The “house negro” and the “field negro”; and the case of the Harrison Berry, the Property of S. W. Price / Part 1

Malcolm X had a way with words. Née Malcolm Little, and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after his pilgrimage to Mecca, he gained both fame and infamy as the spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Later in his short life, he left the Nation, renounced its racist views, and sought to form his own organizations that would uplift African Americans. An assassin’s bullet ended his life in 1965 at the age of 39.

Malcolm’s charisma, brutal honesty, humor, heart-felt sense of righteousness, directness, and fearlessness – many blacks understood it was dangerous to talk the way he did – made for many memorable speeches during the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of those was an address to a group of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) workers in Selma, Alabama in February 1865. The above video clip is an excerpt from the speech, which focuses on the tension and conflict between the “house negro” and the “field negro” during the slave era. His scathing comments pretty much speak for themselves.

Malcolm’s speech immediately came to mind when I recently learned of an 1861 pamphlet with the title Slavery and Abolitionism, as Viewed by a Georgia Slave. By Harrison Berry, the Property of S. W. Price, Covington, Georgia. This document is said to be written by a slave, Harrison Berry, who dutifully identifies himself as the property of his owner.

And what exactly was Berry’s view? It seems he had a way with words too, and here are some of them:

…You must recollect, fanatical sirs (Republicans and abolitionists), that the Slave children and their young masters and mistresses, are all raised up together. They suck together, play together, go a hunting together, go a fishing together, go in washing together, and, in a great many instances, eat together in the cotton-patch, sing, jump, wrestle, box, fight boy fights, and dance together; and every other kind of amusement that is calculated to bolt their hearts together when grown up.

You had better mind how you come here and jump aboard of our masters; for I tell you, though we sometimes fight among ourselves, if another man jumps on either, we both pitch into him. You must recollect that we are not oppressed here like your nominally free there. We can go into our masters’ houses and get plenty of good things to eat; and we can shake hands with the big-bugs of the country, and walk side-by-side with Congress members on the side-walks, and stand and converse with gentlemen of the highest rank, for hours at a time. So, in short, we can do anything, with the exceptions of those privileges wrested from us in consequence of your diabolical, infernal, Black Republican, Abolition, fanatical agitation…

TO MASTERS AND THEIR SLAVES.–Masters, I most beseechingly wish you to read the following to your Slaves, and tell them it is the request of one that is their brother in bondage. For I believe, if the Slaves were undeceived respecting their chance of enjoying freedom, any where within the incorporate limits of the United States, or, in fact, any where on the continent of North America, they would not change places with the poor white man North. But while they are deceived in believing that they are worse off, and worse treated, than any one else, it is natural that they should be dissatisfied. But if you remove this gloom from over their eyes, and enable them to see, not only their true position, but, also, that of the millions of the poor and oppressed, not only in Europe, Asia and Africa, but in the Northern States of America; and if hundreds of them, on plantations, even knew how hard run some are in the Southern cities to live comfortable, they could see, clearly, that their enslavement, under all circumstances by which it is surrounded, is not such a curse as they thought it was.

After they become convinced that their position is better than four-fifths of mankind, they will cast aside all foolish hopes of bettering their condition, and be enabled to view the four-fifths of the laboring population of the country as being in a far worse condition than they are themselves. This would create within them a satisfaction with their lots sufficient to make them trustworthy in the most difficult times.

TO MY BROTHER SLAVES.–Brethren, let us reason together. I expect to prove to you, in a very few words, that Slavery existed thousands of years ago, and that it was a lawful institution long before the enslavement of the Israelites. We read in the 14th chapter and 14th verse of Genesis, that Abraham numbered 318 servants, born in his own house. And we read again, in the same book, 50th chapter, 19th and 20th verses, where Joseph was speaking of his being sold into Egypt, that it was done to save much people alive. And, coming down to the Christian era, we find, all over the New Testament, admonitions to servants commanding them to obey their masters.

…Well, if we find Christ, and the Apostles favoring it, we must be very particular, or we might be found fighting against God. Now, my kind brethren in bondage, if it be so that the children of Israel were enslaved, for the express purpose of saving much people alive, how much more might it be possible that the Slaves of America are enslaved to save many Africans alive?…

My brother Slave, let me ask you one question: Which do you think are our real, true friends, the Abolitionists, North, or our masters South? Perhaps I will have to lay the matter before you to enable you to answer. I look at [it] in this light, that “where your treasure is, there will be your heart, also.” This, I think, is easily proved by the natural disposition to love self best; for if you work hard and lay up money enough to buy a horse, it is natural to suppose that you will think more of him than a stranger would. You will, of course, feel interested in him, and will do all you can to render him comfortable.

I hold, that the master, having labored hard, and accumulated two or three thousand dollars, and laying it out in Slaves, is entitled to their service. Don’t it look natural for him to have more sympathy, growing out of an interest for them, than a man in New York, or Ohio, who never saw you, but who is making a tremendous fuss about your welfare? Does it look reasonable for him to have as much real sympathy for you, as the man who has spent the whole earnings of a quarter of a century in purchasing you? This is the true feature of the case; our masters buy us with the money they have worked hard for, and, of course, they will look more to our interest than one who is not, in any shape or form, interested in us…

So, whenever one talks to you about being free, tell him that you had rather stay where some one is compelled to take care of you, than to go where no one is, and where you are equally as subordinate as you would be where you had some one to protect you. In fact, I hold that the subordination of the poor colored man North, is greater than that of the Slave South.

I have to admit, my first reaction to this was, WTF? After that, I found myself intrigued and fascinated. I’ll offer some comments in my next post.

Slavery and Abolitionism, as Viewed by a Georgia Slave. By Harrison Berry, the Property of S. W. Price, Covington, Georgia is from the Documenting the American South (DocSouth) online collection at the University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. © Copyright 2004 by the University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, all rights reserved. The Usage Statement is here.


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