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?