Resurrecting the House Slave

January 15, 2009

African-American identities have been perpetually based on lies since the first captive was brought to the Americas. There is no evidence that supports there was ever a class delineation or hostility among household and field slaves, yet this plot has grown to iconic proportions in the Black community even influencing the modern African-American communal identity. The conniving household slave is a myth supported by peer pressure, media popularity, fraudulent, suspect text, and leader endorsement.

There is a constant fear of being seen as a person who oppresses and subjugates your own. The impact and peer pressure evoked by the notion of classism among Blacks is strong. No one wants to be an “Uncle Tom”, or the morally cannibalistic “Sell Out” devouring those like you to get ahead. The household slave and field slave myth even suggest that some people are born to be lapdogs of society, moved and manipulated to do their bidding, for lack of character strength, and common sense.

While I have yet to find any slave narrative support the idea of slave class delineations, they often reference differences among the various labour sects. Most household slaves were female and their jobs were strenuous. They may have kept the longest hours, rising before everyone often beginning their day by milking a dozen cows or more in the dark of the morning. Then resting after everyone at night once preparation and service of dinner and other duties were done. However, it is historically noted that field slaves had the more backbreaking work of the two. In his slave narrative, fugitive slave James Curry notes that not all slaves were “driven” like the field slaves.
“My mother’s labor was very hard. She would go to the house in the morning, take her pail upon her head, and go away to the cow-pen, and milk fourteen cows. She then put on the bread for the family breakfast, and got the cream ready for churning… After I was sixteen, I was put into the field to work in the spring and summer, and in the autumn and winter, I worked in the hatter’s shop with my uncle. We raised on the plantation, principally, tobacco, some cotton, and some grain. We commenced work as soon as we could see in the morning, and worked from that time until 12 o’clock before breakfast, and then until dark, when we had our dinner, and hastened to our night-work for ourselves. We were not driven as field slaves generally are, and yet when I hear people here say they work as hard as the slaves, I can tell them from experience, they know nothing about it.”

In her slave narrative The History of Mary Prince, Prince paints a much more all inclusive work load, where she is demanded to do both household work and field work. This takes place directly after her relatively kind mistress has died, she’s been sold from her mother, and separated from her sister.
“The next morning my mistress set about instructing me in my tasks. She taught me to do all sorts of household work; to wash and bake, pick cotton and wool, and wash floors, and cook. And she taught me (how can I ever forget it!) more things than these; she caused me to know the exact difference between the smart of the rope, the car-whip, and the cow-skin… She was a fearful woman, and a savage mistress to her slaves.”

The household and field slave myth is historically accepted, though not historically noted. This is not to say that there was not conflict and even deception among the slaves. In The Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano, he recounts a time when an elderly slave woman told on him for accidently killing a chicken while he was helping her cook.
“…I happened to toss a small pebble at one of them, which hit it on the middle, and directly killed it. The old slave having soon after missed the chicken, inquired after it; and on my relating the accident (for I told her the truth, because my mother would never suffer me to tell a lie) she flew into a violent passion, threatened that I should suffer for it; and my master being out, she immediately went and told her mistress what I had done. This alarmed me very much, and I expected and instant flogging.”
Equiano goes on to say that he hid in fear all day, expecting to be found and punished, but when he went undiscovered for the better part of the day, everyone assumed he had fled as a runaway. The next morning he is discovered by the elder slave woman and she conspires to help save him from grave punishment.
“She was very much surprised to see me, and could scarcely believe her own eyes. She now promised to intercede for me, and went for her master, who soon after came, and, having slightly reprimanded me, ordered me to be taken care of, and not ill treated.”
In this case, there was no backstabbing because the old lady was a house servant and he was not. They were both working on the same task, she became angry and impetuous, and later helped save him from certain whipping.

Stories of household slaves betraying field slaves inundate media, books, radios, talk shows, songs, and movies. However, there is little to no evidence of these animosities ever taking place. The atrocities of slavery are horrendous, but no where in the narratives of Prince, Curry, or Frederick Douglass are there any account of scheming spies, working in the house, plotting against the others. This household slave Sell Out character does not exist in their time, but modern people believe this sniveling traitor did. The modern Black community has become an instigator in a fight that never took place. How unfortunate for the image of the household slave!

These myths are long-standing. We have black and white footage of formidable leaders, such as Malcolm X, educating and preaching to the masses about the strife between household and field slaves. Warning those in the audience to not act like the household slave, the eager subject of the master.

One of several speeches in Malcolm X Speaks is entitled The House Negro And the Field Negro. Malcolm X begins his speech talking about the federal governments lack of protection for the millions of Blacks in America against such forces as the Ku Klux Klan and the police. Then he goes on to speak about this notion that there has always been two types of Black people in America: The House Negro And the Field Negro.
“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 his 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 he lived in a better house. He lived right up next to his master-in the attic or the basement. He ate the same food his master ate and wore his same clothes. And he could talk just like his master-good diction. And he loved his master more than his master loved himself. That’s why he didn’t want his master hurt.
If the master got sick, he’d say, “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” When the master’s house caught afire, he’d try and put the fire out. He didn’t want his master’s house burned. He never wanted his master’s property threatened. And he was more defensive of it than the master was. That was the house Negro.
But then you had some field Negroes, who lived in huts, had nothing to lose. They wore the worst kind of clothes. They ate the worst food. And they caught hell. They felt the sting of the lash. They hated their master. Oh yes, they did.
If the master got sick, they’d pray that the master died. If the master’d house caught afire, they’d pray for a strong wind to come along. This was the difference between the two.
And today you still have house Negroes and field Negroes. I’m a field Negro. If I can’t live in the house as a human being, I’m praying for a wind to come along. If the master won’t treat me right and he’s sick, I’ll tell the doctor to go in the other direction. But if all of us are going to live as human beings, as brothers, then I’m for a society of human beings that can practice brotherhood.”

The Willie Lynch Letter is a speech purportedly given by William Lynch on the James River in Virginia in 1712 about how to control slaves in a colony. His advice in large part was to pit slaves against each other based on their differences to squash any unity among them and make them weak in the mind while preserving the body for slave labor. Supposedly, the inferiority was going to be felt psychologically by the slaves and their offspring for more than three hundred years.
“I have outlined a number of differences among the slaves, and I take these differences and make them bigger. I use fear, distrust, and envy for control purposes. These methods have worked on my modest plantation in the West Indies, and it will work throughout the South. Take this simple little test of differences and think about them. On the top of my list is “Age”, but it is there because it only starts with an “A”; the second is “Color” or shade; there is intelligence, size, sex, size of plantations, attitude of owners, whether the slaves live in the valley, on a hill, East, West, North, South, have fine or coarse hair, or is tall or short. Now that you have a list of differences, I shall give you an outline of action–but before that, I shall assure you that distrust is stronger than trust, and envy is stronger than adulation, respect, or admiration.”

The Willie Lynch Letter supports the notion that slaves were divided into two groups who fought based on differences of class and complexion. There were more than two labour forces of slaves. Besides house and field, what about the welders, the blacksmiths, the hired out slaves, the breeding slaves, and the slaves used as messengers?

The Willie Lynch Letter first appeared on the internet in 1993 after publication in The St. Louis Black Pages a University of Missouri reference librarian posted the text on the library’s server with the warning that its’ origins were not clear. William Jelani Cobb, Ph.D., historian and associate professor of History at Spelman College specializing in post-Civil War African American history, believes the letter is an internet hoax. There has been debate over this though many believe it does not matter if the text is fake or not because the tactics described were certainly used by slave owners to assert more power and manipulate slaves.

Even though the Willie Lynch Letter is absolutely fraudulent, in the 2007 movie The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington’s character Melvin B. Tolson, real life Speech and English professor of Wiley College in Marshall, Texas in the 1920s and 1930s, references the Willie Lynch Letter in 1935.
“Anybody know who Willie Lynch was? Anybody? Raise your hand. He was a vicious slave owner in the West Indies. The slave masters in the colony of Virginia were having trouble controlling their slaves so they sent for Mr. Lynch to teach them his methods. Keep the slave physically strong but psychologically weak and dependent on the slave master. Keep the body, take the mind.”

Why is there no objection? What does this mean for Black youth that grow up with no indication that this is all myth and fallacy? Will they live up to low expectations of themselves? What does this mean for Black elders that may in fact be crippling children, and therefore stumbling the community’s hopes for future advancements? Where does a myth like this come from?

While slave narratives lack accounts of field and household slave strife, they are full of accounts of slaves helping each other get by. Through them it is also apparent how the slave owners knew very little about their slaves true feelings and intentions. Mary Prince said, “Oh the Buckra [white] people who keep slaves think that black people are like cattle, without natural affection. But my heart tells me it is far otherwise.” Frederick Douglass’ narrative tells us that slaves would often claim to have a kind master and to being contented with their lives.
“…when inquired of as to their [slaves] condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind…a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it… If they have anything to say of their masters, it is generally in their masters’ favor, especially when speaking to an untried man.”

Mary Prince’s recount is full of affection between slaves. Time and time they are helping each other survive and get by. Hetty the slave woman who looks after Mary, and whom she refers to as her Aunt, and the kind Black man Anthony and his wife who feed her on her four week long journey to Turk’s Island, to name a few. She also has tales of confrontation among Blacks. In one case, a bi-racial freedwoman named Martha Wilcox was very unkind to the slaves no matter there labor position.
“Mrs. Wood…hired a mulatto woman to nurse the child; but she was such a fine lady she wanted to be mistress over me. I thought it very hard for a coloured woman to have rule over me because I was a slave and she was free… she was a saucy woman, very saucy; and she went and complained of me, without cause, to my mistress, and made her angry with me… The mulatto woman was rejoiced to have power to keep me down. She was constantly making mischief; there was no living for the slaves- no peace after she came.”
At another time, a slave who had long doled out harshness to other slaves, is very remorseful for the deeds his master has made him do.
“The husband of the woman I went with was a black driver. His name was Henry. He confessed that he had treated the slaves very cruelly; but said that he was compelled to obey the orders of his master. He prayed them all to forgive him, and he prayed that God would forgive him. He said it was a horrid thing for a ranger to have sometimes to beat his own wife or sister; but he must do so if ordered by his master. I felt sorry for my sins also. I cried the whole night…”

History has failed to act as a guide for the present. These myths have become a poor substitute to fill in the blanks on an otherwise scattered history. The Black community clings to these myths because we do not have a solid foundation for our history. We are always seeking our true selfs and our true origins, constantly trying to figure out why this could have possibly happened to us, where we have come from, and where we are going. So much power, influence, manipulation, and contention is wielded by myths. Fights have been waged over accusations of being a Sell Out. The notion that we will always be divided comes from the notion that we have always been divided. If we can attribute some of this to descention between us it may give us a semblance of an answer.


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