This speech was delivered to young protesters in 1965 in Selma, Alabama while Martin Luther King Jr. was held in jail for his famous march on Selma.
Back during slavery, when Black people like me talked to the slaves, they didn’t kill ’em, they sent some old house Negro along behind him to undo what he said. You have to read the history of slavery to understand this. There were two kinds of Negroes. There was that old house Negro and the field NegroAnd the house Negro always looked out for his master. When the field Negroes got too much out of line, he held them back in check. He put ’em back on the plantation. The house Negro could afford to do that because he lived better than the field Negro. He ate better, he dressed better, and he lived in a better house. He lived right up next to his master – in the attic or the basement. He ate the same food his master ate and wore his same clothes. And he could talk just like his master – good diction. And he loved his master more than his master loved himself. That’s why he didn’t want his master hurt. If the master got sick, he’d say, « What’s the matter, boss, we sick? » When the master’s house caught afire, he’d try and put the fire out. He didn’t want his master’s house burned. He never wanted his master’s property threatened. And he was more defensive of it than the master was. That was the house Negro.
But then you had some field Negroes, who lived in huts, had nothing to lose. They wore the worst kind of clothes. They ate the worst food. And they caught hell. They felt the sting of the lash. They hated their master. Oh yes, they did. If the master got sick, they’d pray that the master died. If the master’s house caught afire, they’d pray for a strong wind to come along. This was the difference between the twoAnd today you still have house Negroes and field Negroes. I’m a field Negro
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.