Ed Policy Unchained: Django, House Negros, and School Reformers

Are you ready for Cloaking Inequity’s most controversial post to date?

I recently saw Django Unchained— I realize I am behind the times, but Redbox provides my film entertainment 80% of the time and the film just arrived. At any rate, I realize that Django Unchained is a thought-provoking film. When the film was first released, the Ford Foundation Fellows had an extended discussion on our email listserve about the film— some loved, some hated.

In the film, Dr. Schultz, Django’s bounty hunter partner, was of German descent. Django’s wife also spoke German that she has learned from a prior owner. This sparked an important connection for me to my own familial past. Julian Vasquez Heilig is a peculiar name. The Vasquez is my mother’s maiden name. Heilig is my father’s ancestral name. People often asked me the origin of my paternal name— it is German, but from where?

Before we go any further… What emotions do these sunset photos of Heilig graves in a small, rural North Carolina cemetery elicit?

Here is my paternal lineage back to slavery: Julian Vasquez Heilig — Gary Lee Heilig — William B. Heilig (miss you papa) — Sidney Heilig — William Heilig — Micheaux Shadd

Why didn’t Micheaux Shadd’s son have the name Heilig? Well, Julia Heilig was owned by the Heilig family in Gold Hill, North Carolina. Apparently William Heilig, for an unknown reason, began to use the Heilig surname after the Civil War.

The graves you see above are the German slave owners and their kin.

Imagine how I felt standing there looking at the slavers’ graves— knowing this was the geographic location of my ancestors when they were slaves. My sister and I tried in vain to find the “black cemeteries” to find our ancestors’ graves, to no avail.

This brings me back to Django. Tarantino’s Django brought the extensive depravity of slavery and their time into focus (sometimes gratuitously).

In his most recent film, Tarantino transforms Django into a Black bounty hunter/liberator extraordinaire. According to Wikipedia:

Django is a character who appears in a number of spaghetti western films.[1][2] He appeared in thirty-one films in all

Beyond Django, there were several other character typologies in the film. The two I want to focus on are the House Negro and the Field Negro. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

House Negro is a pejorative term for a black person, used to compare someone to a house slave of a slave owner from the historic period of legal slavery in the US. The term comes from a 1963 speech, “Message to the Grass Roots“, given by African American activist Malcolm X, wherein he explains that during slavery, there were two kinds of slaves: “house Negroes”, who worked in the master’s house, and “field Negroes”, who performed manual labor outside.[1]

He characterizes the house Negro as having an easier lifestyle than the field Negro, and thus as unwilling to leave the plantation and more likely to support existing power structures that favor whites over blacks. Malcolm X identified with the field Negro, who worked outside and faced harsher conditions and treatment. The field Negro, he said, was more likely to revolt against repressive conditions and owners.[2]

Wikipedia states that:

The terms have been borrowed to critique individuals[3][4] and attitudes within the African American community[5] as well as parallel situations unrelated to race.

Django was the Field Negro that revolted in the film.


The New York Times described Stephen, Samuel L. Jackson’s character as:

A house slave who may be the most shocking invention in “Django Unchained.” He is an Uncle Tom whose servility has mutated into monstrosity and who represents the symbolic self Django must destroy to assert and maintain his freedom.

I posit that Django provides a typology by which we can measure education reformers of color. Do reformers of color choose Candie, the proverbial the plantation owner as an ally? Or do they go in guns blazing to upset the social order? In my mind, those that support policies that continue to stratify society such as a multitude of high-stakes tests, limits on teacher quality, sequestering equity in school finance, and espousing neoliberal market mechanisms/privatization are NOT upsetting the social order, but rather fomenting it. Amongst education “reformers”… Who is a Django?

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  • This issue is not about Negros. Positing “education reform” as a confrontation between “house Negros” and “field Negros” is a false dichotomy. This is no more about Django than it is about the Lone Ranger. What difference would it make to ask if educators are the Lone Ranger or Tonto? All education “reformers” are “house Negros” – by their very nature they seek to improve – not destroy American education. The real question is, how can radical educators transform the institution of education more radically? More importantly to Indigenous parents and educators like myself, how can we as Indigenous Peoples organize and operationalize our sovereign rights to self-determination and autonomy over the education of our children given what we know about ALL government imposed education? #kemosabe


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  • The movie and this post remind me of words of the Immortal Technique in the song the poverty of philosophy. His words have help me make sense of my personal walk as a teacher in an American public school.

    “I don’t want to escape the plantation. I want to come back, free all my people, hang the Mother-Fucker that kept me there and burn the house to the god damn ground. I want to take over the encomienda and give it back to the people who work the land.”
    –Immortal Technique
    Poverty of Philosophy


  • Great comparison with education reformers and the Field Negro and House Negro. I very much enjoyed the parallel of these two characters in the film! To truly be free, Django had to destroy Stephen. The House Negros who, by growing accustomed to their limited comfort, relinquished their freedom. This a great metaphor for reformers of color who choose to support education reform that continues to stratify society. These education reforms come packaged nicely by promoting “choice” but fail to address the systemic issues that continue to marginalize our students of color. By choosing momentary comfort, they are further shackling themselves and students to an education system that reeks of inequality. On the other hand, Django (who most of us wish we were) risks it all to be free. The same is true for Unchained Ed Reformers (which is not what most of us want to hear). Bringing change to education means that we have to turn away from the “comfort” of education policies that still posit our students of color to be on the losing side. It means that much work and sacrifice will have to be poured into the effort. Bringing equality to education through reform won’t be comfortable, but it is possible and well worth it.


  • Monty J. Thornburg

    Kimberly: I’m sharing this with Julian Vasquez Heilig, too,as I think we need Django school reformers unchained!

    Bill Gates’ $5 Billion Plan: “Let’s Put a Camera in Every Classroom” is “winning” a lot of comment. My favorite negative comment on this is found on another blog, and I quote:

    Kafkateach: Is Bill Gates a luddite? There are already cameras in the classroom. They are in our students’ pockets. You want to film teachers and give them feedback? OK. Take out a cellphone, film, post on Facebook or youtube and allow for comments. No need to spend $5 billion. Another dumb idea by Bill Gates. When are we going to stop listening to this man?

    One of the most popular researchers in America, wrote: “The Teaching GAP” and the research utilizes video as a tool to make analyses of teaching practices. Some educational policy groups, Exxon Corporation, “We can solve this!” and other that compare math scores between countries is, I believe, based on this research. I need to add that I have “inside knowledge” that tells me that Exxon and others are misrepresenting the “Teaching Gap” research.

    Perhaps Bill Gates is now aware of this research. Lesson Lab is supported by Pearson Corporation. Google: Lesson Lab.Com. Pearson Corp. and I assume Micro Soft and other high tech corporations stand to make $billions of dollars with this idea.

    This video camera in every classroom, coupled with the Common Core standards now agreed to by most States and with Pearson Corp. positions all of these corporations to make more $billions.

    Is it really worth it to spend our tax dollars this way on another “privatized” scheme?

    As pointed out in, “Cloaking Inequity” Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves (Matthew 7:15). The true nature of corporate-minded “reformers” (i.e. DFERs) will be revealed by their actions (by their fruits shall ye know them, verse 16). In New York there have already been groups protesting these moves and maybe they are on to something!

    Is this a civic derivation of the 99% movement on Wall Street!


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  • Monty J. Thornburg

    Django: Unchained Educational Reform.

    The trial of African American teachers, administrators and the superintendent in Atlanta, it seems to me, is a parallel to your supposition in more ways than I have space to explain here.

    The Atlanta “testing scandal” case, it seems to me, is a modern day form of violence by those with political power in GA. The (new) Republican Governor’s used a racketeering statute: RICO, to investigate teachers for “cheating” on the high stakes tests you refer to.

    In this modern day, Educational Reform drama: Who are the House Negroes, Field Negroes, Overseers, Owners/ Slave Holders? – To use your typology!

    I have followed the vitriolic, unseemly, racist comments in the Atlanta Constitution Journal on-line paper and events that grew out of the events. Attacks aimed in particular to bring the notion of “Black Leadership” into question before the Presidential election.

    Soon after the “testing scandal” came to light, Bill Gates flew to Atlanta to re-assure the public that the Gates Foundation Support would continue; and, to “paraphrase” fresh eyes were needed to improve the standards movement.

    Ironically, this morning I had a high school student doing some research on-line about Global Warming and it led him to a Web site: “Take Part” … A large photo of Bill Gates was posted with an article where “Bill” has pledged to give $5 billion to “put a camera in every classroom in America.” -To improve instruction- !!!!

    Now, Georgia is one of the states touted as a leader in the new (CC) Common Core movement and therefore I assume GA is moving away from NCLB. Does CC make the Atlanta trial moot?

    “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” NOT Shakespeare! But, rather, Sir Walter Scott, (1808)


  • We sat at a forum for school board last night. The few who wanted to ask questions about school finance were villified. They sitting board members said, “everythings fine” though teacher numbers are down nearly 10% and admin is up nearly 20%. (# of students is up 5%)
    State law mandates that out board ” monitor” the admin’s spending. One woman said it’s not for the board to getting too closely involved in “managing” the money or the policies of the admin. Who’s guarding the hen house?
    If the people who are tasked by the public won’t ask q’s about 300 million in spending, how can we think education is moving forward? Where’s our Django?


  • I couldn’t agree more! The same applies today for these “reformers of color” (I could think of some other referents I’d like to use) as did for house negroes in the past; they have limited self knowledge, cultural pride and most of all, they are blindly ignorant that they are supporting the status quo…they may even think they are doing something good.


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