Evolving language: “Enslaved people,” not “slaves”  

Evolving language: “Enslaved people,” not “slaves”  

Connor Dwin, Contributing Writer

For eleven years at this school, I never thought twice about using the word slave to describe enslaved Black people. I think I defaulted to that term because I felt it adequately described enslaved African Americans, and because, for the most part, it seemed harmless. It was not until my junior year, when my history teacher Dr. Straus proposed the idea of using the term “enslaved individual” in the Comparative Race and Ethnicity elective, that I stopped using the word slave — and started thinking about its weight. 

The word “slave” emphasizes the position of an enslaved person while only implying that they are human. In continuing to simply suggest the humanity of enslaved Africans when addressing slavery, instead of explicitly stating their humanity, we are defining enslaved Africans as property first and people second. In using the phrase “enslaved African” instead of slave we are  accomplishing the opposite; we are describing them as “human first and commodities second,” as reporter Katy Waldman wrote in her 2015 essay on the word “slave.” By prioritizing the humanization of enslaved individuals we are taking steps towards fully recognizing their identities. In this way, we become enactors of historical justice, even on a small scale, because we are helping to legitimize the identities of a group of people who were never defined beyond their status as slaves. The term “enslaved African” also holds those who enslaved people accountable for their role in enslavement. While the word “slave” only denotes a person’s status, the term enslaved African indicates both the status of that person and — because of the use of the passive voice (enslaved) which suggests that a person actively caused something to happen — connotes the existence of an enslaver. It therefore connects the suffering and dehumanization of enslaved Africans to those who caused their suffering. 

When I first switched the terminology I was using, I never considered articulating the reason for the adjustment. To me, the change in wording seemed like a semi-needless act of political correctness, and I didn’t understand what the effect of using one description over the other was. Still, I continued to use the term “enslaved African” — mostly because it seemed like a more respectful way to describe a group of people and because changing my wording wasn’t bothersome for me to complain or protest. This year, in Dr. Meyers’ African American history elective, I have focused on the historiography of and philosophy behind Black history: how historians write and deliver Black historical narratives to accomplish different objectives. In Nikole Hanah Jones’s introductory essay for the 1619 project, she aims to shift the narrative of Black history from one of victimhood to one of patriotism, thereby spurring Black America’s pride in their Americanness. Discussing historiography through pieces like Hanah Jones’ made me more conscious about the power of language when it came to portraying slavery. 

Just as we should become cognizant of the terminology we use to describe enslaved individuals, we must also become more careful about the comparisons we make between small injustices our own lives and slavery. It is not exaggeration to state that American chattel slavery was one of the most servere forms of oppression in human history. Yet, even today I continue to hear others use slavery as a metaphor for our twenty-first century, first world problems. Oftentimes, I hear someone say “these are slave wages,” or “they treat us like slaves.” In comparing the relatively small injustices we experience today to the suffering enslaved Africans experienced, we grossly belittle the oppression enslaved African Americans endured by incorrectly labeling the injustice of slavery. In making that connection, we therefore become actors of historical injustice because we are, unconciously, encouraging a narrative about slavery is that blatently innacurate. 

As our interpretations of history change, the terminology we use must also evolve. A primary goal of history is to interrogate and revise our understanding of the past. The terminology we use represents, and partly dictates, how we view people and events. Therefore, because our understanding of historical narratives is ever-changing, our wording must remain flexible as well. Making the conscious switch from “slave” to “enslaved African” encourages us to actively consider the humanity of enslaved Black people and reshapes our understanding of slave owners as active agents who unjustifiably enslaved millions of people. Similarly, being more careful about the comparisons we make to slavery helps to prevent grossly understating the suffering of enslaved Africans. 

Though the majority of people at HM would be open to embracing evolving historical language, I find that many may just be limited by their lack of awareness. It is therefore our responsibility to educate them on the significance of wording so they not only recognize that they should be using one term over the other, but also why. American slavery was a tragedy; generations of my ancestors were born enslaved and died that way. I choose to use “enslaved Africans” instead of “slaves” not only to remain fluid in my use of historical language, but because I feel a need to recognize the humanity of my ancestors to the fullest extent I can. Altering our wording may seem like a needless practice of political correctness, but wording changes the way we approach African American, and therefore American history as a whole.