September 22, 2008

House Slaves, Field Slaves & Dead Slaves

SlaverySometimes I feel it's better not to say anything--to keep quiet rather than to get into a pointless argument. This is not to say that I haven't gotten into a few verbal sparring matches. Once in high school, the verbal sparring even got physical and almost cost me an eye after one of my classmates blindsided me with a punch the day after I had torn his argument to shreds and ridiculed him. I've learned from that experience.

Perhaps this is why I said nothing during a recent conversation which went something like this:

Man: What I'm saying is that back during slavery there were three types of slaves. House slaves sort of like your complexion, Geoff. No offence.

Geoffrey: None taken.

Man: Field slaves and dead slaves. I couldn't have been a house slave. I wouldn't have been a field slave because I'm so much of an individual…I believe in freedom. I would probably have been whipped to death. I could only have been a dead slave!

I let him continue without saying a word.

Up to that point it had been a delightful evening and I knew I'd never see him again. Besides, despite the scars, I still like to think of myself as a JC Old Boy--one who continues the tradition of a Jamaican gentleman (an idea that is now lost in our current vocabulary) by upholding a code of personal honor and integrity.

I probably would have forgotten about the incident if I hadn't heard the idea repeated by a young brother in a different locale and realized how pervasive the idea had become.

Besides being illogical, the idea continues the old slavery paradigm and the division among Black people based on the melanin factor. Rather than saying "Never again" and stopping this idea from gaining life in the next generation (there are many ideas/behaviors that we must end in this lifetime), this line of thinking continues the old "one drop"--not Bob Marley's--and allows this noxious, racist seed to bloom in our lives.

Most importantly, however, the idea dishonors the sacrifice of our ancestors who gave their lives so that we could be free. If an ancestor had not swallowed her pride, I would not be typing these words and my brother would not have been alive to demean her memory. The premise of his argument and his seeming moral superiority is that our ancestors were cowards for living under slavery, and that such conditions would have been so unacceptable to him that it would have resulted in his death. He would no doubt like think of himself as comparable to those Africans who threw themselves overboard from ships like the Zong rather than accept slavery in Plantation America.

But I've had enough of these latter day heroes whose bravery exists only in their febrile imaginations. They denigrate the memory of our ancestors who sucked salt, bore the whip and the yoke of slavery, and invented stories in the dark so that one day their children could argue on luxury liners in the Caribbean about slavery, freedom, heroism, and death.


Both memories should be honored. Those who died rather than enter into servitude and those who lived through the holocaust. (And for someone like me whose ancestors stood on both sides of the whip, sometimes forgiven.)

But we should never forget that we are here today because of ancestors who never gave up on the hope of freedom and cut the cane, cooked the ham hocks and the tripe, made miracles out of the mundane, and continued to live even when their backs were breaking, their hands were tired, and their souls were weary with worry. Yet, they continued.

They continued to live.


Update (9/26/08): Make sure to check out the Comments!


FSJL said...

The 'house slave/field slave' thing is historical nonsense, for all that it has been retailed by reputable historians.

The division on the plantation was between field slaves and non-field slaves. Household slaves were a sub-division of non-field slaves, who included skilled tradesmen such as coopers, masons, and carpenters, as well as slaves in such outdoor occupations as fishing.

Field slaves had their own subdivisions (for example, into gangs), and their own hierarchies, including the slave drivers.

The house/field subdivision your interlocutor presented does not account for urban slavery (which included both household and non-household slaves in occupations like trading, prostitution, road construction, shipping, stevedoring, &c.

And the incidence of miscegenation had little to do with whether the slaves worked in the household or not.

Jdid said...

I've had this conversation before and I blame Brother Malcolm. Not that he was completely incorrect with his allegory but I think it was a simplified one that has as time gone on become completely twisted

Another point I'm made before is that its all rather fanciful for us to sit and theorize on what we would have done in the face of slavery seeing that none of us has ever had to deal with those horrors. Yea we'd all like to think we'd be these honorable, courageous kinta kunte types but its just human nature that most of us probably wouldnt be. so most arguments about what the person would and wouldnt have done in the face of slavery is just silly posturing.

iqpLENS said...

Wonderful post and I must say it is very interesting.

My take on the matter is simple and not complex at all. The human makeup is such that man would do almost anything to survive even in the face of danger or inhumanity. So whether the slave was field slave, a house slave, or what ever other category, the issue was the same, slavery. The house slave got raped just the same as the field slave. The whip was not kind to one and not the other. Any slave would have done anything to survive. It is the instinct of man. And us as Black folks, the descendants, have to admire the strength it took to go through such a horrific period.

Unfortunately Geoffrey, you are going to hear that rhetoric again. All you can do is move on.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Fragano, Jdid, and Barbados,

Give thanks for the comments which shed necessary light on the issue.

I won't say it doesn't bother me, but I can also say that the people who make these kinds of comments are usually doing nothing right now to uplift I and I.

So I look at the deeds and not the words.


FSJL said...

In addition, slavery was a normal part of human reality until relatively recent times. The form of slavery that existed in the Americas from the sixteenth to nineteeth centuries, industrialised chattel slavery was simply an extreme form of the institution adapted to the emergence of capitalism in the same period. Indeed, capitalism as it developed relied on slave labour to produce some of the essentials for its developments and to pioneer some of the frontier territories (Brazil, the American South, the Caribbean) that produced the raw materials for the factories of the industrial capitalist heartland in Britain, Belgium and the northeastern United States. It was the industrial nature of capitalism that gave American (in the broadest sense of the word) slavery its particularly brutal qualities as well as its immense scale both in space and time. As Eric Williams pointed out, it was also industrial capitalism that rendered that slavery unnecessary in the long run and created some of the conditions for its destruction (though Williams did not consider the rise of an industrial proletariat inherently hostile to enslaved labour as part of that process). The industrial conditions of slavery, as other historians, such as C.L.R. James and W.E.B. Du Bois have pointed out proletarianised the slaves and made them into active agents of their own liberation.

That was a slow process, since it required the cultural delegitimation of slavery itself, something which did not completely occur in the Western world till after the abolition of slavery. Even among the enslaved, I should note. The Berbice Rebellion of 1763, which was temporarily successful, led to the victors maintaining the enslavement of those slaves who had not revolted (until they were re-enslaved themselves).

Geoffrey Philp said...

Fragano, my brother,

Give thanks for spreading the wisdom about slavery.

I have received many offline comments about this post, so this adds to our knowledge about this "sensitive" topic.

One Love,

J.L. Campbell said...

Glad I came over. Dale Wade has been encouraging me to come visit.

Good reminder to give thanks for those who paved the way for us. It’s easy to sport nonsense from the comfortable space we occupy in the world today. As bad as things may be for some of us, our situation cannot company to the dehumanizing conditions our ancestors faced in their day

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Jayda,


Give thanks. Yes, I believe it was their faith in the future..."one day, one day" that kept them going and we honor that memory by being our best selves.


Stephen A. Bess said...

Amen. We all would love to think that we would have been the defiant one, but look at what we live with today. Although we are not in chains, there is so much that is holding us down [including ourselves] and so much that the government imposes on us as a nation. Yet, we complain and just go on with our lives. There are few of us who will stand up and fight, but most won't. Besides, we have good positions in the "House."

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...


On the topic of 'house and field slave' --
as well as that of 'dark and light skin' --
I thought you all might enjoy reading the
information found in the following links.;=13;=14

Please feel free to pass them
along -- and have a nice day.