Last week, as rappers Jay Z and Kanye West were about to go onstage and perform their hit single ‘N*ggas in Paris’, actress Gwyneth Paltrow tweeted “N*ggas in Paris for real” and caused a bit of controversy. There’s some debate about whether or not she was announcing the song or saluting her ‘niggas’ or whatever. Regardless, a mediocre actress using the n-word in any context isn’t something we should be losing sleep over, but I was sort of surprised by the hearty defense that she got from some of Hip Hop’s elder statesmen and luminaries. Black women have been attacked in and around the hip hop industry for decades, but I’ve never seen so many prominent artists and spokesman leap to their defense. Dream, Nas, Ice T, Russell Simmons and perhaps more to follow donned their capes, strapped on their Kevlar and dove into the fray, announcing to the world that Ms. Paltrow is ‘down’. It’s OK for her to call them ‘niggas’. And that everybody should “Leave the bitch alone.” In all of this, I could not help but be reminded of Malcolm X’s observations about the two kinds of negroes: the ‘house negro’ and the ‘field negro’.
Like many of Malcolm’s ideas the ‘house negro’ and ‘field negro’ comparison is a little bit exaggerated and oversimplified, but its nonetheless useful in making a larger point: in this case about the way perceived power affects perception itself, especially among blacks in different positions of authority. The house negro worked in the house – cooked, cleaned, watched the kids, etc – and the field negro worked out in the field – picking tobacco, cotton, etc. When the master said ‘We got a good house here!’ the house negro would agree enthusiastically, while the field negro would look on with disgust. When the field negro complained about the master the house negro would take offense and when the master’s house caught on fire, the house negro dove into the flames, while the field negro watched from afar praying for wind. In all things, the house negro signals to his master that their interests are one in the same, and that the house negro is doing everything in his power to protect them.
In modern times the house negro has morphed – in Hip Hop circles at least – into the ‘house nigga’: a hard charging, hard partying, tough, profane, defensive dude vaguely familiar with black history and uplift, but intensely aware of consumer habits and trends. In the same way that the house negro gave a certain legitimacy to the illusion that slavery was a benign and ‘peculiar’ institution, the house nigga gives legitimacy to the equally absurd notion that hip hop can transcend race: that middle class suburban whites can be ‘off the hook’ and ‘off da hook’ at the same time; that the problems that hard-fought Civil Rights and Human Rights victories have failed to solve can be solved through music; that hip hop is the one space where everyone can be a nigga. In their selective outrage, these house niggas are signaling middle class and affluent white fans that all is well and ‘we got a good house here!’.
Russell Simmons articulates this position well when he reminds fans of the many whites that have embraced ‘progressive causes’ thanks to hip hop. Nas, who believes that Ms. Paltrow is a ‘real nigga‘, threatens to ‘slap’ somebody on her behalf, because in his view blacks know who is ‘down’ and who our friends are and if our friends are so inspired by our culture/history/uplift that they feel compelled to call us racial slurs then we should embrace that. The Dream thinks that ‘We’ – not history or social conditions – give the word too much power. Ice T thinks that on the one hand ‘nigga’ is an inside word that you should use at your own risk, but on the other hand because Ms. Paltrow ‘is a rap fan she can’t be racist’. In fact as far as he’s concerned she’s ‘black’.
On the question of who is and who isn’t ‘down’, Malcolm X has useful insights once again. Early in his career Malcolm was pretty unequivocal in his attacks on ‘so-called negro leaders’ and their ‘progressive liberal bosses’, so reporters would take him to task demanding to know if he could name at least one white that had helped blacks in a meaningful way. “Lincoln? Truman? Kennedy??” – their list of names would go on and on. Malcolm would consider them all then say, “I can think of someone. John Brown.”
John Brown was a Kansas abolitionist who led an armed slave revolt back in 1859 that got him hanged and two of his sons killed. John Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry inspired abolitionists and enraged Southern slave owners. Fredrick Douglass labeled him a martyr. Our government labeled him a domestic terrorist. John Brown was ‘down’. If he got excited during one of his raids and let the ‘n-word’ fly, he should get a pass, but everybody else needs to show some damn respect.