On November 10, 1963, Malcolm X delivered a historic speech to a group of young protesters at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference.
In his prolific sermon titled Message to the Grass Roots, Malcolm spoke of the parable of two types of Negroes during the slave period: the ‘house Negro’ and the ‘field Negro’. The former had his conscience imprisoned, while the latter was a prisoner of conscience.
Malcolm paralleled the contrasting personalities that existed among slaves to that which was exhibited by Black people during the height of the civil rights movement. Malcolm argued how specific differences rooted in colonial psychology became a defining characteristic of the Black American experience.
According to Malcolm, the house Negro was a fawning servant who always curried favour with his master and kept congenial company with him. The house Negro was not obliged to rise at the ringing of a bell – he had secured for himself the benefits of dressing like the master, working in his abode, eating from his leftovers, and residing near his quarters.
The house Negro was so concerned for his master’s welfare that he would spy on his fellow Black man and reprimand him for not yielding to the master’s dictates. Unable to envisage a life better than the one his master had bestowed him, the house Negro made no reservations about where his allegiance lay, emulating his master’s behaviour in both his personal and social interactions.
The field Negro despised the master with a passion. Unlike his privileged counterpart, the field Negro was garbed in tattered rags, relegated to the shacks and shanties with little to no amenities, toiling away in the plantation from sunrise to sunset.
The field Negro – who endured years of backbreaking labour, the brutality of his master’s treatment, and the monumental betrayal of house Negroes – eagerly awaited the day the master would be brought to his knees. That day would see the field Negro and his oppressed brethren escape from oppressive clutches and break from mental and physical bondage.
Some commentators criticised Malcolm’s contentious binary for being a false dichotomy that obscured the diverse experiences of those who were enslaved. Furthermore, there has been a tendency to equate these terms with Black Americans who aspire to move out of the dilapidated and often crack-infested ghettos and into the suburban neighbourhoods in order to secure for themselves and their families a brighter socio-economic future.
Misapplication aside, Malcolm’s contribution to the post-colonial lexicon offers not only a valuable insight into the plantation hierarchy of the Antebellum South, but also into the psychology of Black Americans and people of colour who have internalised a racial bias embedded in centuries of colonial discourse.
When analysed in the context of Malcolm’s views on race consciousness, house Negroes were symptomatic of the dehumanising effects of European colonialism that caused them to perceive their masters as emblematic of a superior humanity. House Negroes were oblivious to how they and their ancestors were moulded by a rich and illustrious civilisation marked by an undeniable appreciation for science, spirituality, and ethics. The house Negro was so out of touch with his reality and Black heritage that he could not conceive of any history that predated slavery. This resulted in the house Negro disowning whatever existed of his native culture, instead pathologically craving Whiteness – if not in complexion, then certainly in the manner and comportment that would prove socially advantageous.
Malcolm was not alone in his awareness of the perverse strategies employed by White masters to keep the architecture of anti-Black oppression functioning for centuries. The degradation, self-loathing, and abjection of indigenous forms of identity that accompanied the colonial experience was also addressed by the West Indian philosopher Frantz Fanon in a clinical expose titled Black Skin, White Masks.
Fanon, a defining critic of European colonisation in the 20th century, combined psychoanalysis and existential phenomenology to unpack the conscious and unconscious reproduction of racialised patterns of behaviour among Blacks living in the postcolonial period.
Writing at the height of the Algerian War for Independence and reflecting on first-hand experiences of French colonialism in his birthplace Martinique, Fanon argued that the native Antilleans were participating in their own oppression by failing to emerge from the prolonged period of humiliation at the hands of their French colonisers, akin to the psychological warfare that the masters systematically waged on their slaves.
Overcome with abasement from their earliest years of development, the Antilleans developed feelings of self-contempt and internalised the myth of the coloured savage as a way of overcompensating for wrongly perceived inadequacies. Failing to address these repressed racial tensions and underlying insecurities, the colonised subjects were beset with an inferiority complex that saw them disparage their own cultures and sycophantically embrace the cultural tropes of the dominant White Parisians. In the process, the Antilleans forged new identities by assimilating to the culture of their conquerors in a futile bid for acceptance.
Fanon argued that many of his countrymen were desperately seeking the affirmation of the French status quo by relinquishing their Blackness, languishing under French colonial rule and effectively becoming relegated to a zone of non-being, deprived of an authentic sense of belonging and robbed of any agency and historical continuity.
The similitude with the psychological traits of the house Negroes is unmistakable: both were fated to alienation and lacked the self-awareness to reconstruct an Afrocentric epistemology to help navigate their thoughts and experiences.
It doesn’t take something like Quentin Tarantino’s depiction of Stephen, the butler from Django Unchained, to appreciate the enduring relevance of what Malcolm and Fanon were highlighting.
Today, we can trace the politics of the modern plantation through examples of obsequious Black Americans trying to increase their cultural capital by endearing themselves to dog-whistling politicians or endorsing parties in the throes of race-baiting campaign tactics. Examples of these include Confederate apologists like Virginia Flaggers activists and musicians such as Kanye West who egregiously claim that slavery was a choice.
Minorities who become mouthpieces for certain sections of the establishment (notorious for xenophobic and anti-immigrant messages and whose policies are clearly detrimental to the wellbeing of people of colour) can be just as unscrupulous as the native informant. This is symptomatic of the very psychological trauma that Malcolm and Fanon unpacked with incredible clarity.
Whenever White supremacy rears its ugly head, Black pundits are summoned to parrot conservative denial by countering claims of prejudice in a clearly racialised social hierarchy. These pundits, who throw their community under the bus in order to win approval, have a very similar mental disposition to what both Malcolm and Fanon opined.
Entangled in a web of psychological complexes and subconsciously worshipping at the altar of Whiteness, these ‘Uncle Toms’ are feted and co-signed by the status quo as token coloured faces on contentious establishment (White) opinions.
Although Malcolm and Fanon’s reflections focused primarily on the neurotic refusal to face up to one’s Blackness, their works offer a helpful vantage point. The distorted conception of the self that has regrettably taken root in the modern Muslim psyche can therefore be contextualised, contributing towards the atomisation of the Muslim identity and the unforgiveable treachery towards sections of the Ummah.
The consequences of lost history are acutely present among diaspora Muslims, many of whom bear the imprint of the psychological effects wrought by colonialism. Like the modern Negro – whom W. E. B. Du Bois claimed was born with a veil into a world that afforded him no true self recognition – who is fuelled largely by historical experience, Muslims are also suffering from a double consciousness and conflicting duality. As a result of internalising fundamentally Western projections of Islam that emerged in the colonial period, Muslims are no longer anchored to the Islamic tradition and are deprived of a comprehensive Muslim weltanschauung (worldview). Their ruminations on faith, politics, and society – while purportedly influenced by religious norms – are often bound by an alien epistemic framework imposed through generations of cultural imperialism.
Islam was once conceptualised as a unified system of meaning that integrated a large community of believers who collectively identified as the Ummah. Now, Islam is viewed as an objectified external construct limited to formulaic ritual observances, navigated primarily through a colonial topography. Millions of uprooted, indoctrinated, and de-centred Muslims today are by-products of a colonial mental mapping that exercises mastery over their thoughts and behaviours.
Instead of aspiring to revive their Islamic tradition and liberate themselves from the mental chains imposed by a secular liberal intelligentsia, Muslims have settled for cheaply imitating and aggrandising the secularised systems of law, governance, and education bequeathed by their imperial overlords whom they deem synonymous with progress and civilisation.
Sensing nothing abnormal about how a once-great civilisation has regressed to a third-rate backwater, it wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that large swathes of the Ummah are today suffering a form of Stockholm syndrome and have come to love their own chains, akin to the love that house Negroes had for their masters having fared poorly in a mental war of attrition.
The behavioural traits of the house Negro can be detected among those of the clerical class who have become vital assets in the neo-colonial project to secularise the Muslim world.
By contenting themselves with the security and comforts that come with a close proximity to the corridors of power, many scholars have become indispensable tools in the hands of governments to push the narrative on religious moderation.
Not only have they invited ignominy on themselves by endorsing military dictatorships, they have also become notorious for their fidelity to existing power structures in the West that continue to wage war against Muslims under the pernicious guise of human rights and liberalism.
It is common to see these clerics condemning movements that strive to reconfigure the political landscape in the Muslim world. They are summoned by their despotic superiors to condemn co-religionists who desire the restoration of Islam at a macro level. As a result, they are largely complicit in obstructing the emergence of any grassroots movement capable of presenting an alternative socio-political vision to the authoritarian status quo in the Muslim world.
In addition to abdicating their responsibility to speak truth to power, this class of scholars puts on a respectable face for the tyrants who perpetrate heinous crimes against our brothers and sisters. They develop bastardised interpretations of khilāfah, hijrah, and al-walā’ wa al-barā’ from their ivory towers, betraying the Ummah’s fight for freedom.
Like the house Negro who sanitised the cruelty of his master and cautioned the field Negro against rebellion and fleeing the plantation, it is lamentable that some of our scholarship has been hijacked by charlatans masquerading as inheritors of the prophets and who consider any discourse on liberation and revolution as derived from a Marxist-inspired reading of the Islamic tradition.
Possessing reams of knowledge and boasting a legion of supporters cannot hide their poverty of ambition. This can be seen in how they keep their audiences docile, apolitical, and ultimately deprived of the self-realisation necessary to emerge from obscurity and question the conniving agendas of their masters who conspire to keep them in their quagmire.
Given the complicated interplay of factors responsible for our current predicament, I appreciate there are dangers with reducing the deplorable condition of the Ummah to a simple binary.
I accept that much of the polarisation and internecine conflicts presently afflicting the Muslim world are very much a consequence of our self-inflicted wounds, namely, our detachment from faith and disobedience to the Creator.
It is also evident that many of the problems we grapple with today can be unpacked with reference to a master-slave dialectic, especially when we reflect on the psychological process that has led many Muslims living in diasporic communities down the path of cultural assimilation to the point where they struggle to articulate an authentic sense of belonging.
The intimate examination by Malcolm and Fanon into the role of colonialism in fostering feelings of displacement, dislocation, and alienation is an instructive lesson for Muslims today. One way to treat our collective amnesia of a past that has been relegated to a footnote in Euro-centric history, as well as challenge the co-opted religious leadership who have recast specific Islamic teachings to obstruct any revolutionary impulse in the Muslim world, is by decolonising the narrative on what it means to be Muslim in the present context.
Hasnet Lais is a teacher and freelance journalist with a Masters in Islamic Societies and Cultures from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He is also a columnist for British Muslim news site 5Pillars.