I’ve had this post hiding in the back of my skull for a while, possibly as far back as when I read Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, Volume One. As I’ve yet to drink deeply from the fire hose of slavery historiography, I held off on writing it. Even after The Economist affair it sat quiet in some corner of my mind. But Kevin Levin turned over that stone with this post. He quotes Baptist’s book, which sounds still better every time I hear about it, on the nature of slavery:
Talk about “stealing” forces a focus on the slave trade, on the expansion of slavery, on the right hand in the market, on the left picking ever faster in the cotton fields. In this story there is no good master, no legitimate heir to the ownership of slave property, no kindly plantation owner, only the ability of the strong to take from others. Stealing can never be an orderly system undergirded by property rights, cushioned by family-like relationships. There is no balance between contradictory elements. There is only chaos and violence. So when enslaved people insisted that the slave trade was the crystalline form of slavery-as-theft, they ripped the veils off a modern and modernizing form of slavery, one that could not be stabilized or contained. Constant disruption, creation, and destruction once more: this was its nature. (p. 189)
The authors of slave narratives sometimes refer to stealing themselves. In comments, Kevin quotes Frederick Douglass on the matter:
I appear this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and ran off with them.
Douglass certainly did that. He took another man’s property without permission by running away. But we seldom use that phrasing. I know that I have in the past, but rarely. More often we speak in terms of runaways. Children run away, but we know that they should be at home if everything has gone right. Livestock runs away. Trains and cars run away. In each case, we view these runaways as deviations from the natural order. Even saying someone has a runaway imagination carries with it at least a mild reproof. They’ve gotten carried away and abandoned good sense. Furthermore, each scenario implies a need for correction. Someone must stop, corral, find, or secure the runaway object or person.
Douglass famously made himself a fugitive. Fugitives have broken the law, making them criminals, but go a step farther still: They run from justice. They have not just done wrong, but even more completely isolated themselves from orthodox society by fleeing its corrective apparatus. Before advances in criminal justice, the common law made fugitives into outlaws and encouraged ordinary people who saw them to execute them at will. Though sanctioned by law and thus not technically lynching, such an execution might look much the same.
We take our cue on the latter from the fugitive slave act in labeling slaves that stole themselves, of course. People called them that at the time and it generally makes sense to use period terms rather than anachronisms. But in calling slaves who steal themselves runaways and fugitives, don’t we to some measure conceal the reality of slavery? The language suggests, even if we don’t intend it to, that a slave belongs to his or her master in the correct order of things. That may not raise problems when we characterize the views of slaveholders; we need not share someone’s views in order to report them.
But do we really stop with that language when we stop characterizing the views of slaveholders and switch to a more general voice? I don’t think that most of us do, myself included. We inherit the biases of our sources, which have a long history of privileging the master’s perspective over the slave. The last few generations of historians have made tremendous gains in reversing that trend, but these things often move slowly. Only in the last few years have we seen Hollywood move away from a faithfully Lost Cause depiction of slavery and the Confederacy. Defenses of slavery as something ultimately good for African-Americans remain current in some corners of American thought. One of them reached some fame this past year:
“And because they [Black Americans, though Bundy prefers the term ‘negro’] were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Less freedom than under slavery. Past generations didn’t even bother with the act, skipping right to simply calling black people lazy as the slaveholders did, even if they sometimes cloaked it in a scientific guise. Crude racism goes a long way toward accounting for this, but there are other human foibles at work. I suspect that most people flinch from a full-bore examination of the horrors of slavery. They don’t make for easy reading and lack the obvious immediacy that present day horrors have, even if we still live in the world they made. Looking away tends to preserve one’s impression of the peculiar institution as wrong in some vague, general sense rather than having a firm command of what it entailed that made it so wrong. This runs the risk of making slavery into a fairly venal sin, like cutting in line or using coarse language. By giving ourselves the luxury of obscurity we more easily inherit the language and attitudes of the very people and practices that otherwise condemn.
Changing the language will not change the reality, but it can help change our perception of reality. That might necessitate some kind of action. At the very least it raises one’s consciousness of the real, hard facts. This probably explains why most of us, myself included, don’t change our language.