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  • House Negroes on the Loose: Malcolm X and the Black Bourgeoisie
  • Robin D.G. Kelley (bio)

There are two types of Negroes in this country. There’s the bourgeois type who blinds himself to the condition of his people, and who is satisfied with token solutions. He’s in the minority. He’s a handful. He’s usually the handpicked Negro who benefits from token integration. But the masses of Black people who really suffer the brunt of brutality and the conditions that exist in this country are represented by the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.

—Malcolm X, “Twenty Million Black People in a Political, Economic, and Mental Prison” (1963) 1

I gotta represent the real niggas

The field niggas. . . .

—Black Moon, “I Got Cha Opin,” Enta Da Stage (Wreck Records, 1993)

The Hip Hop generation and their most revered icon have at least one thing in common besides their distrust of white people: they don’t have much love for the black bourgeoisie. Most identify with “field niggas,” and the current generation of self-styled nationalists and teen gangstas draw much of their anti-bourgeois rhetoric from Malcolm himself. 2 Indeed, if we could resurrect Malcolm X (circa 1963, let us say) and have him listen to “Black Moon’s” lyrics quoted in the epigraph above, he would probably give us one of those flashing wide grins, perhaps even a giggle, and second their emotion that the “field niggas” are indeed the “real niggas.”

But that wouldn’t be the end of it. Without losing a beat or his smile, the Minister would also give the members of “Black Moon” a gentle tongue-lashing. “My young brothers,” he might begin, “if you all want to be real revolutionaries rather than just ‘real niggas,’ if you want to live up to your name ‘Black Moon’—which I understand to mean the power unleashed during a solar eclipse, the power to block the Sun and turn the day into night—you all need to clean up your act. Change your clothes, clean up your language, show some respect to the sisters [how that is defined is another essay!], stop glorifying drugs and liquor. The devil sleeps well at night knowing we’re caricatures of ourselves. If we want our freedom, we need to be ready to take it. We need to be united. We need our minds and bodies clean and prepared to fight. We’re 22 million . . .” [End Page 419]

“Excuse me, brother Malcolm; make that 30 million.”

“Well, brother, I’ve been dead a long time.” [Laughter]

Knowing these Brooklyn-raised rappers are just kids in bad need of direction, his good-natured rebuke would cease as quickly as it began. He most likely would see their potential and hope they could receive the proper spiritual, cultural, and political guidance in order to realize it.

As often as Malcolm invoked the “house slave/field slave” dichotomy in numerous speeches and debates, his relationship to the black middle class was a complicated matter. He hated and emulated them; he ridiculed and admired them; he was part of a movement that tried to turn the most lumpen Negroes into respectable (by bourgeois standards, at least), well-mannered, “civilized” black men and women. And through it all, Malcolm’s critique of the black bourgeoisie floated somewhere between an intuitive hatred born of his past to an insightful analysis of the race/class matrix. 3 However imperfect and contradictory, he did offer a critique of the black bourgeoisie at a time when such a critique was unpopular. His rants against “Uncle Toms” and “house slaves” coincided with the rise of a fairly successful, and by some measures militant, Civil Rights movement led by middle-class blacks. But he was not entirely off the mark, for he struck a deep chord among his working-class and lumpen followers who were sick and tired of being shut out and looked down upon by the “better class Negroes.” In some respects, his criticisms found a voice in the urban uprisings and the militant rhetoric of Black Power soon after his death.

The Die Is Caste

Unlike most black leaders prior to the early 1960s, including...

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pp. 419-435
Launched on MUSE
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