Open Thread: Uncle Toms and House Negroes

by Latoya Peterson

Okay, so first, it was Nader talking about how Obama “might” act like an “Uncle Tom.”

Now, Al-Qaeda’s called him a house negro.

What did Eric D. say in the comments? Stop the world, I want to get off? I concurr. I need a damn nap, so there isn’t much intelligent commentary from me on this one. I think all I can muster is a spew of profanity.

Luckily, Dr. Melissa Harris Lacewell & Dr. Yolanda Pierce over at The Kitchen Table have us covered.

First, there was Melissa’s response to the “house negro” incident:

I didn’t start a revolution at The Kitchen Table while you were in class, but Al-Qaeda was clearly tripping while I was teaching. After my long seminar yesterday I came back to my office to a phone call from a Saudi newspaper. They wanted to talk with me about the fact that Ayman al-Zawahri accused Obama of being a “House Negro.”

When I first heard the message I thought one of my friends was teasing me. A Saudi newspaper is reporting on Al-Qaeda calling Barack a House Negro? Doesn’t that sound like some kind of twisted practical joke that my overly intellectual friends would perpetrate? But the story is true and I find this latest Al-Qaeda video truly fascinating.

It demonstrates a certain sophisticated engagement with American racial politics. As I chatted with the reporter I realized that I have no idea how to lob an equally devastating cultural insult at Ayman al-Zawahri. I am not sure how to suggest that he is inauthentically Muslim. What is the Al-Qaeda equivalent of a house Negro? Infidel? So there is a part of me that appreciates the fact that people around the world have read Malcolm X, that they know something about the history of American slavery, and that they understand the continuing cultural significance of this kind of insult. In a twisted way, this is an indication of cosmopolitan blackness.

Yolanda responds:

After I read about a member of Al-Qaeda calling President-elect Barack Obama a “house Negro,” I had a moment in which I thought the world had truly gone insane. This comment reminded me of when Mexican president Vincente Fox said that Mexicans in the United States do work that black Americans won’t. In that one statement, Fox revealed an accurate knowledge that black Americans labored under sub-standard conditions as they built a nation with their blood, sweat, and tears, but were not allowed to partake of the wealth of that very nation. But he also suggests that the societal position of African Americans is rigidly fixed at the bottom of the hierarchy, where they “belong.” Of course, in doing this, he insults the citizens of his own country with his low opinion of African Americans – that we are essentially still slaves.

So now I’m thinking: how bad must the racism in this country be, how obvious is it, so that Al-Qaeda extremists are mocking us? Al-Qaeda is using our own complicated racial history to suggest failings in our political or social system. They are clearly wrong about Barack Obama being a “house Negro,” but I do marvel in their ability to correctly use that term as a particular kind of insult.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking about joining them at the table for that drink.

Discuss in the comments. An idea I am playing around with is the appropriation of “in house” language by other groups, but that thought isn’t fully formed yet.

Update: Joseph made a comment that I feel should be addressed in the post. He wrote:

I like to think I know you well enough by now to get where you are coming from but I gotta say I think conflating a representative of al-Qaeda with a prominent Arab-American (Nader) is not okay. The contexts for their comments were completely different and I’m not hearing any acknowledgment of that. Al-Zawahri and Nader both have an interest in raising questions about Obama’s creditability in relation to their concerns, but their concerns are completely different.

To clarify: I brought up Nader’s former “Uncle Tom” comment because Nader, like Al-Zawahri, is not African-American, yet felt like he could use language specific to that community to denigrate one of its members. And, to my knowledge, I haven’t heard anyone else use the terms. We have an entire archive of articles by now which has various members of the media weighing in on his blackness, if he is really black, if Obama was elected because “he acts like a Caucasian” but only two incidents where a non-black person felt comfortable enough throwing out that racially loaded term. – LDP