What’s the Matter Boss, We Sick?

Adia Benton in The New Inquiry:

Eb-383The two leaders’ statements were upsetting. Why was Sirleaf’s concern for Americans’ health expressed with anger? Why did Koroma need to give official assurances that the contagion would not spread? What was at stake for them in identifying strongly with the Americans? Their unreciprocated identification with the plight of the Americans, to me, resonated with Malcolm X’s description of a psychological disposition that was borne of chattel slavery. Speaking on the difference between the “house negro” and the “field negro” in 1963, Malcolm X said:

When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he’d say, “What’s the matter boss, we sick?” His master’s pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself.

Malcolm X’s insight is that identification with the master class is intimately linked to a division of labor and relationships of exploitation across spatial and racial lines. These feelings of allegiance and identification with elites, Malcolm X suggests, are forged under conditions of violence that uphold the terms of their servitude, their presumed inferiority, and their eagerness to accept what they are given, in exchange for meager personal gain. As a kind of managerial class, the “house negro” builds an uneasy intimacy with elites and, for his survival, depends on the remains of his master’s spoils; he eats the scraps from his master’s table, lives in his master’s attic, wears his master’s old clothes. Yet while the managerial class strongly identifies with the master class, its members recognize they will never be fully incorporated into it. The burdens of this relationship are deeply felt by the masses; they both witness and experience the structural, symbolic, and psychological violence this relationship engenders.

In short, we sick.

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