Quick Reads

‘The OBC case’ of ‘House Negro’ and ‘Field Negro’

The political hegemony of ‘spineless’ Bahujan House Negro leaders is nurtured by all the political parties in India.

Credit : Shubham Patil

- Anand Kshirsagar


There was a time in the American antebellum South like Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama and South Carolina where economic, social, political, cultural and religious relations of the American society were established on the bloody foundations of slavery of black slaves. These black slaves were brought bound in chains from the West Coast of Africa and today’s West Indies. Such black slaves were bought and sold to work on the cotton, tobacco and sugarcane plantations of white slave owners.

Now, most of us Indians who have some basic idea of the ‘system of slavery‘ know that in the system of slavery physical exploitation, involuntary bonded labour without any wage is the common sight. However, in the case of the American plantation south, black slaves used to be whipped, beaten up, starved, hanged, burned alive, lynched, sexually exploited by white slave masters. 

Through these historical reflections, we can make sense that the lives of black slaves were indeed in wretched and subhuman conditions. These conditions were so bad that governments of some southern American states even refused to consider black slaves as ‘full human beings’ which reduced the black slaves at the level of mere ‘beasts of burden’ and ‘beasts of labour‘ which can be bought and sold at the will of the white master to churn profits for them through free slave labour and slave trade.

Interestingly, we should also understand that on the plantations of the white slave masters, many times black slaves used to numerically outnumber the white slave master. Now, here is the tricky part! If black slaves were going through such drudgery, exploitation and hardships in the plantations of the white man at one end, and at the other end, in many cases, the black slaves used to be numerically superior to the white plantation masters, then why did not such repressed, exploited black slaves revolted against such cruel white master? Why did not they carried out rebellion against such exploitative, racist white supremacist order?



Here, the answer is a two-fold puzzle. The first part of the answer is that if such revolt of black slaves would have happened, white racist establishment in the form of white government, civil administration, overwhelmingly white judiciary and overwhelmingly white police institutions would have taken extra effort with a heavy hand to make sure that great terror should be installed in the hearts and minds of black slaves in the form of punishments like hanging, shoot at the site, lynching (yes, the very word ‘Lynch’ originally comes from white Virginia planter and ‘Justice of Peace’ ‘ Charles Lynch’!) of black slaves who resort to the act of retaliating the white racist exploitation. Here, we also see the rise of white supremacist vigilante groups, state-sponsored and assisted ‘non state actors’ in the form of Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Black Legion who also carried out acts of extrajudicial killings of black individuals, bombing and burning of the houses of black people. All these were done to install the fear in the hearts and minds of the black individuals to kill their morale to retaliate against the white racist exploitation. These were the instruments of the ‘naked force’ that the white racist establishment used against black individuals.

But there is the second part of the answer which most of the people all across the world and especially overwhelmingly Indian public imagination doesn't understand or pay attention to is that white supremacist racist plantation system made sure that black slave uprising, rebellion will not happen in the first place. That is where the shrewd ‘politics of division’ of black slaves into ‘House Negro’ and 'Field Negro’ comes to the picture.

White plantation masters used to divide their army of black plantation slaves into 'House Negro' and 'Field Negro' in such a way that House Negro used to live in the barn, attic or basement storage room of the white man’s 'Big House'; whereas Field Negroes used to live in the slave shacks, slave quarters which used to be away from the white master's ‘Big House’. Just like the name suggests, House Negro used to work inside the house of the white plantation master taking care of his children, elderly, doing the household chores like cooking and cleaning; whereas Field Negro used to work all day and night irrespective of summer, winter and rains in white master’s cotton, tobacco or sugarcane fields/ farms. Here, we also see that the nature of the labour performed by the House Negro and the Field Negro is substantially different where Field Negro was involved in the more menial, physically excruciating work of plowing, cotton picking, sugar cane cutting and animal rearing as compared to household chores of the House Negro.

But, one must understand that House Negro also used to perform one important work for his white supremacist master. That work was to pay ‘close attention’ to the Field Negros. Therefore, such House Negros used to work as the ‘Eyes and Ears’ of the white master over the Field Negros. Since the House Negro used to live inside the house of a white master, he used to enjoy little ‘extra luxuries’ as compared to Field Negro like eating leftover food of the white master, using discarded old clothes of the white master, etc. But the biggest incentive the House Negro used to receive being ‘House Negro’ is that he would be able to live close to the white master in the ‘Big house’ which was the ‘central nucleus’ and the ‘ultimate seat of power' in the white supremacist racist plantation society of American south.

In return for such incentives, House Negro was supposed to supply every information about the discontent, secret plan of running away or rebellion by Field Negros against white master. Such House Negros would also use the tactics of the ‘Carrot and Stick ‘policy, ‘glorifying’ the ‘benevolent image’ of ‘white boss’ to the newly purchased Negro slaves by the white master. These tactics are used to play a crucial role in ‘breaking the black man’ in chains into a more docile, servile, obedient ‘working slave’ of the white master. This was close to the action of ‘breaking the wild stallions’ into ‘working horses’ on the white plantation farms. To perform these tasks, House Nigro also used to take extra care to win the ‘trust’ of the Field Negros by portraying himself as ‘good old Nigro folk’ who was also the most influential black man by virtue of being closer to the white master.

This systemic structure of division between the black slaves on the white plantations used to nip the bud of the potential slave rebellion, a revolt by the Field Negros against the white master. Since the House Negro used to be very close to the white master’s vicinity, he used to take extra care to show his loyalty, admiration, politeness, humbleness, service readiness to his white master. Prominent American civil rights leader Malcolm-X said in one of his interviews that- “Black House Negro loved his white master so much so that if white master’s house catches on fire, it is the House Negro who will run first to extinguish the fire. When the white master gets sick, House Negro says - What is the matter boss? ‘Are we sick’?  House Negro’s submission to the white master was so high that he never even thought of running away from his white master or freeing himself by killing white slave master... That shows the ‘slave mentality' of the ‘House Negro’ at its finest”.



Hence, one can say that racist, exploitatory system makes sure that ‘House Negro’ played an important function as a crucial instrument to maintain the powerful hold of slavery of black people intact and flourishing in the American society. I have explained this whole dynamics of ‘House Negro’ and ‘Field Negro’ in much detail in this article because the traces of such an exploitatory system can be more or less observed in the divisive caste politics of the Indian nation, and especially post-Independence India.

In India's case, most of the political parties either in the central governments or various state governments are run by the savarna upper caste leaders. These leaders used this classic divisive policy of 'House Negro and Field Negro' to curtail the development of political, social, cultural and economic consciousness of Bahujan communities (OBC, SC, ST, NT, SBC) in India.

In India's case; just like white plantations being outnumbered by black slaves, Bahujan communities from various castes, sub-castes belonging to various religious, ethnic communities constitute the largest population group. After India's independence, the constitution of India provided each person the ‘right to vote’ through the principle of ‘One Man, One Vote, One value’. This gave political agency to the Bahujan masses like never before in Indian political life. Such a tool of ‘social transformation’ like ‘right to vote’ through the principle of ‘universal adult franchise' was a promise given to common masses by the forefathers and foremothers of the Indian nation.

But this is where the system of House Negro and Field Negro gets implemented in the Indian political space. Today, we see the various political parties run by savarna political leadership have developed their politically committed slave cadre of 'Bahujan House Negros' in the form of Bahujan political leaders and party activists. Such Bahujan political leaders and activists function as the 'House Negro' for their savarna central political leadership. The main role assigned to such obedient, servile Bahujan House Negro leaders or ‘Uncle Tom’ leaders of savarna political establishment as Malcolm X calls it, is to work as ‘eyes and ears' of such savarna political establishment to regulate  Bahujan masses and Bahujan youth in particular. Such Bahujan House Negro leaders work as agents of the savarna political establishment to pacify the grievances of the Bahujan masses which may ultimately lead to the complete political transformation of such savarna dominated political establishments. Therefore, such Bahujan House Negro leaders are hell-bent on killing the new rising ‘organic intellectual leadership’ from the grassroots of the Bahujan society, since such a new leadership could be a serious threat to the political agency and influence of savarna political leadership and such ‘Bahujan House Negro’ leaders in particular.

Here, one can say that such Bahujan House Negro leaders control the Field Negro common Bahujan masses by applying the ‘Carrot and Stick policy’ by proposing timely concessions, promises to the Bahujan communities to pacify their grievances to ensure their ' obedient good behaviour'. But they never exercise their full political agency and authority to ensure a substantial blow to the caste injustices practiced at the social, political, economical and cultural sphere of Indian life. Such Bahujan House Negro leaders also at times go extra harsh against their own communities to exercise the political, cultural, economical, social, religious ‘savarna will’ of their savarna masters. This ultimately becomes the death knell to the coffin of independent conscious building, independent social, cultural, political expression of Bahujan masses which is based upon the central principle of ‘Self-Respect’ movement of any social, political-cultural movements in India and across the world.

The political hegemony of ‘spineless’ Bahujan House Negro leaders is happily nurtured by all the political parties in India all these years. We can understand this phenomenon with a small example. OBC (Other Backward Classes) communities constitute the largest population group in India. The last caste census of these castes and sub-castes of OBCs, based on the caste census, was done in the year of 1931. After the year 1931, it has been around 90 years now and around 74 years after India’s political independence from British Empire, but still, OBCs in this country are not counted based on their caste census so far. Being ‘socially and educationally backward castes’, caste census data of OBCs with updated data of social, economic, educational conditions of OBCs is a central prerequisite for any effective, sound policy formulation, execution of any human resource development and public welfare at the government level. Even the proposed first 'Digital National Census’, which will take place in the second quarter of the year 2021, also does not have a separate column for the counting population of the OBCs in its census information form.

In India, every five years, the Indian government and state governments carry out a National level animal census wherein the numbers of animals like cows, bulls, buffaloes, sheep, goats, camels, horses, not just that even pigs are counted! Whereas their numbers are regularly updated as ‘Pashudhan’ (Animal Resource), but human beings and citizens of the ‘free nation’ like OBCs in India who are the true ‘Manav Sansadhan’ (Human Resource) of India are denied the same rights which government of various political parties has bestowed to the animals. No action of central governments of various political parties who have been in power for many years and still are in power in India can be as humiliating and as ‘anti-OBC’-‘anti Bahujan’ than that!



But the most unfortunate condition here is that when such anti-OBC, anti Bahujan actions and politics have been taking place by all the political regimes of all the political parties in power, the so-called OBC House Nigro leaders of various political parties are not even holding their respective political party’s leadership and governments accountable to conduct the OBC caste census in the year 2021. Because of this, today OBC communities have no other option but to carry out ‘nonviolent civil disobedience’ by ‘boycotting’ the caste oppressive hegemonic national census 2021 which denies the just and rightful demand of OBCs to conduct a 'national level caste census' of the OBC communities.

Here, one has to understand that conducting a regular national caste census is a fundamental part of the spirit of ‘social contract’ and 'social justice' on which a free, sovereign and democratic nation like India takes great pride. This was the promise the Indian constitution gave to the oppressed lower caste communities in India who for thousands of years have been at the receiving end of social, political, economic, religious, cultural, and caste oppression in India. This is the ultimate 'litmus test’ of realising the ‘constitutional morality' in our society which Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar often talked about in his constituent assembly speeches.

Here, Field Negro OBC masses should understand that in a free, democratic nation, only slaves are denied their ‘right to have census’ by the government. That reflects their ‘second-class citizenship'. In the ancient Greek principality of Athens, Greeks were free in a democratic political setup. However, there also, the rights of slaves were not at par with free citizens. 'French revolution', which gave the principles of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity' to the French people, denied the same principles to the African masses of French African colonies for generations. This can show us that even in a free, democratic nation, it is possible to treat certain sections of society less equally than others by carrying out hidden structural and functional inequality. Denying OBCs their due right of conducting nationwide OBC caste census is one such example of an Indian case.

While considering these facts of the OBC caste system and its larger implications for ensuring true human development potential for the Indian nation, the ‘criminal silence’ and ‘criminal apathy’ practiced by so-called House Negro OBC leaders of all political parties by not holding their political savarna masters accountable is an obedient, slavish fulfillment of their service as 'House Negro' to their political masters.

Just like house Negro try to win the hearts and minds of Field Negroes to make them docile and cement his position as ‘benevolent patron’; such OBC leaders also participate in the street demonstrations, agitations conducted by the OBC masses trying to win the trust of OBC masses. But such OBC leaders playing the role of 'House Negro' catch the media limelight only by showing their ‘token solidarity’ to the unjust condition of the denial of OBC caste census of OBC masses who are nothing but reduced to their position of ‘Field Negros’.

Being a slave of white master ‘House Negro’ protected the system of racial exploitation and especially the exploitation of Field Negros, because the very political existence, the political agency of such OBC House Negros depends upon and flourished upon such curtailment of OBC Field Negro masses. Hence, such OBC House Negro leaders in Indian political establishments can never be the true spokesperson for the grievances of Field Negro OBC masses. It is especially true as far as the question of conducting the OBC caste census is concerned.

Hence the time has come where Field Negro in the form of OBC masses should take their independent political action in their own hands, and without ‘middle man meddling’ of House Negro OBC leaders, should mount stronger political pressure over the respective state and central governments to conduct nation-level caste census in the year 2021 or if the need arises, carry out nonviolent, civil disobedience by boycotting the national census 2021 and also political boycott over various local body, state legislative and parliamentary elections.

Bahujans in India and OBC masses, in particular, must understand that their wretched condition is a direct byproduct of the ignorance of their structural social, cultural, economic, political repression, which overtly and covertly works in every aspect of Indian social lives. Hence, understanding the exploitation system of ‘House Negro’ and ‘Field Negro’ used for preserving such instruments of repressive social system is the first step in the right direction. Because in the words of ex-slave and black thinker Frederick Douglass, “Education makes a person unfit for slavery!”


Anand Kshirsagar has a Masters in Microbiology from Fergusson College, Pune, Masters in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and has studied Human Rights Law at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. He is also a theatre and Hip-Hop artist and involves in studying social, cultural, economical issues of the OBC community.