The Paradoxical Nature of the “Enslaved Person vs. Slave” Name Debate

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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 Educationcited 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. An updated post in 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 several years ago, but not necessarily as they reflect my thinking today.

In 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 describe chattel enslavement–“Slavery”–should be replaced by an active verb–“Slaving”–to more accurately reflect what historian Joseph Miller describes as the “ever-changing historical contingencies” that mark the long history of enslavement around the world. Since then a few co-workers and myself have engaged in a parallel conversation about the terms “enslaved person” and “slave” and which one we should use when discussing enslavement with visitors to the White Haven estate in St. Louis, Missouri. Two essays inspired these discussions. One was written by fellow NPS employee Jacob Dinkelaker in 2011 and describes his experiences at a National Association for Interpretation workshop where a presenter argued against using the word “slave,” while the other essay by journalist Katy Waldman was published in May of this year and is currently featured in Slate (I ran into a paywall a couple times when trying to load this article, but not every time. Good luck).

Critics of the word “slave” point out that it’s a nameless, passive noun that strips enslaved people of their humanity. As scholar Angela Roberts-Burton argues, “No one asked to be a slave. This is not what or who they were. When people are referred to as slaves, it is dehumanizing. They become ambiguous, without feelings, thoughts, or individual personalities.” But, as the historian Eric Foner suggests, referring to slaves doesn’t necessarily mean stripping away one’s humanity: “Slaves are human beings and can be husbands, wives (in fact if not in law), fathers and mothers, members of religious groups, skilled craftsmen . . . All people have multiple identities, including slaves.”

I believe there is an unavoidable paradox we must address when engaging in this discussion. While I think that enslaved person more precisely acknowledges the humanity of those forced into slavery’s chains, the term is unavoidably presentist. We today acknowledge the humanity of these people, but the institution of slavery was horrible precisely because it made humans into pieces of property to be bought, sold, and abused at will. People were stripped of their humanity and forced into the condition of slaves under threat of violence by their enslavers and the state. Do we run the risk of downplaying these horrors by doing away with the term historically employed to describe the ways slavery dehumanized its victims/survivors?

I suppose the big question, then, is whether we should use and redefine the master’s linguistical tools to describe slavery’s evils or whether we should throw out the master’s tools and create our own tools to achieve a better description of these realities.

My own imperfect solution has been to use “slaves” and “enslaved people” interchangeably during my own historical tours and educational programs. At the beginning of my tours I will often start with a generalized talk about slavery in American society and explain that African American “slaves” did the labor at White Haven before the Civil War, but when I point out specific outbuildings in the back of the house I will point out where the “enslaved people” cooked, cleaned, played, etc. etc. I also apply the latter terminology when talking about individuals at White Haven. Mary Robinson was “an enslaved cook,” Mary Henry was “an enslaved nurse,” and Jim and Bob were “enslaved laborers” at the plantation.

I have a bigger problem with the term “servant,” which implies a voluntary, contractual relationship between a willing laborer and an employer. I also have a problem with any reference to “the dependents,” which is what one couple from the Deep South called the slaves during one of my tours (they also admitted that they heard the term during other plantation tours they had taken over the years). Referring to slaves/enslaved people as “dependents” implies that they could not take care of themselves without the assistance of a benevolent enslaver. The opposite was actually true in reality: the enslavers at the big house depended on the labors of the enslaved for their economic well-being.

What do you think?


15 thoughts on “The Paradoxical Nature of the “Enslaved Person vs. Slave” Name Debate

  1. Really good point about the term “enslaved” possibly being too much a product of the present. Hadn’t thought of that before. I, personally, try to always use “enslaved,” “enslavement,” “enslaver,” etc.

    I really love this explanation about it: “Were I to write Ar’n’t I a Woman? Today, I would use the verb “enslaved” rather than the noun “slave” to implicate the inhumane action of white people. The noun “slave” suggests a state of mind and being that is absolute and unmediated by an enslaver. “Enslaved” says more about what happened to black people without unwittingly describing the sum total of who they were. “Enslaved” forces us to remember that black men and women were Africans and African-Americans before they were forced into slavery and had a new-and denigrating-identity assigned to them.”

    Also, I think we could parallel the use of “enslaved” today with the use of “Black” instead of “Negro” or “Afro-American.” Sometimes language, by necessity, shifts.


    1. While I appreciate your precision with regard to enslaved, do you not slip back into “unwittingly describing the sum total of who they were” when you strive “to implicate the inhumane action of white people”?

      1. Any article, discussion, or lecture done in the spirit of justice and informed by sound history and careful diction to the best of one’s ability is the best we can hope far and such is a wonderful thing. .

  2. It was not until my latter part of university that one History prof. encouraged us to use the ‘enslaved’ instead of ‘slave.’ My understanding is a slave is one bond to servitude who does not think of freedom but expects to live his life as a chattel for a dominant person. This form of chattel existed in the Old World for centuries: Romans and even in various kingdoms across Africa. However, an enslaved form of chattel exist when the dominant uses the enslaved for an economic purpose by forcing labour. In this circumstance, the enslaved thinks of freedom even if he/she was born in enslavement. This is the category that the Transatlantic Slave Trade created.

    1. I’ve never heard of that distinction before and I’m not sure I agree with it. Just about every single slave that ever existed probably served some sort of “economic purpose” for their enslaver. Likewise, I’m not sure we can distinguish between enslaved people who wished for freedom and others who were content to be slaves.

      1. Ah, that is the beauty of historical interpretation: it differs. There were slaves chained to a household of any economic means in various African kingdom. They moved around the household and village but everyone knew they were X slave. The Sugar Revolution occurred because of slavery, one can reason that if blacks were not forced to work on plantations, there would be no Sugar Revolution.

  3. You wrote “I have a bigger problem with the term “servant,” which implies a voluntary, contractual relationship between a willing laborer and an employer.”

    The picture of “servants” is complex.

    In 18th-century New England, the word “servant” broadly meant “anyone who worked for another in whatever capacity”. [Edmund S. Morgan, “Masters and Servants in Early New England” (More Books: The Bulletin of the Boston Public Library, vol. 17, no. 7 (Sept., 1942)), 311–312 (quotation from 311); George Lee Haskins, Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts, 81; Richard N. Morris, Government and Labor in Early America, 310 (correct “employers” to “employees”).] Thus in some contexts the word grouped contracted workers together with involuntary workers.

    A number of contracted workers were not entirely willing, such as transported English and Irish men and women, “redemptioners” whose labor was sold to masters to redeem their passage, or the poor who had paid passage but could not establish work as their own masters. Once contracted, servants’ lives were restricted — for example, they could be punished by beating, their time was not under their control, they could not marry. Contracted servants, like slaves, ran away from unacceptable servitude.

    There is no question that the condition of those we now call “slaves” or “enslaved persons” was cruel, inhuman. But some of the conditions imposed on contracted workers were the same as, or similar to, those imposed on enslaved persons. It is the conditions that were different, harsher, etc. that need to be used to distinguish what today we call “servant” from “slave.”

    1. Hi Joel,

      I appreciate your detailed and useful comment. All of what you say is true – that servitude could be used interchangeably to refer to contracted workers and involuntary workers, that indentured servants were oppressed in ways that echo the oppressions of slavery, and that not all servants willingly entered into their work contracts. However…

      I work at a 19th century historic site that was once a farm plantation with upwards of thirty enslaved African Americans laboring on its fields and in the big home. The context for the word “servant” in the nineteenth century is not the same as it was in the 18th century, and was often used by slaveholders in letters and books as a way of softening the nature of the master/slave relationship. Enslavement in the 19th century–specifically black chattel slavery–is markedly different than the system of indentured servitude that existed hundreds of years before or contract labor in 18th century New England. While I don’t disagree with anything in your comment, the particular context of my work situation doesn’t allow me to dive into the specifics like this and, given a choice between the two, I feel much better referring to “slaves” and “enslaved people” rather than “servants.”

  4. I’m late to this discussion, but I have a lot of thoughts. 🙂

    Regarding presentism, I think we need to be careful about what we want. If we’re looking for a term that encourages us to see people as they were seen at the time, we have to ask: as they were seen *by who*? There’s not a general answer here. Slaveowners saw slaves very differently than slaves saw themselves.

    I think the risk with “slave” is that it encourages us to take the perspective of slaveowners (and the law at the time) rather than the perspective of the people who were enslaved—which is of course just as historical. “Slave” isn’t really “the term historically employed to describe the ways slavery dehumanized its victims/survivors,” it’s the term historically employed to talk about people as property.

    This is especially important when your main topic is a slaveowner. “George Washington owned 300 slaves” paints a different picture than “George Washington kept 300 people in slavery” or “George Washington enslaved 300 people.” Talking about “owning slaves” minimizes the agency of the slavers, as though once someone is made a slave they just continue in that state unless they’re freed. But that’s not true—being a slave isn’t a matter of having been previously *made* one, it’s a matter of being presently *held* as one, of continued subjugation. I think the “enslaved people” locution helps keep that in focus. It’s easier to whitewash someone with “He owned slaves, but he eventually freed them,” than “He enslaved people, but he eventually freed them.”

    1. Hi CWP,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Since I wrote this essay I’ve been using the term “enslaved people” more and more on my interpretive tours, and I feel more confident in the idea that it’s the most correct term for discussing this topic. The points you bring up here reinforce my belief.

      I don’t quite follow your point when you state that “”Slave” isn’t really “the term historically employed to describe the ways slavery dehumanized its victims/survivors,” it’s the term historically employed to talk about people as property.” I think the larger point here is that regardless of the historian’s perspective–whether they viewed the enslaved as a dehumanized and victimized person or took the enslaver’s perspective of them as property–the term ‘slave’ has been the chosen word for describing those who were the victims of the institution, both at the time and in most historical scholarship. “Enslaved people” is a relatively new term that has only recently been in vogue with historians. Solomon Northrup’s memoir, for example, is entitled “Twelve Years a Slave,” not “Twelve Years an Enslaved Person.”

      1. I realized I probably hadn’t explained that well enough right after I posted!

        The word ‘slave’ just describes someone as being the property of another person. We now recognize that’s wrongful and dehumanizing, but that’s an interpretation the listener has to add for themselves—it’s not part of the meaning of the term.

        It’s helpful to compare it to a term like ‘genocide victim,’ or ‘apartheid victim,’ which (from ‘victim’) has *as part of its meaning* that the person was harmed and didn’t deserve how they were treated. When we say someone was a victim of genocide, we really are *describing* them as being wrongfully treated, not just expecting our listener to understand that. If the listener wants to dispute whether they were actually treated wrongfully, they would have to dispute whether they were actually a victim.

        ‘Slave’ isn’t like that. You can say “slaves benefited from slavery” or “slaves deserved to be enslaved” and you would, obviously, be terribly wrong, but you wouldn’t be *contradicting yourself* in the way you would if you said “the victims of slavery benefited from slavery” or “the victims of slavery deserved to be enslaved.”

        Compared to other mass atrocities, slavery is, as far as I can tell, unique in that its victims are most commonly referred to as something other than “victims.” We use specific words for the *perpetrators* of other wrongful acts—’genocidaire,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘torturer’—but we don’t normally use specific words for the victims. We have words like ‘rapee,’ ‘torturee,’ and ‘kidnappee,’ but outside of limited contexts they sound unacceptably glib, like we’re failing to acknowledge the seriousness of what happened to someone. We normally think it’s important to call victims “victims” (or “survivors”).

        But we have the word ‘slave,’ and we have it because it’s how they were referred to under the system. So not only does it not *itself* describe the treatment as harmful and wrongful, it also too naturally occurs in phrases that buy into the understanding of people as property, like ‘owning slaves.’ I think it’s why you see well meaning people still say things like “he gave his slaves part of the harvest.”

        I really don’t think there’s any value in using the same term used under an unjust institution—we would never refer to Holocaust victims as “Untermenschen”!—and I don’t think the value in continuing to use the terms used in past scholarship is itself that large (beyond clarity, and I don’t think there’s a real risk of unclarity with ‘enslaved people’).

      2. (I’ve been a little focused on working my thought—forgive me if it’s overdone re: what you’re thinking now 🙂 )

  5. If the abolitionists and the freed men used the term “slave”, why would we invent new terms now? Using the established ones is always simpler and sending the information clearer. There is a trend in present to change words for everything. I don’t agree with this as a principle. Call a spade a spade…

    1. Throughout the 19th century, reformers who genuinely cared about people with mental diseases (or who were at least perceived to be suffering from some sort of mental disorder) referred to them as “idiots,” “lunatics,” “dumb,” or “retarded.” Try applying for a job in a health and human services occupation today while referring to people that way and see what happens.

      The terms we use to refer to concepts, ideas, and people from the past sometimes change over time, and that’s okay. In the case of “enslaved people,” I am more adamant now then when I originally wrote this post that the term clarifies the humanity of the enslaved and is the preferred terminology used by descendents today.

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