In Honor of Black History Month: A Tribute to Malcolm X
In 1963, racial tension was growing in the United States. In August, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would give his historic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C., which many credit with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As beautifully worded and delivered Dr. King’s speech was, it does not stand the test of time. In contrast, a speech given by Malcolm X a few months later in Detroit titled “Message to the Grassroots” certainly does. In it, Malcolm defiantly challenges integration, Civil Rights leaders, and white supremacy.
The speech is often remembered for Malcolm X’s contrast of field slaves with house slaves. He brilliantly compares Civil Rights leaders of the day with latter, calling them “house Negroes”:
“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.”
In a later passage, Malcolm talks about the field slave:
“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 [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 X’s words are as true today as they were in 1963. Most strikingly is how much of this speech applies to Mexicans living in the United States in the year 2013.
DREAM Act activists have replaced lunch counter-sitting students; Mexicans choosing to identity as Hispanic and Latino taking the place of the “House Negro.” The cause of dignified Comprehensive Immigration Reform,CIR, is today’s Civil Rights Act.
And, of course, the irony is the fact that the current institutionalized criminalization of Mexicans is being directed by the United States’ first black president, Barack Obama. We’ll save our comments on this for another post.
What Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots” teaches is that, ultimately, the masses have the power. As we take to the streets in the coming months, let us remember Malcolm’s words, but more importantly, the love and dignity he stood for.
¡Que Viva Malcolm X!
Photo: The U.S. Library of Congress