Saturday, June 3, 2017

House Slaves vs Field Slaves: An Analysis Of A Scene In The 1976 Cuban Film "La Ultima Cena" ("The Last Supper")

Edited by Azizi Powell

This happened on June 2, 2017 on the nationally syndicated American television talk show Real Time with Bill Maher:

Quotes from :
"While discussing the state of Nebraska, his guest, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), told [Bill] Maher, “We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.”

Apparently confused by the invitation, Maher joked “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n****r!”

Sasse looked uncomfortable, and the audience reacted with a mix of claps and groans. Then Maher, a critic of political correctness, followed up his remark by pointing out the sarcasm. “No, it’s a joke,” he said.

The “Real Time” audience seemed to quickly forgive the host with a round of applause. Waving off the reaction with his hand, Maher replied, “Thank you.”

People on Twitter, however, weren’t so forgiving."


[a tweet from Yashar Ali, a New York Magazine/GQ/Mother Jones/HuffPost Contributing Writer describing that incident and the audience's reaction from that same Huffington Post article]
Yashar verified account

Bill Maher just said the n word, @BenSasse didn't look horrified, and the audience applauded."
11:23 PM - 2 Jun 2017


[that same article quoting four tweets from Senator Ben Sasse]

Ben Sasse ✔ @BenSasse
Am walking off a redeye from LAX.
3 reflections on @billmaher

1. I’m a 1st Amendment absolutist. Comedians get latitude to cross hard lines.
6:19 AM - 3 Jun 2017

Ben Sasse ✔ @BenSasse
2. But free speech comes with a responsibility to speak up when folks use that word. Me just cringing last night wasn’t good enough.

6:21 AM - 3 Jun 2017

Ben Sasse ✔ @BenSasse
3. Here’s what I wish I’d been quick enough to say in the moment: “Hold up, why would you think it’s OK to use that word?...

Ben Sasse ✔ @BenSasse
"...The history of the n-word is an attack on universal human dignity. It’s therefore an attack on the American Creed. Don't use it.”
6:27 AM - 3 Jun 2017"
Here's a link to a YouTube video clip of that portion of the show:
UPDATE [regarding Bill Maher's comment as indicated above:
2:40 p.m. ET [June 3, 2017] ― "Following the nonstop criticism, Maher has apologized for using a racial slur on his Friday show. In a statement to HuffPost, he said:

"Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I’m up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn’t have said on my live show. Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry."
For the record, I very much agree with those who have responded to this incident by indicating that there should be lines that even comedians don't cross regarding their use of terms that are considered to be pejorative. Furthermore, Maher's use of the term "house n****r" was counterproductive as it took the spotlight away from an important discussion about climate change that Senator Sasse and Maher had.

But instead of focusing on that particular incident, I've decided to take this opportunity to provide some information about the subject of house slaves and field slaves. And since this blog focuses on examples of Black culture, I've chosen to showcase a 1976 Cuban film about slavery in Cuba and fully quote an online article that analyzes a scene in that film which reveals some of the dynamics between house slaves and field slaves in that nation. These similar conditions and dynamics occurred between house slaves and field slaves in the United States and elsewhere.

In my opinion, that article minimized the conditions of house slaves, particularly with the statement that they never received harsh punishments.

The Addendum to this pancocojams post presents an excerpt of an article about the conditions of and dynamics between house slaves and field slaves - with particular attention to antebellum United States. I believe that article more accurately describes the oppressive conditions that house slaves often experienced.

The content of this post is presented for historical and sociological purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

"The Last Supper (La última cena in Spanish) a 1976 Cuban historical film directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, produced by the Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) and starring Nelson Villagra as the Count.[1]

The film tells the story of a pious Havana plantation owner in the 1790s, during Cuba's Spanish colonial period. The plantation owner decides to recreate the Biblical Last Supper using twelve of the slaves working in his sugarcane fields, hoping to thus teach the slaves about Christianity.

In a misguided attempt to enlighten his African-originating slaves, a Count invites twelve of them to a dinner on Maundy Thursday in a re-enactment of the Last Supper with himself as Christ.[2] Whilst they eat and drink, he also feeds them religious rhetoric and attempts to instruct them in the workings of Christianity. He promises them a day off for the following Good Friday and commits to freeing one of the slaves. However, when these promises are not held up the next day, the slaves rebel. They (the twelve slaves whom he reenacted the last supper) are then all hunted down and killed by their master, except one who escapes.[1][3]"

Scene Analysis
Roles of the Slave: Antagonisms between House Slaves and Field Slaves

[1] No matter what time or area in the institution of slavery, the position of the house slave is always a difficult one. On one hand, the house slave is in a privileged position, free from the barbaric schedules and disciplines the field slaves are subjected to. At the same time the house slave serves as living proof for slave owners that the practice of slavery need not lay on their consciences. Household slaves were grateful to be in that position and rarely (if ever) complained, since doing so could jeopardize their situation. In The Last Supper the difference of treatment of Emundo, the Count’s house slave, and the rest of the blacks is noteworthy, particularly when Emundo is dismissed from the table at the supper (1:03:55). The goal of this essay is to show that the film, while judging Emundo’s loyalty as counterproductive to the cause of the other slaves, recognizes that the house slave’s position is impossible.

[2] The position of the house slave on the plantation served to divert many blacks from questioning their treatment and attempting to fight it. Being a household slave meant security and entitlement to the black, creating an environment where slaves yearned for a higher position in the slave system rather than pondering ways the fight the system itself. In his autobiography, Montejo Esteban, a former slave from Cuba in the 1860's, recognizes that field slaves despised the house slaves, and that house slaves believed they were more on the level of master than slave:

I don’t think the household slaves did [understand Christianity] either, although, being so refined and well treated, they all made out they were Christian. The household slaves were given rewards by the masters, and I never saw one of them badly punished. When they were ordered to go to the fields to cut cane or tend the pigs, they would pretend to be ill so they needn’t work. For this reason the field slaves could not stand the sight of them. The household slaves sometimes came to the barracoons to visit relations and used to take back fruit and vegetables for the master’s house; I don’t know whether the slaves made them presents from their plots of land or whether they just took them. They caused a lot of trouble in the barracoons. The men came and tried to take liberties with the women. That was the source of the worst tensions. (37)

Montejo’s construction of the house slaves as enemy is a valuable one for understanding the importance of the Count’s behavior toward Emundo in the supper scene. For the field slaves the house slave was not a fellow black but a creature pretending to be white, a traitor to those in the field. For the field slave in the Cuban sugarmill, life was brutal and dangerous, a world where “The mills were like huge grinders which chewed up blacks like cane. Growing old was a privilege as rare as it was sad, especially in the super-barbaric stage of slavery” (Fraginals 143). At the same time being a field slave meant a life of terror and pain, in many ways being a household slave meant living a “white” life. The household slave’s continual presence around the master meant many luxuries. The slave had to bathe constantly and wear clothes that made him look presentable to the whites. The household was a representation of how well the owner kept the plantation, making traits considered “white” at the time such as cleanliness, intelligence, and civility essential. Such a privileged life, if we may call it that, inspired antagonism among the field slaves, who knew such a life existed for only certain blacks. The field slaves’ laughter at Emundo being chastised reinforces that antagonistic dynamic.

[3] Likewise, a feeling of the household slaves that they were above working with the field slaves, that they were better or more deserving of privilege, became inevitable. Antonio’s request to be brought back in the villa earlier in the scene, indicates that there was a mutual antagonism between household and field slaves. He asks the master, “Are you going to send me back to all those dirty slaves?” (28:18). Antonio believes that what sets him apart from the other slaves is that he has worked in the villa, an experience that makes him better than those he is now forced to live with. Emundo’s placement in the background reminds Antonio of the position taken from him, a position he yearns to retrieve. Emundo’s presence inspires hatred or jealousy from all, an uncomfortable situation the admonishment makes clear.

[4] In his loyalty to the master, Emundo positions himself against the field slaves who are enjoying the master’s drunkenness. The Count’s inebriated state creates a role reversal. The slaves have an opportunity to have fun at the Count’s expense, an opportunity they realize they will probably never have again. By attempting to end the dinner before the Count embarrasses himself further, Emundo places himself firmly on the side of the Count, and, just as firmly, positions himself against the field slaves. Instead of performing the role of attending to the master, Emundo defends the master against the slaves, something he need not necessarily do. The Count’s retort is unexpected and scathing, a remark that delineates the field slaves as the Count’s privileged group and Emundo as a criminal transgressor: “And who are you to give me orders? Are you forgetting the role you have to play? Your master! Understand? Your master! Clear off” (1:03:55).

[5] The Count’s reaction becomes a triumph for the field slaves, a reversal of position in the slave hierarchy. The Count’s outburst is a doctrine practiced largely on the field slaves, the ideology that the black has been given a subservient role in his life and he must never attempt to transcend it. The insult sparks laughter among field slaves, and this humiliation may be worse for Emundo than the tongue-lashing from the Count. The Count’s participation in the field slaves’ mockery of Emundo positions the field hands in a role of intimacy with the Count, a role exclusively for Emundo until he tries to defend the Count from making a mockery of himself.

[6] The Count’s admonishment is especially acidic for Emundo, who has already been told he is a better human being than the field slaves in front of whom he is insulted. Emundo’s position is the result of the Count’s generosity, a position Emundo knows relies on the premise that he remains loyal to the Count in all circumstances. Up until this point Emundo’s loyalty merits rewards, among them the assurance that he is a friend of the Count and deserves his position above the field hands. Now Emundo is commanded to believe the exact opposite, that he is the outsider and the field slaves at the table have usurped his position. Emundo’s power and status are taken away in an instant, creating a much worse state of mind than the field slaves (except Antonio) who have never experienced Emundo’s position of privilege.

[7] But the groupings are not as simple as house slave and field slave. Antonio and Ambrosio, both field slaves who internalized feelings of worthlessness forced on them by the institution the Count defends, side with Emundo by interrupting the field slaves’ fun. The Count is unconscious, something Antonio and Ambrosio are clearly aware of when they defend the Count as a good master. This awareness of the Count’s unconsciousness puts the two slaves in the most difficult position of all, a house slave working in the field, defending a master when doing so will not result in any reward from the Count. This dialogue recognizes the difficult role of the field hands who have maintained or wish to maintain the house slave position. As the current household slave, Emundo’s position is the most difficult of all, a position the film makes sympathetic.

[8] The film recognizes that Emundo’s position during the supper is an impossible one. He can never be accepted or respected by the field slaves around him, a fact that becomes obvious when Antonio is ignored throughout the dinner after siding with the count at the beginning of the supper. Like Antonio’s position with the other field slaves, Emundo’s position of privilege with the master is also destroyed. He can no longer assume the Count will treat him as he always has, and so Emundo’s hope is that the Count will return to normal once he is sober. But the Count’s promises, promises that have saved Emundo from the field, are no longer reliable. Emundo’s place of privilege now depends on a second reversal of the Count’s loyalties. The consequences if the Count does not reestablish his bond with Emundo could be as disastrous as Antonio, the humiliating and brutal role of field slave substituted for the role of the household slave that has left Emundo spoiled. When asked to have the field slaves convey a message, Emundo responds, “I’ll go. The sugarmill blacks are too stupid" (13:58). The threat of being grouped with or below this group is a constant threat, one Emundo can only endure as the field slaves endure their daily brutality.

[9] Emundo’s difficulty serves a pattern Alea demonstrates throughout the film, showing constant division among the slaves as a weakness that plagues them throughout their existence. The field slaves at the supper are slaves because they were sold by their African enemies. During the supper they bicker about what to do if forced to work Good Friday. Barring Sebastian, the slaves who were at the supper are caught after they separate. Emundo’s attitude serves as another division, but a division the film understands and forgives. Emundo is only a traitor to some. To others, he is where they want to be.

Works Cited

Fraginals, Manuel Moreno. The Sugarmill: The Socioeconomic Complex of Sugar in Cuba, 1760-1860. New York: Monthly Review, 1976.

Montejo, Esteban. The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave. Ed. Miguel Barnet. Trans. Jocast Innes. New York: Pantheon, 1968.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Sean Patrick Magee, Graduate student at Lehigh University.

This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of the U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author."
This article includes a hyperlink to this scene in that film, but that hyperlink no longer works. Here's a link to a YouTube video of that entire film (with English sub-titles) "The Last Supper" La Ultima Cena, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, 1976. with English subtitles"

Gale Library of Daily Life: Slavery in America
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group

..."Differences between the work of house servants and field hands led to sharp social class distinctions within the plantation system. Socially speaking, house servants were considered a privileged class among the enslaved population. Because of their physical proximity to the home of the plantation owner, they often absorbed the culture and associated material benefits of the master (Ingraham 1860, pp. 34-36). The overseer, to control the behavior and work habits of the enslaved, used these divisions skillfully. Plantation owners who were disgruntled with their house servants would threaten to make these servants work out in the fields. Slave owners also made an attempt to ensure that house servants and field hands would remain socially isolated, both physically and psychologically, from one another even if they shared blood ties. House servants were threatened with flogging if they were caught interacting with field hands (Williams 1838, p. 48). In many ways, the notion of the happy house slave portrayed in movies such as Gone with the Wind, and the rebellious field slave are both mythic and simplistic. The lives and social consciousness of field hands and house servants were most often extremely complex.

The life of a house servant was often harsh and demeaning. Women house servants in particular were both desired and routinely raped by the plantation owner. Because they lived in close proximity to the master's family, the house servant was naturally absorbed into its many social conflicts. The master's desire for a slave mistress caused severe problems if he was married. In many cases the mistress of the house resented the presence of female house servants. Women house servants served as a constant reminder of marital infidelity. In response mistresses would often abuse their female house servants physically by slapping their faces, boxing their ears, and flogging. House servants were required to defer socially to the members of the master's family regardless of age differences. Elder men were required to refer to the teenage and adolescent children of the master as sir and ma'am. Elder women who often served as wet nurses for white infants were required to defer to them as adults (Jacobs 1861). In addition, house servants served as informants for the master and overseer, concerning the possibility of revolt by field hands. By the same token, house servants often performed the role of spy for field hands planning a rebellion. Being in close proximity to the master, they were privy to enormous amounts of information concerning the daily habits, hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses of the plantation system and its managers. This information would be vital to field hands who were planning an escape or a successful revolt. Although the nature of work performed by the house servant was much different from the work performed by the field hand, the overarching presence of the slave system and its coercive, violent, and humiliating methods of socialization invariably would define the lives of the enslaved regardless of their status within the plantation system."...
Here's a link to a Wikipedia page about house slaves and field slaves in the USA:

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