On Using the Term “Enslaved People” on Slave Plantation House Tours

One of the most urgent questions in recent years for those of us public historians who work at slave plantations has revolved around the proper terminology for referring to the historical victims of black chattel slavery. For years historians–both public and academic–have used the term “slave,” but a vigorous and compelling argument has recently been made to replace “slave” with “enslaved people.” Last year I wrote an essay outlining some of those arguments, and since that time I have come around to believe that “enslaved people” is the better term to use (although I do a bit of interchanging between the terms for clarity and to avoid repetitiveness in my talks). The reasoning is simple. “Slave” runs the risk of portraying these people as property first and foremost, whereas “enslaved people” highlights the human dignity of those who labored under the status of enslavement. Enslaved people were people first and foremost, even if some at the time like Chief Justice Roger Taney considered “slaves” property and not people under the terms of the 5th amendment. While there are concerns about presentism in the word “enslaved people,” I am not as worried as I once was about that particular concern because we use “presentist” terms in other contexts without hesitation. “Negroes” are now referred to as Black or African American, and the “War of the Rebellion” is now commonly referred to as “The Civil War” or, if you are so inclined, “The War of Northern Aggression,” a term invented during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the course of actively using the term “enslaved people” more frequently on my tours, I’ve been impressed by the number of visitors who have asked questions about the term and/or praised my use of it. To be sure, the vast majority of visitors either have no opinion one way or the other or choose to keep their thoughts to themselves, but it’s nonetheless remarkable how many conversations have occurred with visitors over the term. Those who’ve engaged me in conversation have often commented on how they appreciated how the term more strongly brought out the humanity of enslaved blacks than did the term “slave,” and one visitor who works in the education field commented that the term represented one small step towards making historic sites more welcoming to people of color. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.

I recently experienced my first considerable pushback from a couple taking my tour, however. They were actually very friendly people and we had a good conversation about a range of topics, but it was obvious that the term “enslaved people” had rubbed them the wrong way. “Are you not allowed to use the word ‘slave’ anymore? Is the government making you say that term? ‘Enslaved people’ sounds like a politically correct term to me.” No, I’m not a leftist government agent tasked with engaging in an Orwellian project to push political correctness onto the American people. I just want to use inclusive, respectful language that accounts for the varied experiences of people who lived in the United States during the nineteenth century.

It’s unfortunate that someone could put up such a fuss about the term “enslaved people,” but the use of the term “political correctness” is instructive. One of the most obnoxious traits of contemporary society is to assume the worst intentions in what people say to each other. If everyone around you is perceived to have bad intentions, it’s not a stretch to say they might assume the worst of intentions in you as well. Of course intentions and outcomes are two separate entities, and one person’s positive or at least innocuous intentions can definitely lead to negative consequences. But to constantly assume that a person’s attempt at respectful language is “political correctness” is, in reality, a sign of personal sensitivity, anger, and defensiveness. And the term “political correctness” is typically used in an effort to shut down debate and enforce silence on potentially touchy topics.

Anyway. The effort to more frequently and consciously use the term “enslaved people” on my tours has been largely successful and I hope more interpreters at slave plantations consider using it in the future.

Cheers

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11 responses

  1. This made me think. Thank you. Shared on FB.

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing!

  2. […] than in the past, because I believe the argument for its use is very valid. Today on his blog, Nick discusses his use of the word while on the job at a public history site. Most people seem to be welcoming of it (or just keep their dissent to themselves), but he has […]

  3. To further the discussion, what term or terms do you use to describe “slaveholders,” “masters,” or owners? I use enslaved people as much I can, but I haven’t figured out this half of the issue

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Good question. I have heard arguments for the term “enslaver,” but I tend to lean towards slaveholder. “Master,” it seems to me, has taken on a sort of benevolence that I can’t really describe other than to say that many visitors ask me if “the masters were good people.” Either way you raise a good question, one that I haven’t thought about as much as the “enslaved people” vs. “slave” question.

  4. Shifts in linguistic usage always bother me, for the simple reason that a careless usage of the “previous term” can give a wrong impression to people. That said, I actually like this one, for the reason you gave—it emphasizes their humanity. As an editor I confess I prefer the brevity of “slaves” vs. “enslaved people” (which also often sounds awkward in a sentence). There might actually be merit in continuing to use both terms—“enslaved people” to emphasize their humanity, “slaves” for simple linguistic variety and better editorial flow, but also to remind the audience that the world in which these people lived most decidedly did NOT recognize their humanity.

    1. I agree with you about the need for a good flow editorially, and I do intersperse the word “slaves” in my tours simply to avoid unnecessary repetitiveness.

      Shifts in linguistic terms are bound to occur over time, but I think any such change must have a convincing argument behind it. Historian Michael Landis argued in a History News Network essay last year that the “Compromise of 1850” should now be called the “Appeasement of 1850,” but his argument in the essay was unconvincing to me.

  5. This is one of your best blog posts, my friend! 🙂

  6. Political correctness seriously needs to stop. You’re thinking you can make a change by just changing the word. If that was the case, we’d all be holding a dangerous amount of power. But even worse, it’s not even a different word. It’s literally the same word, used in a more awkward way. What, next we’ll say “the enpigmented”?

    1. Your comment had me laughing pretty hard for a brief moment, so thanks for that. It appears you didn’t even bother to read this essay in full before commenting.

      Guess what: I DO think I can make a positive change by changing a word. There was a time when historians used to call enslaved blacks terms like “Sambo,” “Darkies,” “Pickaninnies,” or worse, but we as a society recognized that those words were disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning, and should therefore not be used anymore. We are a having an ongoing, similar discussion about the terms “slave” versus “enslaved people” and that discussion should continue. Under your logic, however, I should be allowed to call slaves “pickaninnies” because the words mean the same thing. I wonder how much longer I’d have my job if I did that!

      Also, “political correctness” is a meaningless term. I stated in this essay that political correctness “is typically used in an effort to shut down debate and enforce silence on potentially touchy topics,” and that describes your comment perfectly.

      Hope you have a better day.

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