Today’s House Negro

Rereading one of many Malcolm X speeches while on my way to Brooklyn, my memory was flooded with lines from what was once my favorite poem, “I, Too Sing America” written by the incredible Langston Hughes. I find my thoughts wander and race most freely when riding through the dark tunnels of the subway. With almost 40 minutes left on the 3 train, this ride would be no exception.

This speech, “The Old Negro and The New Negro,” is my favorite of the collection of four in the book, “The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches By Malcolm X.” I can’t remember when I first heard it but I know that it was always the part my parents laughed at during the biopic starring Denzel Washington. It was bold and witty.  It poked fun at the modern African American who claimed America as his/her own even when clearly not equal. I thought I understood it well. Though, reading the speech for the first time last year caught me off guard. I was convicted and embarrassed; it was a feeling I hadn’t felt since my last church visit. Just beginning my journey to awareness in the midst of the cries for social justice, I found myself asking, “Am I a 21st century House Negro?” and later writing in my journal, “I think I’m an Uncle Tom.”

That speech became my Gospel. I’ve returned to it again and again in reflection and each time, I leave with new meaning in the words and in myself.

Reading it most recently, I was immediately reminded of the Langston Hughes poem:

“I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.
Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.”

 

How far have we come as a people since this poem was published? The purpose of Malcolm’s speech was to bring awareness to Blacks who thought of themselves as liberated. The speech addresses those who claim America as their own and see no greater progress to be achieved. Now, this was in the early 60’s. Looking back, it is clear that Blacks did not yet have true freedom. However, in the middle of it, it was hard for many to recognize that. Not every Black American saw the need for The Civil Rights Movement. Today, are we still in the kitchen? I think not. We sit with the company but we are still silenced. In the workplace and in the streets, many will tell us there is nothing left to fight for.

The way I see it, we have moved from the field to the house. From field to house Negro. Or, as Hughes saw it, from the kitchen to the table. However, not the way he described or dreamed. We are seen but not heard. Still, we bow our heads as decorations, murals, and flies on the wall. To be seen and not heard. To be “appreciated” or appropriated. Still I feed White house guests. No longer fried chicken but from my skin to my hair, everything belonging to me is put on the table, stabbed at, and recipe taken.

The fight is not over. Don’t fool yourself. America is still not yours or mine.

 

 

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