Harry Thomas summarizes the incident, "While working for John Madinglay, Johnson befriends Bob, a free Canadian engineer who was wrongfully arrested during a trip to New Orleans and sold into slavery. Bob tells Johnson about free life in Canada and eventually the two conspire to run away. Unfortunately, Bob is betrayed by a fellow slave, and both he and Johnson are eventually recaptured. Madinglay blames Bob for inciting the escape attempt, and Bob is whipped and then burned with hot coals before his throat is cut 'just enough so he would die gradually.' "
Who's on Whose Side?
Perhaps the ultimate betrayal of one black person by other black people, ironically, was the brutal and tragic assassination of Malcolm X himself, the man who historicized black self-loathing and betrayal in the famous speech, "The House Negro and the Field Negro." Incredibly, just 17 days after delivering this speech, Malcolm was shot to death by a group of men he might reasonably have identified as a mixture of house and field Negroes, from within the Nation of Islam, including Thomas Hagan (also known as Talmadge Hayer) and a squad of five other thugs, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, the late Manning Marable. The political differences between "house" and "field" — never truly a black and white dichotomy, even in slavery — most certainly are not that simple today.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.