What’s in a Name? “Slavery” vs. “Slaving” in Historical Interpretation

As a public historian working at a historic site with intimate connections to U.S. antebellum culture, I am tasked with discussing American slavery and interpreting the perspectives of the enslaved people who worked at the White Haven estate. I relish the opportunity to discuss a complex and difficult topic and believe it is my duty to keep slavery at the forefront of my interpretive presentations, even though I can clearly tell (eye-rolls, exasperated breaths, etc.) that some people don’t want to hear about slavery.

When discussing slavery, it’s important to use precise language that clearly conveys the fact that it was a form of submission, oppression, and control masquerading as a form of legitimate “property” in human flesh. For example, I never refer to slaves as “servants” in my interpretations. In the English colonies, Virginia law clearly distinguished between servitude and slavery by the mid-seventeenth century. Indentured servitude stipulated that both parties–the servant and his/her benefactor–voluntarily engaged in a labor agreement. Most indentured servants by that time agreed to sell their labor for a number years (but not a lifetime) for passage and housing in the New World. Even though indentured servants’ labor agreements were sometimes violated, extended, and abused in ways that made it look like slavery, the two were not mutually exclusive. Virginia laws after 1661 stipulated that slavery meant lifetime servitude based on race and ancestry, and that it could be hereditary depending on the mother’s prior status as either free or slave upon the child’s birth. What constituted a temporary (and mostly) voluntary agreement under indentured servitude eventually became lifetime involuntary enslavement passed down through heredity.

Another difficulty with conflating “slaves” as “servants” lies in the ways Confederate apologists downplayed slavery in the years after the Civil War, an effort still continued by certain interest groups today (who will remain unnamed). Examples abound of former masters who suggested after the war that their slaves were happy, contented servants who were well taken care of and uninterested in gaining their freedom. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, facing temporary imprisonment in Boston following the end of the Civil War in 1865, sadly remarked as he left his home that “leave-takings were hurried and confused. The servants all wept. My grief at leaving them and home was too burning, withering, scorching for tears. At the depot was an immense crowd, old friends, black and white, who came in great numbers and shook hands” (109). If one were to read this pitiful story without any other context, he or she would probably think Stephens was a beloved racial egalitarian and benevolent employer, not a slaveholder and author of the “Cornerstone Speech” of March 21, 1861, in which he argued that the Confederacy’s “corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

Therefore, when I talk about slavery, I always make sure to explicitly use the words “slavery” and “enslavement” so that no one leaves thinking that the African Americans who worked at White Haven before the war were servants who voluntarily sold their labors to their owner, Frederick Dent.

Some history scholars, however, are now challenging the use of the term “slavery.” Joseph Miller, a history professor at the University of Virginia, finds the term “slavery” to be too passive:

In order better to understand slavery’s march across history and into our time, Miller challenges historians to radically revise some basic assumptions. We can best comprehend how human bondage actually worked and still works today, he argues, if we abandon the noun “slavery” and our attempts to describe “the institution of slavery.” These, Miller argues, are static characterizations that convey none of the dynamism of slavery’s durability, variability and evolution across the centuries… Instead, Miller insists, the best way to describe human bondage is by using the active voice. Employ the dynamic gerund “slaving,” he recommends, and dispense with the use of “slavery” with its connotations of static model building. The gerund, Miller argues, forces us to recognize that human bondage is above all a historical process carried forward by slavers in response to discrete and ever-changing historical contingencies.

I like the idea of bringing enslavement into the present and using active verbs and language to highlight the “historical process” of slavery. As a public historian, however, I question the practicality of incorporating the concept of “slaving” into my interpretations. I get ten minutes to spark my audience’s imagination and illuminate the complex intersection between Ulysses S. Grant, his wife Julia Dent’s family, and her family’s use of slave labor at their St. Louis home. Visitors of all ages are sometimes confused about the realities of slavery in the United States, challenging me to neatly define slavery without turning my entire interpretation into a history of the institution. It seems like this “slavery vs. slaving” debate needs to be played out first at the academic level before public historians introduce a concept like “slaving” to their audiences. Or maybe the National Park Service or a similar organization can find ways to collaborate with academic scholars to encourage a better understanding of the term.

What do you think? Should historians start using the term “slaving” instead of slavery?

Cheers

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7 responses

  1. Interesting post. Have you kept abreast of the controversy around “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward Baptist?

    1. But, to answer your question, no, I don’t think so. One can convey the dread and horror of slavery without altering the standard accepted terminology.

    2. Thanks for the comment, Christopher. Yes, I’ve been following the controversy around Dr. Baptist’s study and found the original Economist review of his book absurd. But the controversy seems to have spawned a lot of interest in the book, and that’s certainly a good thing.

  2. In my studies I have learned some slave owners referred to their slaves as “servants” as well. I see it as a way to separate themselves from others in society. One’s good name was important and conveying that through a holier- than- thou attitude with regard to the treatment and care of slaves. I think the best thing to do at this time is to refer slaves as slaves and slavery as slavery in its most purest definition. This prevents groups that still promote false ideology of the past to continue promoting and it contributes to the truth and understanding of the past. At the same time making sure the significance is there. Why should I know of this? What does this have to do with me? Well, for one, it is how America evolved through the years in the past. It was a part of a system of incorporating ideologies and innovations at human expense and cost. Who can deny that? If the answer is, yes, then why, what is your argument? Tell them good point or thank you. People need to be able to talk about how they feel about the past and not be shamed or humiliated. I think your topic is challenging. Good luck and let us know how things go and what works and what does not.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Tammy. I personally have stuck with using the term “slavery” in my interpretive programs. I’d like to see more discussion about the concept of “slaving” before attempting to introduce it to audiences that will have no idea what it means.

  3. […] check out Nick Sacco’s response to Jim Stewart’s post on Joseph Miller’s concept of slaving, and continue the […]

  4. […] September of last year I wrote an essay on this website where I discussed an ongoing debate about whether the standard noun we use to […]

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