What’s in a name?

“Are you a slave?” This is probably the number one question I get asked by students who come out and visit on a field trip. Because I am talking about, and dressed like a field slave, I get this question quite often. I always reply that I am not a slave, and I do not live in the slave cabin. But never has a child asked me if I was enslaved. And a common practice among many historic sites is to use the term ‘Enslaved African American’ when describing those who worked the plantation. But really, what should we call this group of people who were the property of someone and not even considered human?

In a recent comment, I was asked to consider using “enslaved African” or “enslaved person” instead of the term slave. Truth of the matter is, I flip between pretty much either word or phrase to describe the folks whose life I interpret. Has enslaved cropped up lately or at all? Probably not in the blogs. When I work with groups who are invested in interpreting the lives of African Americans tied to their site, I will use whatever term they are using to create consistency in interpretation. But when I am at work, I will flip back and forth easily because I deem it necessary to use either “slave” or “enslaved” to help make my audience comfortable with the subject material. I watch as fellow interpreters as well as the public fumble around trying to describe the black population on the plantation and the embarrassment they face because they don’t know which word will seem right. For some, it’s not easy to use the term enslaved because in today’s world of political correctness and the constant fear of offending someone, they just aren’t sure. I understand that there are folks who feel “slave” is a dehumanizing word and it lessens the power of an individual who was owned by someone else. However, the truth of the matter is, Africans and African Americans who lived in what is now the United States before emancipation who were not free were seen as property and often listed on inventories alongside furniture and livestock.

I use many methods to get people to understand the institution of slavery. By any means, I try to get the point across that this was a business first and a society with feelings for their workforce second. I work to get people to understand the mind of the slave owner and the mind of the slave. Or as some would like it, the enslaver and the enslaved. But either way you look at it, I work to help you understand how these two worlds revolved around each other and how one group survived the oppression, hostilities and dehumanization of another. Do I use the term slave out of disrespect or to take the easy way out? Hell no. To suggest that would be to suggest I don’t take my career seriously, and if you don’t walk away with anything else, walk away knowing I take what I do as a public historian very seriously.

Public history is an ever changing field and those involved in telling the story of slavery in America find that the way the story is told changes constantly as we try to find an America willing to talk about its dirty not so secret secret. To suggest that public historians are dehumanizing those whose shoulders this country was built upon by using the term “slave” makes me wonder if America will ever be ready to talk about slavery. It seems like there will never be an action, a term, an exhibit, an interpretation good enough to discuss slavery, nor will enough time pass before we are ready to sit down and speak on it. While I don’t work to please everybody, I do work to make sure that we walk away knowing the “slave” knew they were being kept against their own will, and that most (because not all may have) longed for freedom. I hope that the visitor walks away understanding that while one world saw them as property, this group created a life and a society outside of the walls of forced labor, lack of choice and loss of freedom. But if the focus continues on what name should be used or overshadows the examination of their lives and how they as “slaves” survived and caused a culture to thrive in this cruel and peculiar institution, we will never truly understand what it meant to be of African descent living in a country where you were looked upon as a thing, and not a person.

There’s power in a name. It’s my belief that the slave, or the enslaved, understood that but would want us to focus more on their life than what we choose to call them.

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1 Response

  1. Theresa Kelliher says:

    Thanks Nicole for a thoughtful analysis. I too use both terms…for me, sometimes it’s more of an English-language issue- in some cases, saying “slave” just makes more sense syntactically, and I don’t think the majority of visitors would notice the difference. Like you said, I think the more important goal is to talk about slavery and not get caught up in using the “correct” word…which may very well change next year anyway.

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