Elite Black & Quite Different

Margo Jefferson at Columbia University, New York City, September 2015
Alexander Pines
Margo Jefferson at Columbia University, New York City, September 2015

The house Negro, according to Malcolm X, looked out for his master’s interest and put the field Negro back in his place on the plantation when he got out of line. The house Negro lived better than the field Negro, Malcolm X explained. He ate the same food as the master, dressed and spoke just as well. The house Negro loved the master more than the master loved himself, while the field Negro prayed for a strong wind to come along should the master’s house catch fire. Malcolm X said that he was a field Negro and for him the black establishment, the black upper class, became synonymous with the house Negro. “You’re nothing but an ex-slave. You don’t like to be told that. But what else are you? You are ex-slaves. You didn’t come here on the ‘Mayflower.’ You came here on a slave ship.”

The black elite provoked some scorn in the civil rights era of revolution in mass black consciousness. In The Negro Family in the United States (1939), E. Franklin Frazier had described how migration and the urbanization of black America changed the criteria by which a black upper class defined itself. Bloodline gave way to position. In his grand remonstrance, Black Bourgeoisie (1957), Frazier castigated the black upper class for having deteriorated into a sad imitation of conspicuously consuming white America. Others criticized black institutions for being conformist. For figures like Malcolm X, the history of black resistance exposed the futility of conventional avenues of struggle, as if illustrating Foucault’s point about the moral training of populations and the reform of manners as a means of reducing threat to property. Whether it was seen as politically impotent or socially up its own ass, the black elite was an irrelevance at a time when the forces of liberation were out to reshape the world; and when the vernacular was being elevated as the true source of black culture.

The idea of an Old Settler’s temperament in a black person seemed absurd. In his 1965 autobiography, Long Old Road, the distinguished sociologist Horace R. Cayton wrote about leaving Seattle in response to increased racism and running away to sea, where he befriended a veteran black sailor named Longreen who was unfamiliar with his past:

Of course I didn’t mention to Longreen anything about my grandfather being a senator or that we had once had a horse and carriage and a Japanese servant. He wouldn’t have believed me if I had, and I’d learned by then that with the general run of Negroes it was better not to refer to such an elegant background.

Just as white people in New York descended from Dutch colonists thought of themselves as Old Settlers, so, too, did black people…



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