One of the most thought-provoking motifs in William Wells Brown’s The Escape, Or, A Leap for Freedom: A Drama in Five Acts is that of the house slave-field slave dichotomy. Throughout scenes three to five this house slave-field slave dichotomy is seen through a contrast of Cato – a willfully obedient house slave – and Glen – a house slave with a field slave’s mentality who yearns for freedom. The difference in Cato’s mentality compared to that of Glen’s can be seen regarding their ideals of marriage. Although Cato resents his massa (because he performs all the duties of a doctor while his massa receives all of the power and affluence that comes with being a doctor), he remains submissive to him when comes to “marriage”. When Cato willingly complies to enter a loveless “marriage” with Hannah, he agrees with the massa’s notion that house slaves should marry each other. Cato’s marriage is pivotal in the discussion of the house slave-field slave dichotomy because it not only shows how house slaves were submissive to their massas, but also shows how these slaves would ignore the sufferings of their fellow slaves. Cato knew that Hannah was in love with Sam, yet he still agreed to marry her because the massa’s opinion was more important to him than his fellow slave’s. In contrast to the submissive Cato, Glen – a man who is fueled by the rebellious field slave’s mentality – fights for his right to marry the love of his life, Melinda – even though the massa disapproves. Intoxicated with the thought of freedom, Glen escapes the overseer whom Dr. Gaines has sent to flog him by hitting him on the head with his own club. Along with Melinda, he then makes a “leap for freedom” by running away to Canada. Unlike Cato, when it comes to marriage Glen fights to marry the woman that he loves by annexing himself permanently from his perverted massa because he has the field slave’s mentality. All in all, from Well Brown’s play the contrasting attitudes of the house slave’s and the field slave’s mentality can be seen: the house slave is normally loyal to the massa, while the field slave yearns for freedom.
I found it particularly interesting to note that the dichotomy of house slaves-field slaves was first mentioned in Malcolm X’s speech: “Message to the Grass Roots” (1963) wherein he explains that the “house Negroes” – who worked in the master’s house – had a mentality to obey the master in all things, while the “field Negroes” – who performed the manual labor outside – tended to rebel against the master. He theorized that the “house Negro” was unwilling to leave the plantation and potentially more likely to support existing power structures that favor whites over blacks because they had a better quality of life compared “field Negro”. Below is the link for a very interesting video describing Malcolm X’s theory of the house and field Negros.