There was a time in the American antebellum South like Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama, and South Carolina where economic, social, political, cultural, and religious relations of the American society were established on the bloody foundations of slavery of blacks. These black slaves were brought bounded in chains from the West Coast of Africa and today’s West Indies. Such black slaves were bought and sold to work on the cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane plantations of white slave owners.
Now, most of us Indians who have some basic idea of the ‘system of slavery’ know physical exploitation, involuntary bonded labour without any wage is the common sight in slavery. However, in the case of the American plantations in the south, black slaves used to be whipped, beaten up, starved, hanged, burned alive, lynched, sexually exploited by white slave masters.
Through these historical reflections, we can make sense that the lives of black slaves were indeed in wretched and subhuman conditions. These conditions were so bad that governments of some southern American states even refused to consider black slaves as ‘full human beings’ which reduced the black slaves to the level of mere ‘beasts of burden’ and ‘beasts of labour’ who can be bought and sold at the will of the white master to churn out profits for them through free slave labour and slave trade.
Interestingly, we should also understand that on the plantations of the white slave masters, many times black slaves used to numerically outnumber the white slave masers. Now, here is the tricky part! If black slaves were going through such drudgery, exploitation, and hardships in the plantations of the white man at one end and at the other end, in many cases the black slaves used to be numerically superior to the white plantations, then why did not such repressed, exploited black slaves revolt against such cruel white masters? Why did not they carried out a rebellion against such exploitative, racist white supremacist order?
Here, the answer is a two-fold puzzle. The first part of the answer is that if such revolt of black slaves would have happened; white racist establishment in the form of white government, civil administration, overwhelmingly white judiciary, and an overwhelmingly white police institutions would have made extra efforts with a heavy hand to make sure that great terror should be installed in the hearts and minds of black slaves in the form of punishments like hanging, shoot at the sight, lynching (yes, the very word ‘Lynch’ originally comes from white Virginia planter and ‘Justice of Peace’ ‘ Charles Lynch’!) of black slaves who resorted to the act of retaliating against the white racist exploitation.
Here, we also see the rise of white supremacist vigilante groups, state-sponsored and assisted ‘nonstate actors’ in the form of Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Black Legion who also carried out acts of extrajudicial killings of black individuals, bombing and burning of the houses of black people. All these were done to install the fear in the hearts and minds of the black individuals to kill their morale to retaliate against the white racist exploitation. These were the instruments of the ‘naked force’ that the white racist establishment used against black individuals.
But there is the second part of the answer which most people all across the world and especially overwhelmingly in the Indian public imagination don’t understand or pay attention to: white supremacist racist plantation system made sure that black slave uprisings, rebellions will not happen in the first place. That is where the shrewd ‘politics of division’ of black slaves into ‘House Negroes’ and ‘Field Negroes’ comes to the picture.
White plantation masters used to divide their army of black plantation slaves into ‘House Negroes’ and ‘Field Negroes’ in such a way that the House Negro used to live in the barn, attic, or basement storage room of the white man’s ‘Big House ‘; whereas Field Negroes used to live in the slave shacks, slave quarters which used to be away from the white master’s ‘Big House’. Just like the name suggests, House Negroes used to work inside the house of the white plantation master taking care of his children, elderly, doing household chores like cooking and cleaning; whereas Field Negroes used to work all day and night irrespective of summer, winter, and rains in the white master’s cotton, tobacco, or sugarcane fields/farms.
Here, we also see the nature of the labour performed by the House Negro and the Field Negro is substantially different where the Field Negro was involved in the more menial, physically excruciating work of plowing, cotton picking, sugar cane cutting, and animal rearing as compared to household chores of the House Negro.
But, one must understand that the House Negro also used to perform one important work for his white supremacist master. That work was to pay ‘close attention’ to the Field Negroes. Therefore, such House Negroes used to work as the ‘Eyes and Ears’ of the white master over the Field Negroes. Since the House Negro used to live inside the house of a white master, he used to enjoy a few ‘extra luxuries’ as compared to the Field Negro: like eating leftover food of the white master, using discarded old clothes of the white master etc. But the biggest incentive the House Negro used to receive being ‘House Negro’ is that he could live close to the white master in the ‘Big house’ which was the ‘central nucleus’ and the ‘ultimate seat of power’ in the white supremacist racist plantation society of American south.
In return for such incentives, the House Negro was supposed to supply every information about the discontent, secret plans of running away, or rebellion by Field Negroes against the white master. Such House Negroes also used to use the tactics of the ‘Carrot and Stick’ policy, ‘glorifying’ the ‘benevolent image’ of ‘white boss’ to the newly purchased Negro slaves by the white master. These tactics were used to play a crucial role in ‘breaking the black man’ in chains into more docile, servile, obedient ‘working slave’ of the white master. This was close to the action of ‘breaking the wild stallions’ into ‘working horses’ on the white plantation farms.
To perform these tasks, the House Negro used to also take extra care to win the ‘trust’ of the Field Negroes by portraying himself as ‘good old Negro folk’ who was also the most influential black man by virtue of being closer to the white master.
This systemic structure of division between the black slaves on the white plantations was used to nip in the bud any potential slave rebellion, any revolt by the Field Negroes against the white master. Since the House Negro used to be very close to the white master’s vicinity, he used to take extra care to show his loyalty, admiration, politeness, humbleness, service readiness to his white master. Prominent American civil rights leader Malcolm-X said in his one interview that- “Black House Negro loved his white master so much so that if white master’s house catches on fire; it is the House Negro who will run first to extinguish the fire. When the white master gets sick, House Negro says – What is the matter boss? ‘Are we sick’? House Negroes’ submission to the white master was so high that he never even thought of running away from his white master, or by freeing himself by killing white slave master… That shows the ‘slave mentality’ of the ‘House Negro’ at its finest”.
Hence, one can say that the racist, exploitative system made sure that the ‘House Negro’ played an important function as a crucial instrument to maintain the powerful hold of slavery of black people intact and flourishing in the American society.
I have explained this whole dynamics of ‘House Negro’ and ‘Field Negro’ in much detail in this article because the traces of such an exploitative system can be more or less observed in the divisive caste politics of the Indian nation and especially in post-Independence India.
In India’s case, most of the political parties, either in the central government or various state governments, are run by the savarna upper caste leaders. These leaders used this classic divisive policy of ‘House Negro and Field Negro’ to curtail the development of political, social, cultural, and economic consciousness of Bahujan communities (OBC, SC, ST, NT, SBC) in India.
In India’s case, just like white planters were outnumbered by black slaves, Bahujan communities from various castes belonging to various religious, ethnic communities constitute the largest population group. After India’s independence, the constitution of India provided each person the ‘right to vote ‘through the principle of ‘One Man, One Vote, and One value’. This gave political agency to the Bahujan masses like never before in Indian political life. Such a tool of ‘social transformation’ like ‘right to vote’ through the principle of ‘universal adult franchise’ was a promise given to common masses by the forefathers and foremothers of the Indian nation.
But this is how the system of House Negro and Field Negro gets implemented in the Indian political space: today, we see the various political parties run by savarna political leadership have developed their politically committed slave cadre of ‘Bahujan House Negroes’ in the form of Bahujan political leaders and party activists.
Such Bahujan political leaders and activists function as the ‘House Negroes’ for their savarna central political leadership. The main role assigned to such obedient, servile Bahujan House Negro leaders or ‘Uncle Tom’ leaders of savarna political establishment as Malcolm -X calls it, is to work as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the savarna political establishment to regulate Bahujan masses and Bahujan youth in particular. Such Bahujan House Negro leaders work as agents of the savarna political establishment to pacify the grievances of the Bahujan masses which may ultimately lead to the complete political transformation of savarna dominated political establishments. Therefore such Bahujan House Negro leaders are hell-bent on killing the new rising ‘organic intellectual leadership’ from the grassroots of the Bahujan society, since such a new leadership could be a serious threat to the political agency and influence of savarna political leadership and such ‘Bahujan House Negro’ leaders in particular.
Here, one can say that such Bahujan House Negro leaders control the Field Negro Bahujan masses by applying the ‘Carrot and Stick policy’ by proposing timely concessions, promises to the Bahujan communities to pacify their grievances to ensure their ‘obedient good behavior’. But they never exercise their full political agency and authority or ensure a substantial blow to the caste injustices practised at the social, political, economic and cultural spheres of Indian life. Such Bahujan House Negro leaders also at times go extra harsh against their own communities to exercise the political, cultural, economic, social and religious ‘savarna will’ of their savarna masters. This ultimately becomes the death knell for independent consciousness building, independent social, cultural, political expression of Bahujan masses which is based upon the central principle of the ‘self-respect’ all social, political-cultural movements in India and across the world.
The political hegemony of ‘spineless’ Bahujan House Negro leaders is happily nurtured by all the political parties in India all these years. We can understand this phenomenon with a small example. OBC (Other Backward Classes) communities constitute the largest population group in India. The last caste census of all castes was done in the year of 1931. After the year 1931, it has been around 90 years now and around 74 years after India’s political independence from British Empire; but still, OBCs in this country are not counted in the census so far.
Being ‘socially and educationally backward castes’, census data of OBCs with updated data of social, economic, educational conditions of OBCs is a central prerequisite for any effective, sound policy formulation, execution of any human resource development and public welfare at the government level. Even the proposed first ‘Digital National Census’, which will take place in the second quarter of the year 2021, also does not have a separate column for the counting population of the OBCs in its census information form.
In India, every five years, the union government and the state governments carry out a national level animal census where they count the numbers of animals like cows, bulls, buffaloes, sheeps, goats, camels, horses and even pigs! Whereas their numbers are regularly updated as ‘Pashudhan'(Animal Resource) but human beings and citizens of the ‘free nation’ who are the true ‘Manav Sansadhan’ (Human Resource) of India are denied the same rights which governments of various political parties have bestowed to the animals! No action of central governments by various political parties who have been in power for many years, and still are in power in India, can be as humiliating and as ‘anti-OBC’- ‘anti Bahujan’ than that!
But the most unfortunate condition here, is that when such anti-OBC, anti Bahujan actions and politics have been taking place, the so-called OBC House Negro leaders of various political parties are not even holding their respective political parties’ leadership and governments accountable to conduct the caste census in the year 2021. Because of this, today OBC communities have no other option to carry out than ‘nonviolent civil disobedience’ by ‘boycotting’ the caste oppressive hegemonic national census, 2021, which denies the just and rightful demand of OBCs to conduct a ‘national level caste census’.
Here, one has to understand that conducting a regular national caste census is a fundamental part of the spirit of ‘social contract’ and ‘social justice’ in which free, sovereign and democratic nations like India takes great pride. This was the promise Indian constitution gave to the oppressed lower caste communities in India who were for thousands of years at the receiving end of social, political, economic, religious, cultural, and caste oppression in India. This is the ultimate ‘litmus test’ of realizing the ‘constitutional morality’ in our society which Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar often talked about in his constituent assembly speeches.
Here, Field Negro OBC masses should understand that in a free, democratic nation only slaves are denied their ‘right to have census’ by the government. That reflects their ‘second-class citizenship’. In the ancient Greek principality of Athens, Greeks were free in a democratic political setup. However, there also, the rights of slaves were not at par with free citizens. The ‘French revolution’ which gave principles of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ to the French people denied the same principles to the Africans masses of French African colonies for generations. This can show us that even in a free, democratic nation, it is possible to treat certain sections of society less equal than others by carrying out hidden structural and functional inequalities. Denying OBCs their due right of conducting a nationwide caste census is one such example.
While considering these facts, and their larger implications for ensuring true human development potential of the Indian nation, the ‘criminal silence’ and ‘apathy’ practised by so-called OBC leaders of all political parties by not holding their political savarna masters accountable is an obedient, slavish fulfillment of their service as ‘House Negro’ to their political masters.
Just like the House Negro tries to win the hearts and minds of Field Negroes to make them docile and cement his position as a ‘benevolent patron’, such OBC leaders also participate in the street demonstrations, agitations conducted by the OBC masses trying to win the trust of OBC masses. But such OBC leaders playing the role of ‘House Negroes’ catch the media limelight only by showing their ‘token solidarity’ to the unjust denial of the caste census demand of OBC masses who are nothing but reduced to the position of ‘Field Negroes’.
Being a slave of the white master, the ‘House Negro’ protects the system of racial exploitation, especially the exploitation of Field Negroes, because his very political existence, the political agency of such OBC House Negroes depends upon and thrives on such curtailment of OBC Field Negro masses. Hence, OBC House Negro leaders in Indian political establishments can never be true spokespersons for the grievances of Field Negro OBC masses. It is especially true as far as the question of conducting the caste census is concerned.
Hence the time has come where Field Negroes in the form of OBC masses should take their independent political action and without ‘middle man meddling’ of House Negro OBC leaders. They should mount stronger political pressure over the respective state and central governments to conduct the nation-level caste census in the year 2021 or if the need arises, carry out non-violent, civil disobedience by boycotting the national census, 2021 and also political boycott of various local body, state legislative and parliamentary elections.
Bahujans in India and OBC masses, in particular, must understand that their wretched condition is a direct byproduct of the ignorance of their structural social, cultural, economic, political repression, which overtly and covertly works in every aspect of Indian social life. Hence understanding the exploitative system of ‘House Negroes’ and ‘Field Negroes’ used for preserving such instruments of repressive social system is the first step in the right direction. Because in the words of ex- slave, and black thinker Frederick Douglass: ‘Education makes a person unfit for slavery!’
Anand Kshirsagar had studied Masters in Microbiology, Fergusson College, Pune. He also did Masters in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and Human Rights Law in National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. He is also a theatre and Hip-Hop artist and is involved in studying social, cultural, economic issues of the OBCs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org