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

NOTE, 2/10/20: Having a blog with seven years’ worth of posts can be a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, I have an extensive digital archive of my own thoughts on various historical topics. Thanks to this blog, I can see how my thinking has evolved over the years. The bad side is that readers may find one blog post on a particular topic and miss later blog posts that reflect a change in my thinking. That is what happened with this blog post. A friend notified me that an essay on the Chronicle of Higher Education cited this blog post and mildly critiqued me for my skepticism about the terms “slaving” and “enslaved people.” While I still don’t like the term “slaving,” I have fully embraced “enslaved people” and am not as worried about presentism as I once was. Updated posts in 2015 and 2016 on this website reflected those changes in my thinking, but they didn’t get cited in the Chronicle piece, which was written in 2017. So… the below blog posts captures my thoughts as they were in 2014, but not necessarily as they reflect my thinking today.

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?


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

    1. 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.

  1. 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.

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