When I was growing up, my father, John Clyne, told me a story about House Slaves vs. Field Slaves. During slavery, Massah house caught on fire. The House Slaves were helping Massah save his belongings and were very concerned about the well-being of massah. The Field Slaves who were toiling in the hot sun looked up at the burning mansion of massah and said, “burn baby, burn”. My father told me this story at age 7 during the burning of Washington, D.C. after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. He explained the riots to me as black people being tired of being mistreated for 349 years, and mad that a man that preached peace and conciliation was shot down, because he dared to challenge the injustice and daily indignities faced by African Americans. My father said to me, you have to pick whether you are going to be House Slave or Field Slave. House slaves want the status quo to continue because they have it slightly better and do not want to rock the boat. Field Slaves know they are slaves and have no concern about saving the status quo, because they are not getting any benefit out of the current system. House slaves got to eat the scraps off of Massah table. They got better clothing and were not whipped as much. Field Slaves on the other hand knew they were treated like dogs and did not feel any gratitude to or loyalty to massah.
Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter movement has made me think of this story, because I see the different reaction of black people to the protest. The different reactions are generational and also socio-economic. Older, upper middle class black people, who have money, seem to agree that there is police misconduct, but do not like the protesters because they are too strident and there was looting and burning of property. Younger black people, who are not part of the establishment are more in the “burn, baby burn” mode.
I see this most starkly among my peers of black lawyers. A young black woman, Melba Pearson, is running for State Attorney. She is challenging Katherine Fernandez Rundle, an incumbent who has held the office for 27 years. Katherine Fernandez Rundle is the consummate politician, she has a Hispanic Deputy and a Black Deputy. She mingles with African American Pastors and will listen to “black leaders.” The established black lawyers are all supporting her. The Black Pastors are supporting her. The Black Bar Associations are supporting her. She is safe bet and if you are criminal defense attorney and want to do deals for your clients, then you want to be on her good side. The establishment has determined that challenging her is probably not a good idea.
A few young black attorneys are supporting Melba Pearson, because they feel that it is time for change. They point out that in a time of Black Lives Matter, Katherine Fernandez Rundle has not prosecuted anyone in law enforcement for an on-duty killing for 27 years. The most egregious case is that of a prisoner, Mr. Darren Rainey, who was boiled alive while in prison. The guards put him in the shower, turned the water thermostat to 160 degrees and kept him in the shower for 2 hours. Witnesses heard his screams, and his pleas for mercy. His flesh was boiled off of. The photos of his burnt skin are gruesome. The State Attorney’s Office findings after a five year investigation were he died of schizophrenia, heart disease and confinement in a shower. There was no finding of his being burned. While the State Attorney Office did not prosecute, his family settled the case for $4 million. No one settles a case for $4 million unless you are facing serious liability and catastrophic injuries.
So my daddy’s story of House Slaves vs. Field Slaves seems as apropos now as it did in 1968.