Should historians refer to slaves as slaves?

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Slaves

Should the historian’s first responsibility be passively representing the past, or actively seeking to right its wrongs, even if in some small way? Academics are divided over whether to use the term slave or enslaved person to describe black victims of institutionalized forced labor in the United States. The debate has even spilled from the windows of the ivory tower, with a Straight Dope poll inviting respondents to weigh in on the harsh single word versus the multipart “circumlocution.” (Bondsperson has emerged as a distant third contender.) It may seem like a meaningless exercise in semantics, ancillary to the system’s central sin. But larger questions crowd close.

Slave remains the more popular and widespread term. Yet, in the ’90s, an era that saw sensitivities to language increase, especially in academia, enslaved person supplanted it as the “superior” phrasing. The heightened delicacy of enslaved person—the men and women it describes are humans first, commodities second—was seen to do important work: restoring identity, reversing a cascade of institutional denials and obliterations. As one academic posted on a humanities and social sciences message board, “Slave is reductive and static and does not accurately reflect reality. Enslaved individuals are … complex human beings.” To reduce the people involved to a nonhuman noun was to reproduce the violence of slavery on a linguistic level; to dispense with it amounted to a form of emancipation: “Doesn’t emphasizing the personhood of people held as slaves allow us to escape the legacy of slavery, and free historians to better describe the past?” Or, as the writer Andi Cumbo-Floyd eloquently put it: “We carry them forward as people, not the property that they were in that time.”

Advocates for enslaved person claim that slave imagines slavery as an internal or even metaphysical condition, not an imposed and arbitrary one. Whereas enslaved person makes clear that the status is involuntary, and—as one grad student argued on the message board—dynamic. “Slavery,” he wrote, “is … a process. It’s constantly being negotiated. … For slaveholders, maintaining slavery legally, socially, and culturally is a constant struggle. And the reverse is true, of course, for slaves.”

But others disagree. Historian Eric Foner thinks substituting two words where one will do is needlessly obfuscating. “I was taught long ago by my mentor Richard Hofstadter that it is always better to use as few words as possible in conveying an idea,” he emailed. “Slave is a familiar word and if it was good enough for Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists who fought to end the system, it is good enough for me.”

Foner’s stance is not quite expressive economy uber alles. Rather, “I do not think that slave suggests that this is the essence of a person’s being,” he clarified. “It is a condition in which people find themselves and that severely limits their opportunities and options, but it does not mean, as some claim, that the word means they are nothing but slaves. 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.” ...

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