I have written before of my concern over the slaveholder’s lexicon, the ways in which historical writing and speaking can through the use of particular tropes and diction shape our understanding of the past in various ways. To call a person a fugitive slave or a runaway expresses a fact about that person, but expresses it in a way that carries an implicit condemnation. We don’t generally admire fugitives. Children run away. Whether we mean to or not, we have adopted the language of the slaveholder. That does not make the language necessarily inappropriate or unacceptable, but if we use it then we should use it with the awareness that we speak specifically of a particular reality constructed at the time and not necessarily in the same way as we would refer to past murders or other crimes that we understand more universally and more applicable to the present.
I used another at least somewhat problematic term in all the previous: slave. I don’t think that we will or should banish it from our vocabulary, but slave does not serve as a profession name like doctor or farmer. It refers to an imposed status. One can have farmers without anything save necessity compelling them to the task. Nobody makes doctors doctors any more or differently than members of other professions gain their titles. If their status comes from without, it also comes from a kind of personal choice that slaves, at least in the context of the Atlantic world, by definition do not have. Slaves became slaves because other people imposed that status on them. The condition of slavery arises from the act of being enslaved.
Slavery necessarily suppresses the person of the victim, most obviously in denying to the enslaved person the agency with which we prefer to lead our own lives. It stripes from the slave the ability to control their lives right down to the most basic levels. The slave has no ties that others must respect. The stroke of a pen or the pounding of an auctioneer’s gavel could separate friends and family, never to meet again. They could in a moment carry one away from all one knew, all the familiar comforts of home, across vast distances in chains to strange places that one had grown up with good reason to fear. The lash, cudgel, gun, and bloodhound replaced family and friends, hope and dreams, as the dominant influences in one’s life. If a slave could have moments of stolen joy, alone in the quarters with whatever bonds they could forge in their adversity or the quiet moments of knowing that one had resisted in a multitude of ways, then every morning brought the end of peace and beginning of pain and terror once more.
Words can carry multitudes within them; they must for language to work at all. But the very simplicity can obscure important realities even as it describes. Simply calling a bondperson a slave can make it an isolated fact, one that just somehow rose up out of the earth or fell down from the sky full-formed as if from the laws of physics rather than the laws of people. “Slave” tells us the status of a person, but does not invite inquiry into just how that person gained that status. “Enslaved person” both reminds us of the humanity of the person, makes slavery into a verb. Thus one naturally asks who enslaved this person? Why? The phrasing reminds us that slavery operated as a vast social, legal, and economic system in its own way as all-encompassing as democracy, communism, or capitalism. It took not just one enslaver, but multitudes who together imposed slavery upon the enslaved. We should look at the results of their work, but it serves us well to keep in mind that it did not have to happen. Enslavers chose to enslave and steal for themselves great fortunes and, beyond that, the foundation of the modern capitalist order, from the bodies and lives of their victims.
Furthermore, “slave” unadorned conveys an impression of stasis. If one’s status as a slave comes fixed, and it usually did in the antebellum United States, then one can take that as such only so long as only the legal status comes under consideration. Legal uniformity conceals a great deal of diversity not simply in time and place, but also in the lives of individual slaves. Enslaved people in the Chesapeake in the early nineteenth century feared the “Georgia men” who would buy them from their owners and march them in chains, constantly tugging at the neck because someone moved a bit too slow or too fast, down to that state and points further southwest. The Georgia men took them away from declining tobacco plantations where they and what families they could preserve had lived for generations and into the strange and often more brutal frontier where the measure of their lives would come down to pounds of cotton on a scale. Coming in too light meant whipping, a far cry from older, less industrialized forms of management that assigned slaves tasks for the day and let them work at something like their own pace with the hope of claiming the remainder of the time for themselves.
I don’t know that we can or should banish the name slave from our vocabularies. People of the time, including the victims, used it to describe their own state. “Enslaved person” does not always make for the best or easiest to read sentences, which could in itself impede understanding. When I first read it in Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, I considered it a good idea that might try a bit too hard. But the more I became used to it the more I appreciated the work it did. Baptist also uses “slave,” just as he uses both “slave labor camp” and “plantation”, “enslaver” and “planter”. Using both terms in conjunction allowed for the necessary brevity without sacrificing complexity. I don’t think that the word choice taught me anything new in itself, but it did help me focus my attention more broadly on the system than I might have otherwise. Thus I better grasped the history of slavery Baptist set out to communicate and better integrated it with what I already knew about antebellum America.
That might not work for everyone. Those more immersed in the study of slavery probably don’t require the help. Others might prefer more compartmentalized, particular understandings of slavery which sees the obscuring, stasis-oriented, and essentializing risks of the unadorned word “slave” as appeals rather than reasons to look for modification. I can only say that I got a lot out of it.