House Slaves Vs Field Slaves Essays On Global Warming

Scene Analysis

Roles of the Slave:  Antagonisms between House Slaves and Field Slaves

(see film clip)

[1]    No matter what time or area in the institution of slavery, the position of the house slave is always a difficult one.  On one hand, the house slave is in a privileged position, free from the barbaric schedules and disciplines the field slaves are subjected to.  At the same time the house slave serves as living proof for slave owners that the practice of slavery need not lay on their consciences.  Household slaves were grateful to be in that position and rarely (if ever) complained, since doing so could jeopardize their situation.  In The Last Supper the difference of treatment of Emundo, the Count’s house slave, and the rest of the blacks is noteworthy, particularly when Emundo is dismissed from the table at the supper (1:03:55).  The goal of this essay is to show that the film, while judging Emundo’s loyalty as counterproductive to the cause of the other slaves, recognizes that the house slave’s position is impossible.

[2]    The position of the house slave on the plantation served to divert many blacks from questioning their treatment and attempting to fight it.  Being a household slave meant security and entitlement to the black, creating an environment where slaves yearned for a higher position in the slave system rather than pondering ways the fight the system itself.  In his autobiography, Montejo Esteban, a former slave from Cuba in the 1860's, recognizes that field slaves despised the house slaves, and that house slaves believed they were more on the level of master than slave:

I don’t think the household slaves did [understand Christianity] either, although, being so refined and well treated, they all made out they were Christian.  The household slaves were given rewards by the masters, and I never saw one of them badly punished.  When they were ordered to go to the fields to cut cane or tend the pigs, they would pretend to be ill so they needn’t work.  For this reason the field slaves could not stand the sight of them.  The household slaves sometimes came to the barracoons to visit relations and used to take back fruit and vegetables for the master’s house; I don’t know whether the slaves made them presents from their plots of land or whether they just took them.  They caused a lot of trouble in the barracoons.  The men came and tried to take liberties with the women.  That was the source of the worst tensions.  (37)
Montejo’s construction of the house slaves as enemy is a valuable one for understanding the importance of the Count’s behavior toward Emundo in the supper scene.  For the field slaves the house slave was not a fellow black but a creature pretending to be white, a traitor to those in the field.  For the field slave in the Cuban sugarmill, life was brutal and dangerous, a world where “The mills were like huge grinders which chewed up blacks like cane.  Growing old was a privilege as rare as it was sad, especially in the super-barbaric stage of slavery” (Fraginals 143).  At the same time being a field slave meant a life of terror and pain, in many ways being a household slave meant living a “white” life.  The household slave’s continual presence around the master meant many luxuries.  The slave had to bathe constantly and wear clothes that made him look presentable to the whites.  The household was a representation of how well the owner kept the plantation, making traits considered “white” at the time such as cleanliness, intelligence, and civility essential.  Such a privileged life, if we may call it that, inspired antagonism among the field slaves, who knew such a life existed for only certain blacks.   The field slaves’ laughter at Emundo being chastised reinforces that antagonistic dynamic.

[3]    Likewise, a feeling of the household slaves that they were above working with the field slaves, that they were better or more deserving of privilege, became inevitable.  Antonio’s request to be brought back in the villa earlier in the scene, indicates that there was a mutual antagonism between household and field slaves.  He asks the master, “Are you going to send me back to all those dirty slaves?” (28:18).  Antonio believes that what sets him apart from the other slaves is that he has worked in the villa, an experience that makes him better than those he is now forced to live with.  Emundo’s placement in the background reminds Antonio of the position taken from him, a position he yearns to retrieve.  Emundo’s presence inspires hatred or jealousy from all, an uncomfortable situation the admonishment makes clear.

[4]    In his loyalty to the master, Emundo positions himself against the field slaves who are enjoying the master’s drunkenness.  The Count’s inebriated state creates a role reversal.  The slaves have an opportunity to have fun at the Count’s expense, an opportunity they realize they will probably never have again.  By attempting to end the dinner before the Count embarrasses himself further, Emundo places himself firmly on the side of the Count, and, just as firmly, positions himself against the field slaves.  Instead of performing the role of attending to the master,  Emundo defends the master against the slaves, something he need not necessarily do.  The Count’s retort is unexpected and scathing, a remark that delineates the field slaves as the Count’s privileged group and Emundo as a criminal transgressor:  “And who are you to give me orders?  Are you forgetting the role you have to play?  Your master!  Understand?  Your master!  Clear off”  (1:03:55).

[5]    The Count’s reaction becomes a triumph for the field slaves, a reversal of position in the slave hierarchy.  The Count’s outburst is a doctrine practiced largely on the field slaves, the ideology that the black has been given a subservient role in his life and he must never attempt to transcend it.  The insult sparks laughter among field slaves, and this humiliation may be worse for Emundo than the tongue-lashing from the Count.  The Count’s participation in the field slaves’ mockery of Emundo positions the field hands in a role of intimacy with the Count, a role exclusively for Emundo until he tries to defend the Count from making a mockery of himself.

[6]    The Count’s admonishment is especially acidic for Emundo, who has already been told he is a better human being than the field slaves in front of whom he is insulted.  Emundo’s position is the result of the Count’s generosity, a position Emundo knows relies on the premise that he remains loyal to the Count in all circumstances.  Up until this point Emundo’s loyalty merits rewards, among them the assurance that he is a friend of the Count and deserves his position above the field hands.  Now Emundo is commanded to believe the exact opposite, that he is the outsider and the field slaves at the table have usurped his position.  Emundo’s power and status are taken away in an instant, creating a much worse state of mind than the field slaves (except Antonio) who have never experienced Emundo’s position of privilege.

[7]    But the groupings are not as simple as house slave and field slave.  Antonio and Ambrosio, both field slaves who internalized feelings of worthlessness forced on them by the institution the Count defends, side with Emundo by interrupting the field slaves’ fun.  The Count is unconscious, something Antonio and Ambrosio are clearly aware of when they defend the Count as a good master.  This awareness of the Count’s unconsciousness puts the two slaves in the most difficult position of all, a house slave working in the field, defending a master when doing so will not result in any reward from the Count.  This dialogue recognizes the difficult role of the field hands who have maintained or wish to maintain the house slave position.  As the current household slave, Emundo’s position is the most difficult of all, a position the film makes sympathetic.

[8]    The film recognizes that Emundo’s position during the supper is an impossible one.  He can never be accepted or respected by the field slaves around him, a fact that becomes obvious when Antonio is ignored throughout the dinner after siding with the count at the beginning of the supper.  Like Antonio’s position with the other field slaves, Emundo’s position of privilege with the master is also destroyed.  He can no longer assume the Count will treat him as he always has, and so Emundo’s hope is that the Count will return to normal once he is sober.  But the Count’s promises, promises that have saved Emundo from the field, are no longer reliable.  Emundo’s place of privilege now depends on a second reversal of the Count’s loyalties.  The consequences if the Count does not reestablish his bond with Emundo could be as disastrous as Antonio, the humiliating and brutal role of field slave substituted for the role of the household slave that has left Emundo spoiled.  When asked to have the field slaves convey a message, Emundo responds, “I’ll go.  The sugarmill blacks are too stupid" (13:58).  The threat of being grouped with or below this group is a constant threat, one Emundo can only endure as the field slaves endure their daily brutality.

[9]    Emundo’s difficulty serves a pattern Alea demonstrates throughout the film, showing constant division among the slaves as a weakness that plagues them throughout their existence.  The field slaves at the supper are slaves because they were sold by their African enemies.  During the supper they bicker about what to do if forced to work Good Friday.  Barring Sebastian, the slaves who were at the supper are caught after they separate.  Emundo’s attitude serves as another division, but a division the film understands and forgives.  Emundo is only a traitor to some.  To others, he is where they want to be.

Works Cited

Fraginals, Manuel Moreno.  The Sugarmill:  The Socioeconomic Complex of Sugar in Cuba, 1760-1860.  New York:  Monthly Review, 1976.

Montejo, Esteban.  The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave.  Ed. Miguel Barnet.  Trans. Jocast Innes.  New York:  Pantheon, 1968.
 
 

Copyright (c) 2000  by Sean Patrick Magee, Graduate student at Lehigh University.

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Malcolm describes the difference between the "house Negro" and the "field Negro."
Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. 23 January 1963.

Transcribed text from audio excerpt. [read entire speech]

So you have two types of Negro. The old type and the new type. Most of you know the old type. When you read about him in history during slavery he was called "Uncle Tom." He was the house Negro. And during slavery you had two Negroes. You had the house Negro and the field Negro.

The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master's second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table. And he lived in his master's house--probably in the basement or the attic--but he still lived in the master's house.

So whenever that house Negro identified himself, he always identified himself in the same sense that his master identified himself. When his master said, "We have good food," the house Negro would say, "Yes, we have plenty of good food." "We" have plenty of good food. When the master said that "we have a fine home here," the house Negro said, "Yes, we have a fine home here." When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he'd say, "What's the matter boss, we sick?" His master's pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself. When the house started burning down, that type of Negro would fight harder to put the master's house out than the master himself would.

But then you had another Negro out in the field. The house Negro was in the minority. The masses--the field Negroes were the masses. They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he'd die. [Laughter] If his house caught on fire, they'd pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze.

If someone came to the house Negro and said, "Let's go, let's separate," naturally that Uncle Tom would say, "Go where? What could I do without boss? Where would I live? How would I dress? Who would look out for me?" That's the house Negro. But if you went to the field Negro and said, "Let's go, let's separate," he wouldn't even ask you where or how. He'd say, "Yes, let's go." And that one ended right there.

So now you have a twentieth-century-type of house Negro. A twentieth-century Uncle Tom. He's just as much an Uncle Tom today as Uncle Tom was 100 and 200 years ago. Only he's a modern Uncle Tom. That Uncle Tom wore a handkerchief around his head. This Uncle Tom wears a top hat. He's sharp. He dresses just like you do. He speaks the same phraseology, the same language. He tries to speak it better than you do. He speaks with the same accents, same diction. And when you say, "your army," he says, "our army." He hasn't got anybody to defend him, but anytime you say "we" he says "we." "Our president," "our government," "our Senate," "our congressmen," "our this and our that." And he hasn't even got a seat in that "our" even at the end of the line. So this is the twentieth-century Negro. Whenever you say "you," the personal pronoun in the singular or in the plural, he uses it right along with you. When you say you're in trouble, he says, "Yes, we're in trouble."

But there's another kind of Black man on the scene. If you say you're in trouble, he says, "Yes, you're in trouble." [Laughter] He doesn't identify himself with your plight whatsoever.

SOURCE: X, Malcolm. "The Race Problem." African Students Association and NAACP Campus Chapter. Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. 23 January 1963.

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