Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bernard Hopkins doesn't know his history (and neither does anyone else)


Field Negro
On May 21st, 46-year-old pugilist Bernard Hopkins--the pride of Philly--will be facing off against Jean Pascal for The Ring, WBC, and IBO Light Heavyweight titles in a rematch of their December 2010 bout that ended in a draw. So how does the Executioner choose to spend the days leading up to his title bout? Some training, carefully monitoring his diet, and doing interviews in which he dumps on former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, of course. In a column by Marcus Hayes that appeared on Philly.com today, Hopkins gets his Jalen Rose on:
According to Hopkins, McNabb had a privileged childhood in suburban Chicago and, as a result, is not black enough or tough enough, at least compared with, say, himself, Michael Vick and Terrell Owens.

"Forget this," Hopkins said, pointing to his own dark skin. "He's got a suntan. That's all."

Hopkins also implied that, while Vick and Owens remained true to their roots, McNabb did not, and that McNabb was rudely awakened when the Eagles traded him to the Redskins last year.

"Why do you think McNabb felt he was betrayed? Because McNabb is the guy in the house, while everybody else is on the field. He's the one who got the extra coat. The extra servings. 'You're our boy,' " Hopkins said, patting a reporter on the back in illustration. "He thought he was one of them."

Replace "guy in the house" with "slave in the house," then replace "on the field" with "in the field," and Hopkins' message is Uncle Tom-clear.

McNabb's publicist, Rich Burg, said McNabb would have no comment.
So on behalf of McNabb, I will respond to this by historicizing the frequently reoccuring "house slave"/"field slave" dichotomy. This formulation (which draws on the archetype of the subservient, docile slave, portrayed most notably in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as the eponymous main character) can trace its origins to Malcolm X's memorable 1963 speech, "Message to the Grass Roots," in which he offered this explanation:
To understand this, you have to go back to what the young brother here referred to as the house Negro and the field Negro back during slavery. There were two kinds of slaves, the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes -- they lived in the house with the Master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good because they ate his food -- what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved the master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master's house -- quicker than the master would. If the master said, "We got a good house here," the house Negro would say, "Yeah, we got a good house here." Whenever the master said "we," he said "we." That's how you can tell a house Negro.
Taking hold amid the radicalism of the 1960s to describe class and ideological fissures within the black population, this metaphor has maintained its rhetorical grip to the present. But, quite simply, Malcolm's formulation is historically inaccurate. Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and Gabriel Prosser had two things in common. First, they led some of the best-known slave revolts in U.S. history. Second, they were all "house slaves". In addition, as political scientist Adolph Reed notes, the assignment to house work was a decision imposed on slaves by slave owners. In many cases, house work could be more demeaning and offer less autonomy than work in the field.

House Negro
So basically, this oft-repeated dichotomy is built entirely on bullshit and should stop being used, even if Malcolm X didn't initially intend for it to be considered serious historical analysis. Reed writes:
Whether or not Malcolm meant the house Negro/field Negro antagonism to be an accurate description of a dominant historical pattern rather than simply a rhetorical device, the metaphor draws its force from the implication of sedimented tension and historical continuity.  
If anything, the poles and their implicit moral positions should be flipped. McNabb can thus rest assured that as a "house Negro," he stands in the tradition of Vesey, Turner, and Prosser. Meanwhile, Hopkins--and everybody else who still deploys this metaphor--should really find a better way of expressing his naive belief that the black population exists (or should exist) in a state of organic unity and that there is a such thing as "racial authenticity."

McNabb is no stranger to racially-charged criticism--over the course of his career, he has been something of a lighting rod for it. From being too black in the eyes of Rush Limbaugh to not being black enough in the eyes of people like Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire and Hopkins, maybe one day people will just let Donovan be Donovan.
                 

See also: Bernard Hopkins Promotes Upcoming Fight By Calling Donovan McNabb A House Negro

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