The House Negro and the Field Negro: a Rhetorical Analysis of Malcolm X’s Speech Entitled "The Race Problem in America"

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The House Negro and the Field Negro: a Rhetorical Analysis of Malcolm X’s Speech Entitled “The Race Problem in America”

On January 23, 1963, Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam’s redheaded firebrand, delivered a scintillating speech entitled “The Race Problem in America” at Michigan State University, in Lansing, Michigan (“Malcolm Describes”). Although Manning Marable dedicated less than one of the five hundred and ninety-two pages in what is widely considered to be the authoritative (and arguably fallacious) biography of Malcolm X, entitled Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, to the mercurial iconoclast’s address in Spartan country, the significance of the event cannot be overstated (Marable 229). Not only did the speech put on display Malcolm’s virtuosity as a rhetor and orator, the ideas presented in the speech would later help form the base on which proponents of “Black Power” would predicate their ideology. To understand the import of the Michigan State University address, one must first understand the events that precipitated it.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little to Earl Little, Sr. and Louise Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska (“Malcolm X”). Earl Little, Sr. was a preacher and staunch supporter of the father of Black Nationalism, Marcus Garvey (“Malcolm X”). Malcolm’s birth coincided uncannily well with the “apex of [Ku Klux] Klan activity in Nebraska” (Marable 23). Due to the extensive involvement of both Earl and Louise with Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the family faced the constant threat of violence at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Legion (a Ku Klux Klan off-shoot), and relocated several times before eventually settling down in Lansing, Michigan (Marable 23-25). It is during the twelve years the Littles called Lansing home that Malcolm’s father would be murdered, his mother would be committed to the Kalamazoo State Hospital, and Malcolm himself would become a ward of the state (Marable 36).

After Malcolm’s tumultuous time in Lansing, he moved on to Boston to live with his half-sister, Ella Collins, in 1941 (Marable 39). The two shared a father but besides that could find little common ground. Ella would eventually be admitted, much like Malcolm’s mother, to a mental hospital (Marable 40). It was in Boston that Malcolm learned to negotiate the streets, in addition to picking up a habit of smoking “reefer” and running “numbers” (Marable 43). Malcolm began to straighten his hair by way of “conking,” a practice he would continue until his incarceration five years later (Marable 45). Malcolm secured “a job on a railroad line as a fourth-class cook” (Marable 48). By virtue of his employment, Malcolm was able to travel extensively, selling marijuana and visiting cities such as New York and Washington, D.C. (Marable 50). Malcolm eventually fell in love with New York City and decided to migrate to the Big Apple. After his sojourn in Harlem, Malcolm returned to Boston, where he and a group of his associates would commit, and subsequently be arrested for, an infamous string of burglaries (Marable 67). Malcolm “received three concurrent six-to-eight year sentences” in Norfolk County and “four concurrent eight-to-ten-year sentences” in Middlesex County for his involvement in the burglaries—because Malcolm committed crimes in two separate jurisdictions, there were two separate trials and two separate sentences (Marable 68).

While in prison, Malcolm met a fellow “former burglar named John Elton Bembry: the man who would change his life” (Marable 73). Malcolm was impressed by Bembry’s intellect, knowledge, and “verbal skills” (Marable 73). Bembry’s tutelage facilitated Malcolm’s “newfound enthusiasm for study and self-improvement” (Marable 74). Just over a year after the advent of Malcolm’s shift in attitude, he received a letter “from his brother Philbert, one that would have enormous consequences” (Marable 75). In Philbert’s missive was an exhortation for Malcolm to “pray to Allah for deliverance” (Marable 75). Philbert and other members of Malcolm’s family admonished Malcolm to join the Nation of Islam (NOI) and after several appeals, Malcolm capitulated and joined (Marable 78). Following his conversion, Malcolm replaced his last name with an “X,” representing the unknown, as per the NOI’s belief that the last names black people had in America were in actuality their slave names, given to slave by slave master, and not their God-given names.

The NOI’s apostate teachings included “black separatism, self-reliance, and a black deity,” reminiscent “of Earl Little’s Garveyite sermon” (Marable 77). Because Malcolm’s father followed Garvey, he was already familiar with these tenets. Malcolm continued his course of study and committed himself to the NOI and the heretical sect’s leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, before being released from prison on parole on August 7, 1952 (Marable 98). Malcolm would remain under the supervision of the state until May 4, 1953 (Marable 103). Malcolm’s rise within the NOI was nothing less than meteoric: from a lowly evangelist working on behalf of the NOI’s Detroit Temple No. 1, to Assistant Minister at Temple No. 1, to Head Minister of several temples, to national spokesman, all within about a decade’s time (Marable 258). By the early 1960s, as his popularity grew, Malcolm began receiving more and more invitations to speak and lecture at colleges and universities across the nation (Marable 171).

Malcolm was invited to speak at Michigan State University by the university’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and African Students Association (“Malcolm Describes”). It is important to note that although the NAACP’s national leaders felt the NOI spokesman was too controversial and conservative a figure to be associated with, this was not the first time Malcolm received and accepted an invitation from a college NAACP chapter; for instance, on February 14, 1961, Howard University’s NAACP chapter invited Malcolm to speak in Washington, D.C. (Marable 185). The Michigan State affair was a homecoming of sorts, seeing as Malcolm had lived in Lansing from 1929 until 1941 (Marable 25-38). In fact, for a brief time the Littles even owned six acres near what would later become part of Michigan State University’s campus (Marable 27). Although he had home field advantage, Malcolm still faced a formidable rhetorical challenge, seeing as he was invited by the university’s NAACP chapter and spoke in front of what was presumably a well-integrated crowd; this means that the crowd was composed of people more likely to fall into the category of detractor or abjurer, rather than supporter, of Malcolm’s philosophy. The rhetorical challenge Malcolm faced was compounded by the fact that he aimed to discredit the leaders of the main civil rights organizations, the “Big 6”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Whitney Young of the Urban League, A. Philip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP (Spradley).

Throughout his Michigan State address, Malcolm used a number of rhetorical devices and methods in order to appeal to his audience. The incendiary speaker’s use of the three canons of rhetoric—ethos, pathos, and logos—can best be described as masterful. According to Drs. Lester Faigley and Jack Selzer, in their book Good Reasons: Researching and Writing Effective Arguments, the term ethos refers to “the trustworthiness and credibility of the writer or speaker” (59); the term pathos refers to “the persuasive good reasons in an argument that derive from a community’s mostly deeply held values” (59); and the term logos refers to “the good reasons that emerge from intellectual reasoning” (59). Although he would never read Drs. Faigley and Selzer’s work, Malcolm’s command of these rhetorical canons was peerless.

Malcolm’s use of Black English is a prime example of the way he employed ethos in this speech. While Malcolm had mastered the English language during his time in prison, he decided to turn to a dialectic form of English that was sure to identify with at least some of the African Americans in the audience. During the speech, whilst describing the dynamic of the “House Negro” and the “Field Negro,” Malcolm stated “there was two kinds of slaves” (“Famous Speeches”). Later on in the speech, describing the white man’s stratagem for dealing with the black man: “he take a so-called Negro and make him prominent,” only to use this “so-called Negro” against the people of his own race (“Famous Speeches”). These excerpts are merely mildly ungrammatical but the effectiveness of this rhetorical appeal is found in its subtlety. Were Malcolm to regress to the argot he used during his days as a criminal in Boston, he would not only have risked seeming fraudulent, but also would have risked alienating white people not familiar with Black English.

In addition to his use of Black English, Malcolm was also able to effectively use humor to bolster his ethos. The crowd responded with uproarious laughter when Malcolm quipped, with regard to the principle of nonviolence, “as Reverend [inaudible] pointed out, ‘let your blood flow in the streets, this is a shame.’ You know, he’s a Christian preacher, if it’s a shame to him, you know what it is to me” (“Famous Speeches”). This humorous remark was effective in appealing to what was conjecturably a crowd made up largely of non-Muslims. In essence, Malcolm was attempting to win over the crowd by creating a commonplace through shared laughter.

Malcolm’s use of pathos is also noteworthy—on numerous occasions, he used the popularly held belief that there were elements working against what is so often referred to as the modern day Civil Rights Movement from within. Malcolm claimed that national leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP were in fact “used against the black revolution” (“Famous Speeches”). This appeal was likely to strike a chord with those in the audience on some level regardless of which civil rights organization they favored, whether they were for integration or separation, and whether or not they agreed with Malcolm’s speech overall. For example, by 1966, the FBI was receiving information on the operation of Dr. King’s SCLC from at least two inside informants (Garrow 468). On the other side of the spectrum, the situation was similar: it was believed by many that there was at least one FBI informant inside Malcolm’s inner circle (Marable 453). Using this commonly held belief, Malcolm was able to appeal to people across the proverbial line in the sand, which divided the integrationist from the separationist.

The speech is best known for its discussion of the “House Negro,” and the “Field Negro” (“Famous Speeches”). Malcolm’s discussion of the “House Negro” and the “Field Negro” is the speech’s preeminent appeal through intellectual reasoning—logos—perhaps the most powerful tool in the spokesman’s rhetorical quiver. Malcolm equates the “House Negro,” to black civil rights leaders who do not want to separate from white society (“Famous Speeches”). Over the course of his career as a public figure and advocate of the “so-called” Negro, a distinct class-consciousness firmly entrenched itself in Malcolm’s ideology. This class-consciousness was perhaps the resulting aftertaste of a bitter cocktail composed of his personal experience, the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and the climate of the Civil Rights Movement era. This class-consciousness is palpably present in his address at Michigan State University in his reference to the “House Negro”-“Field Negro” dynamic. According to Malcolm, “back during slavery, there was two kinds of slaves: the House Negro and the Field Negro” (“Famous Speeches”). On the plantation, the House Negro was treated “pretty good” by his slave master and “loved his master”; conversely, the Field Negro was “beaten from morning until night; he lived in a shack, in a hut; he wore old cast-off clothes; and he hated his master, he was intelligent” (“Famous Speeches”). Malcolm notes that the “House Negro,” in response to a call to “runaway, let’s escape, lets separate,” would refuse, just as the “modern House Negro” would (“Famous Speeches”). The “modern House Negro” also tried to live close to his master—the white man—just as his antebellum counterpart tried to live close to his master. By recognizing this parallel, Malcolm is equating the “House Negro,” the docile and stupid slave, with the middle-class-oriented black integrationist, while at the same time and in stark contrast, equating the “Field Negro” to the working-and-lower-class-oriented black separationist. While they lived during different times, as far as Malcolm was concerned, the “House Negro” and the black integrationist (represented by the “Big 6”) were one and the same: “Uncle Toms” (“Famous Speeches”). “Uncle Toms” were subservient black men whose only allegiance was to the white man. Malcolm believed that much like the “House Negro,” the black integrationist was an “Uncle Tom” (“Famous Speeches”).

Kairos was also an important aspect of Malcolm’s speech. The term kairos “refers to the way a given context for communication both calls for and constrains one's speech” (“Kairos”). Malcolm’s address in Lansing was cogent in its sensitivity to kairos: he was able to take advantage of the temporal context in which he found himself and by doing so, was also able to bolster his argument. Although the instances described hitherto that speak to his understanding of the three rhetorical canons by virtue of interrelation also speak to his understanding of kairos, Malcolm’s command of kairos becomes increasingly lucid when major events pertaining to civil rights activism across the nation leading up to his speech are reviewed.

In 1962, mere months prior to Malcolm’s speech, Dr. King and the SCLC suffered what was arguably the most devastating defeat of the Civil Rights Movement in Albany, Georgia. During the speech, Malcolm stated that “when Martin Luther King failed to desegregate Albany, Georgia, the civil rights struggle in America reached its low point” (“Famous Speeches”). In Albany, Georgia, the stratagem that had worked so well in Montgomery and other places in the South was ineffectual, due largely to the tactical prowess of Albany’s Chief Laurie Pritchett. Chief “Pritchett had enforced segregation in every phase of Albany’s life, and” was on the receiving end of a great deal of media coverage and applause (Garrow 217). On the other hand, Dr. King, the SCLC, and supporters of the Civil Rights Movement in general were left to contemplate the reasons “the movement had ended in failure” (Garrow 216).

On January 14, 1963, less than ten days before Malcolm delivered his speech in Lansing, Governor George Wallace of Alabama delivered a brazen peroration in support of maintaining segregation during his inaugural address in Montgomery, Alabama (Wallace). During the inaugural address, Governor Wallace indicated that the separation of the races was here to stay when he proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” (Wallace).

By the time Malcolm delivered his speech at Michigan State University, the Civil Rights Movement had suffered some significant losses. Sensing the discouragement and disenchantment resulting from both the loss suffered in Albany and Governor Wallace’s address, Malcolm took full advantage. He attacked the “Big 6” and their integrationist viewpoints at a time when racial tensions were reaching dangerous heights that often resulted in violence. In his address, Malcolm argued that the integrationist approach has not worked and will not work, and it was the most opportune time for him to make such an argument.

The magnificent rhetorical display presented on January 23, 1963, is archetypal of the leader’s public addresses of the time insofar as the content and methods of the speech are concerned, but it also differed in some ways from speeches he had given in the past.

Themes can be identified throughout “The Race Problem in America” speech that are found in many of Malcolm’s orations prior to his split from the NOI in 1964 (“Malcolm X Biography”). On that day in January of 1963, Malcolm spoke, as he had done so many times before, on the damage that was being done contemporaneously by the “Uncle Toms” of the Civil Rights Movement, the evils of the white man, and the necessity of self-defense (“Famous Speeches”). On that same day, in contradistinction and as Marable noted so perspicaciously in Malcolm X, Malcolm for the first time “affirmed the common cultural heritage that unified Africans with African Americans” (229). For years, Malcolm had preached the obscure NOI teaching that African Americans were “Asiatic, descendants of the lost tribe of Shabazz that had its origins in the Middle East” but now seemed to repudiate that notion (Marable 229). This affirmation of the cultural heritage common to all Blacks in America would burgeon into, and was indicative of, the more Pan-Africanist approach to black liberation he would take up during the latter stages of his life. This speech represented a significant paradigm shift in Malcolm’s philosophy that was grossly overlooked by Manning Marable in Malcolm X.

Several ideas expressed in this speech would later find their way into the ideology professed by the Black Power movement that came about in the mid-1960s as a response to the less aggressive form of protest championed by the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC. Stokely Carmichael defined “Black Power” as “a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations” (“Stokely”). Contrarily, Dr. King’s SCLC denounced “Black Power” as “’an unwise choice of words’ that had ‘caused substantial confusion and alarm’ and had proven ‘dangerous and inurious’ to the movement” (Garrow 497). Regardless of how it is described, however, the connection between the notion of “Black Power,” Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X can in fact be drawn limpidly: at Howard University in Washington, D.C., when Malcolm X debated Bayard Rustin for the second time, on October 30, 1961 a young Stokely Carmichael was among the Howard University undergraduate students in attendance (Marable 482). According to Marable, “Stokely Carmichael, perhaps Black Power’s most important architect, traced his own development directly back to Malcolm” (482). According to Carmichael himself, “what Malcolm demonstrated that night…was the raw power, the visceral potency, of the grip our unarticulated collective blackness held over us” (Marable 482). In this quote, Carmichael uses two crucial words to describe what he took away from Malcolm’s performance at Howard University: blackness and power (Marable 482).

It is pellucid that the line can be drawn from Malcolm to the “Black Power” movement, vicariously through ideas expressed during “The Race Problem in America” speech in addition to speeches thereupon made. By failing (or refusing) to wholly recognize this connection in Malcolm X, Marable materially compromised the integrity of the work in its entirety.

Through the above-mentioned rhetorical appeals, Malcolm was able to elicit roaring applause, and (so it follows) roaring approval, from the crowd he spoke before at Michigan State University. Winning this crowd over was no easy task. Rhetorically, it was far from an ideal situation: Michigan State University was (and still is) a majority-white institution by an overwhelming margin; he was also in Lansing under the auspices of the university’s chapter of the NAACP—an organization that disagreed with Malcolm on myriad levels—making it likely that many of the members of the Michigan State University chapter held similar attitudes. In spite of this rhetorical dilemma, Malcolm’s arguments resonated surprisingly well with the crowd. This speech represented more than a rhetorical achievement—it was also an important turning point in the ideology of one of the most revered leaders in American history. That being stated, it is difficult to place Marable’s failure to recognize the true import of Malcolm’s Michigan State address within the bounds of logic. Although he failed to acknowledge the broader significance of Malcolm’s address, Marable did not fail to note that it was during his address at Michigan State University that Malcolm first acknowledged the commonplace that is the cultural heritage of all black people living in America (229). This acknowledgement is in and of itself hugely consequential, seeing as it would soon develop into the Pan-Africanist outlook that would heavily influence the “Black Power” segment of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as black leaders thereafter for decades to come. In summation, Malcolm’s address at Michigan State University proffers more to the collection plate of history than the humble tithing of the “House Negro”—“Field Negro” dynamic; this speech should be remembered as not only a rhetorical feat of colossal proportions, but also as a turning point that would help shape the Civil Rights Movement, and America, far beyond the untimely death of the one whose turning point it was—Malcolm X.

Works Cited

Faigley, Lester, and Jack Selzer. "Analyzing Written Arguments." Good Reasons: Researching and Writing Effective Arguments. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2012.

58-80. Print.

"Famous Speeches of Malcolm X." Internet Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern

Christian Leadership Conference. New York: W. Morrow, 1986. Print.

"Kairos." Rhetoric. Brigham Young University, n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.

"Malcolm Describes the Difference between the 'house Negro' and the 'field Negro.'"

Malcolm Describes the Difference between the "house Negro" and the "field

Negro." Columbia University, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

"Malcolm X Biography." A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

Marable, Manning. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. New York: Viking, 2011. Print.

Spradley, Jermaine. "The Big Six Organizers Of The March On Washington: Where Are

They Now?" The Huffington Post., 28 Aug. 2013. Web.

29 Mar. 2014.

"Stokely Carmichael." A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2014.

Wallace, George. "'Segregation Forever': A Fiery Pledge Forgiven, But Not Forgotten."

NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2014.

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