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House Negro

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House Negro (also house nigger) is a historical term for a house slave of African descent. Historically, a house Negro was a higher status than a field slave or "field Negro" who worked outdoors, often in harsh conditions, and might perform tasks for the household servants. House Negro is also used as a pejorative term to compare a contemporary black person to such a slave.


The term "house negro" appears in print by 1711. On May 21 of that year, The Boston News-Letter ran an advertisement that "A Young House-Negro Wench of 19 Years of Age that speaks English to be Sold."[1] In a 1771 letter, a Maryland slave-owner compared the lives of his slaves to those to "house negroes" and "plantation negroes":

You will have it that my People are not well fed, it is true they do not live so well as our House negroes, But full as well as any Plantation negroes & think I Can safely say no man in Maryland Can shew in proportion to our number, such likely well looking slaves.[1][2]

In 1807, a report of the African Institution of London wrote:

A wretched old woman came to me a few days ago, to tell me she was compelled to work in the field. She was a favourite house-negro in her former master's family, and had nursed one of his children. Being ordered to throw a mixture of gunpowder and salt-water on the mangled bodies of the negroes whipped in the market-place, she refused, and incurred the displeasure of her master; and her intellects have since been evidently disordered.[3]

The variation "house nigger" is recalled in John G. Williams's The Ole Plantation, an 1895 manuscript which features "glimpses" of "old plantation life" with dialect and phonetic accent:

Wy you tink dat Mossa gwine hab dutty nigger in e great house to wait pun um? He ent ka ef feel nigger dutty, but house nigger hasser clean. Wy you fraid to put you foot pun de step to Mossa great house ef you ent hab on clean shut and you face wash.[4]

Margaret Mitchell made use of the term in her famed 1936 Southern plantation fiction, Gone With the Wind:

Pork, the only trained house negro on the place, had general supervision over the other servants, but even he had grown slack and careless after several years of exposure to Gerald's happy-go-lucky mode of living.[5]

African-American activist Malcolm X commented on the cultural connotations and consequences of the term in his 1963 speech "Message to the Grass Roots", wherein he explained that during slavery there were two types of slaves: "house Negroes" who worked in the master's house, and "field Negroes" who performed outdoor manual labor. He characterized the house Negro as having a better life than the field Negro, and thus being unwilling to leave the plantation and potentially more likely to support existing power structures that favored whites over blacks. Malcolm X identified with the field Negro.[6]

Contemporary use

The term has been used to demean individuals,[7][8] in critiques of attitudes within the African-American community,[9] and as a borrowed term in contemporary social critique.[10]

In New Zealand in 2012, Hone Harawira, a Member of Parliament and leader of the socialist Mana Party, aroused controversy after referring to Maori MPs from the ruling New Zealand National Party as "little house niggers" during a heated debate on electricity privatisation, and its potential effect on Waitangi Tribunal claims.[11]

In June 2017, comedian Bill Maher used the term self-referentially during a live broadcast interview with US Senator Ben Sasse, saying "Work in the fields? Senator, I'm a house nigger. No, it's a joke." Maher apologized for the comment.[12]

In April 2018, Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor used the term during a dispute with a bank teller. When the teller refused to cash a check for which there were insufficient funds, Taylor called the teller a "house nigger". Both Taylor and the teller are African Americans.[13]

See also


  1. ^ a b "House". Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0). Oxford University Press. 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-956383-8.
  2. ^ "Extracts from the Carroll Papers". Maryland Historical Magazine. Maryland Historical Society. XIV (2): 135. June 1919. Retrieved January 18, 2018.
  3. ^ Report of the Committee of the African Institution. London: William Phillips, George Yard, Lombard Street. 1807.
  4. ^ Williams, John G. (1895). De Old Plantation. Charleston, South Carolina: Walker, Evans, & Cogswell.
  5. ^ Mitchell, Margaret (1936). Gone With The Wind. Macmillan.
  6. ^ Malcolm X (1990) [1965]. George Breitman, ed. Malcolm X Speaks. New York: Grove Weidenfeld. pp. 10–12. ISBN 0-8021-3213-8.
  7. ^ "Obama a 'house negro', says Al-Qaeda". Sydney Morning Herald. November 21, 2008.
  8. ^ "Black Group Condemns Cartoonist for Racist Strip About Condoleezza Rice". Project 21 press release. July 19, 2004.
  9. ^ James, Darryl. "The Bridge: In the House".
  10. ^ Roche, Kathi Roche. "The Secretary: Capitalism's House Nigger". Women's Liberation Movement on-line archival collection, Special Collections Library. Duke University.
  11. ^ Danya Levy; Kate Chapman (September 6, 2012). "Harawira's N-bomb directed at National MPs". Fairfax NZ.
  12. ^ Dave Itzkoff (June 3, 2017). "Bill Maher Apologizes for Use of Racial Slur on 'Real Time'". New York Times. Archived from the original on June 11, 2017. Retrieved June 11, 2017. Mr. Maher said: "Work in the fields? Senator, I'm a house nigger. No, it's a joke."
  13. ^ Dan O'Donnell. "State Sen. Lena Taylor Cited for Disorderly Conduct'".