The History of American Slavery

Slave or Enslaved Person?

It’s not just an academic debate for historians of American slavery.

A woodcut from the 1837 broadside publication of John Greenleaf Whittier's antislavery poem, “Our Countrymen in Chains.”
A woodcut from the 1837 broadside publication of John Greenleaf Whittier’s antislavery poem, “Our Countrymen in Chains.” Image courtesy Library of Congress

This article supplements Episode 1 of The History of American Slavery.

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.”

Yet, if Foner questions whether slave does what its detractors say it does, still others favor the word precisely because it seems to blot out the complex skein of roles that constitutes a person. For this faction, enslavement “pervades and conditions all other identities, either chosen or given.” To suggest anything else flies in the face of empirical fact—it “implies a degree of autonomy that was simply never there.” More, sugarcoating the language of historical recall wastes an opportunity to reinforce slavery’s inhumanity, to hammer home the brutishness of the perpetrators’ worldview by forcing readers to inhabit it. (One thing the slave and enslaved person camps can agree on? The term slaveholder is far too kind. “That terminology is a gift,” historian Joshua Rothman told me. “They are thieves of others’ humanity. Man stealers. Vampires.”)

All of which raises a host of questions. Is it more accurate to emphasize people’s agency within the crushing institution of slavery, or to drill down into the system’s demeaning horror? And accuracy aside, what’s the more responsible route for a historian?

Peer through the keyhole of the terminology debate, and you’ll glimpse a bigger argument being hashed out. If you sing the inventiveness and resiliency of enslaved communities—men and women who resisted, or educated themselves; who became fully actualized humans and created a rich culture—you risk implying that slavery wasn’t that degrading. You insult the experience of the victims and almost apologize for the system. On the other hand, stripping enslaved people of agency would seem to reenact the evil of taking them captive in the first place. “There’s a long history of people arguing over the ‘degradation’ issue and using it to justify paternalistic treatment,” said Rebecca Onion, co-host of Slate Academy’s History of American Slavery. “After the war, people said, ‘exslaves can’t take care of themselves so we need to do it for them.’ ”

In some ways, the debate echoes conversations about domestic violence. Are battered women “victims” or “survivors”? What’s worth more to someone who has endured terrible treatment: an affirmation of their indomitability, or a respectful and empathetic acknowledgment of all they’ve been through? In theory, the two aren’t mutually exclusive; in practice, they’re tricky to reconcile. Historian Roberta Gold, drawing on her experience volunteering at sexual assault crisis centers, voiced doubts about mandating one term or another:

I am all for empowering people who’ve been abused, but I’ve often wondered whether these semantics weren’t more important to the counselors and advocates than to the women who’d been raped and beaten. I’ve heard some of the latter say “victim” without seeming to think it was a dirty word.  And indeed, why should victimhood be shameful? As well, the idea that there is a right and a wrong term seems to fly in the face of one of the best lessons I got from my counselor training, which is that different people respond differently to the trauma.

All fair points, and yet I’d argue that victim does something different, language-wise, than slave—while it defines someone as a passive recipient of abuse, it doesn’t shear away her humanity. Enslaved person seems useful because it can convey the monstrousness of slavery without subsuming those it describes into a separate ontological category. In fact, by underscoring victims’ personhood, this phrasing perhaps conjures the system’s evils more vividly.

“I have come over the course of my writing over time to try to use enslaved people when I can,” Rothman said. “But I am not quite as doctrinaire about it as some people are.” In his work, he’s “concerned with how a sentence sounds as well as the political implications of my language. I don’t like reading anything that pounds one word into your head over and over.”

Isn’t the aesthetic argument—sentence variety, etc.—a bit of a cop-out? “It’s impossible to strike the right balance between a dehumanizing institution and one in which people were able to carve out lives of meaning for themselves,” Rothman continued. “There’s no right answer.” Still, he would rather downplay the self-determining powers of the enslaved than understate slavery’s abasements. “There’s no way to get around how dehumanizing it is to be turned into a commodity,” he said. “You can try to use your scholarship to restore humanity to people, but it doesn’t change the history of it.”

“I think we like stories of agency too much, and they make us feel better about something that was totally awful,” agreed Onion. That said, she prefers enslaved person to slave. Acknowledging slavery’s real degradations doesn’t have to mean “using words that strip humanity from the people who were affected.” That’s why in Slate Academy’s History of American Slavery, she’s referring to the nine human beings whose stories the series tells as enslaved people. Language should be a light cast back on the past, not another set of chains.