Sunday 21st February will mark 56 years since the assassination of Malcolm X, long enough for people to embrace the figure but ignore his politics. In an age of so-called “decolonial” education and PR commitments to racial justice, it is disappointing how little people have actually engaged with the intellectual ideas that have shaped this moment. Terms like Coconut, House Negro, and Uncle Tom are not, and never were racial slurs. To view them as such is to fall down the rabbit hole of “reverse racism.” That Negro is now being starred out as though it was an expletive is ludicrous if we honestly want to bring in a different set of ideas into the way we understand the world. If we can’t say Negro we will give up a considerable amount of the intellectual production of Black people, from the Garveys, through Claudia Jones, and even Martin Luther King. Consider the absurdity of how we would have to describe the most important Black organization in history, the Universal N**** Improvement Association.
It is time to grow up and take our intellectual work seriously. The rush to censor these ideas is a classic example of anti-Black racism, where the symbolism of Black people is embraced, but actually having to engage with us is avoided. If we are truly interested in transforming education, we must change what we see as “legitimate” knowledge. Ideas born in struggle meant to challenge and make us uncomfortable are exactly what we need in the present moment that is increasingly becoming about performance rather than substance. In honor of the anniversary, this is a tribute to Malcolm’s intellectual output that has been so severely overlooked, our attempt to make it plain that we need to engage with Black radical thought rather than censor it.
Below is a pocket-sized guide to the so-called controversial terms. Malcolm explained just before he died that he stopped calling Martin Luther King an Uncle Tom because people had become “too litigious,” joking he’d call him Uncle Martin instead. In that spirit, I have left it to your imagination to fill in with examples.
Malcolm X made this idea popular in his famous speech about the difference between the House and Field Negro. He argued that because the House Negro was in a slightly privileged position, not subject to the backbreaking work in the field, they were not best placed to understand the severity of the system. That could lead the House Negro to cherish the false comforts of their position and be grateful to their master. Therefore when those in the field wanted to run away from the plantation, the House Negro might respond, “where can I get better clothes than this, where can I get better food than this?” and stay on the plantation rather than escape. Malcolm used this to explain class divisions in Black communities, with those in the middle class, the House Negroes, who can want to cling to their relative privilege rather than work for the liberation of all Black people.
Importantly Malcolm was arguing that both House and Field Negroes were enslaved, and middle and working classes are victims of racism. House Negro was a diagnosis of the relative privilege that some of us have in the system. I am a House Negro, with a well-paid professional career. It is only by recognizing that I can ensure I don’t fall into the trap of defending the racist status quo to maintain my relative privilege. People are guilty of a House Negro mentality when they mistake their experiences as representative of the majority, i.e., “I don’t experience racism, so it does not exist.” Being in the house doesn’t mean you have to embrace the mentality and the whole point of the idea is to unite the more privileged with those in the field to strive for freedom. Also important is that being a Field Negro is no guarantee of righteousness. All of the next definitions can be applied across the class boundaries.
Coconut, Bounty Bar, Choc Ice etc
As someone who was frequently called a “bounty bar” at school, I can testify to how hurtful these can be. Undoubtedly, they are used inappropriately and to cause pain, but that does not mean we should completely shy away. After all, Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks is just a fancy way of saying “coconut” and brings attention to a serious issue in Black identity. Due to racism, there is a pressure to submit to Whiteness by rejecting everything about Blackness to succeed. As an eleven year old I had an identity crisis due to this, the idea I had to “act White” to be accepted as a good student. Unfortunately, the more time I spend in White institutions, the clearer it is that those pressures remain. Getting jobs and promotions are based so heavily on fitting in, trying to speak “properly,” dress “professionally,” and fit into the cultures of power to succeed. This whitewash is extremely problematic, and this cultural assault on ourselves is something we need to be vigilant of constantly. In terms of a political identity, it would clearly be a terrible idea to take our cues on racial justice from people who have embraced anti-Blackness as part of their identity.
I have written more on the Uncle Tom figure for the A-Z of Black Radicalism. A specific term widely misused as interchangeable with House Negro. Again we have to look to Malcolm, who explains that Uncle Tom is reserved only for those who the system makes “publicizes him, makes him a celebrity. And then he becomes a spokesman for Negroes-and a Negro leader.” To qualify, you either need to have at least some support in Black communities. In fact, Malcolm most notably accused Martin Luther King of being an Uncle Tom because he had the credibility to lead people astray. Someone with no support from the community cannot be an Uncle Tom by definition. The other version of Uncle Tom is those who have gained political leadership and use their power to reproduce racism, as in “Uncle Tom leaders in Africa.” To be a Tom, you need power or influence, and it is only a select few that can reach this level. The only conceptual problem with Uncle Tom is that it is too gendered, as I am sure you can think of women who would fit the profile.
“He takes a Negro, a so-called Negro, and makes him prominent, builds him up, publicizes him, makes him a celebrity. And then he becomes a spokesman for Negroes-and a Negro leader”Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots” (1963)
A more appropriate term than Uncle Tom for much of what we are seeing in the current moment. Cooning is a specific act where Black people play up racial stereotypes as entertainment for White audiences. Think Chicken George from “Roots” and The Black and White Minstrel Show. There is money to be made in playing to the crowd, and at various times people may choose to coon to make the most of it. Today, a variation on this theme is not playing to the stereotype but reinforcing them. This is done by soothing a White audience by insisting that racism is a thing of the past and equality can be found if only those lazy Black folk would stop complaining and work harder. As opposed to Tomming, cooning is aimed to titillate a White audience.
Again a term often abused and confused with House Negro, it relates to someone who takes financial reward to uphold racism. Everyone in the house is not a sellout, we just inhabit a different location in society. To sell out is a conscious decision to seek reward for throwing Black people to the wolves. This is different from cooning, which is not always intentional. We must remember that there are Black people who genuinely believe in conservative positions. Thus, when they embrace them, they are not necessarily selling out. Sellout is reserved for those who have previously committed to racial justice but then defend racist practice either to maintain their position or enrich themselves. For example, if I chose not to defend a colleague being racially abused at work to keep my place secure, that would be selling out.
Grappling with these terms is important if we are to truly face the challenge of the moment. We are quick to reject them because we worry about creating tests of authenticity. It doesn’t help they have been misused as cultural tests as to whether we “act Black enough.” These aren’t personal attacks, and people are free to do whatever they choose with their lives. But we can’t be afraid to say that if you are rejecting your Blackness, using your influence to maintain a racist status quo, cooning or selling out, then your voice has no place in how we struggle for Black liberation. Malcolm was right when he declared, “it is already too late” for compromise. We have work to do.