Slave or Enslaved?

A Discussion from the Recent Past

In my write-up phase, I’m being very careful with terminology. What we write and how we write it has a serious affect on how readers understand our concepts, analysis, and argument. I’m taking this space to aggregate a discussion on H-Net from 2010 on the use of enslaved person versus slave that helped me grok a lot of concepts I once took for granted.

I saved this discussion when it appeared on H-Slavery in 2010, and recently stumbled across it while cleaning my bookmarks. It’s almost a perfect time for me, since I’m writing a lot about enslaved people and slavery, and since one of my colleagues, Kelly Kennington, a fellow Laura Edwards student, asked this same question a week ago over Facebook with regard to her upcoming manuscript.

I copy this here for posterity. The replies have only had minor punctuation and capitalization, if anything, done to them. In some instances, I have separated long paragraphs into smaller ones for ease of reading. I also stripped out superfluous title tags and everybody’s email addresses. Wherever possible, I try to keep full names. The words here fully represent the views of their authors as of February, 2010.

The discussion began with Jenny Shaw, on February 2, 2010.

Dear Colleagues,

In the introduction to her 1999 revised edition of *Ar’n’t I a Woman?* Deborah Gray White discusses why, if she were writing the book in the late 1990s rather than in 1985, she would use the term “enslaved” rather than “slave.”

I’m interested in finding other scholars who have self-consciously explained their reasoning for making the same change – almost all recent work on slavery uses “enslaved” over “slave” but, White aside, I have yet to find anyone who explains why the change is so important.

When I teach classes on slavery, I get my students to discuss the difference between the two terms, and they are quick to see why “enslaved” is more appropriate. I’d like to be able to explain the historiographical change in more detail and I haven’t had much luck finding scholars who articulate their thought process like White does, although I am sure there are many others out there.

Any suggestions gratefully received.

February 3

The next day, Randy Browne, a PhD student a UNC replied. Sidenote: I actually knew Randy while he was here. He’s an excellent historian and great person. I was happy to learn that he ended up at Xavier.

Professor Shaw raises an interesting question about the shift in historical writing from “slave(s)” to “enslaved” Africans/African-Americans or “captive” Africans (for those who deal with the transatlantic slave trade). Although I agree with Prof. Shaw that “slave” has lost much ground over the past two decades, there are some contemporary historians who have resisted using “enslaved” as an alternative. As David Brion Davis, for example, observed in *Inhuman Bondage *(2006), “it is extremely ironic but also understandable that many African Americans today strenuously object to the use of the words ‘slave’ and ‘slaves’ when describing their ancestors’ people. As we have seen, many Southern slaveholders also wished to avoid those words and succeeded in finding euphemisms for ‘slaves’ in the U.S. Constitution.” “Fortunately,” Davis writes, “there is no need to adopt the clumsy phrase ‘enslaved persons’ in order to show that inhuman bondage was never successful in dehumanizing a people…” (Davis, 412-13, n13). Like Prof. Shaw, I’m very interested in hearing other scholars’ reasons for preferring one term over the other.

Randy M. Browne

Shortly thereafter, Marc Ferguson (I believe this was the Marc Ferguson) and Clarence Walker replied:

I use both terms, somewhat interchangeably. I think the difference is that the use of “slave” implies identity, and carries with it something of an ontological aura, whereas “enslaved” refers to a condition.


Dear Jenny, to say blacks were enslaved ignores the fact that most Africans were slaves in Africa before the white man came. Slavery being the most common form of private property before the arrival of Europeans.

Best, CEW , UC Davis.

Later that day, many, many more historians weighed in.

Regarding the use of terms, “slave” and “enslaved African” or “enslaved person”: slave is the historically accurate term; enslaved person is a term born of and defined by our present. For those who wish to make us all feel better by not using the word slave, what would we tell Douglass to do with his title, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, or Harriet Jacobs with her title, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Shall we invent new titles for these two classics now as well? Is our naming and terminology about ourselves, our emotional needs, or about the past we describe, represent, and explain? American slaves knew they had been “enslaved” by someone or some process. They didn’t choose the condition. Why can’t we muster the same strength they did and leave the historical language alone in its accuracy?

David Blight
Yale University

Re. no. 3. [In response to Clarence Walker.] That statement is inaccurate. There are debates about how important slavery and the trade in slaves were in various regions of Africa before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, but no historian maintains that most people in Africa were slaves in any of the many and varied regions of Africa. And slavery as a legal status had a much more varied meaning in Africa than in the Americas.

I have problems with using the term “enslaved” instead of slaves in all circumstances because aside from being awkward at times it implies a certain unjustifiable shame about being a slave. Toussaint l’Ouverture was once a slave. And PC terminology rarely lasts and if your work lasts it sounds awkward and strange in the future. Maybe I’ve lived too long.

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

Using “enslaved” implies a change in status, which for many African-American slaves in North America was not the case. They were born into it, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. Imported Africans, however, were often enslaved in Africa, then sold into the slave trade. And these captives were the vast majority of slaves in the Atlantic World for most of slavery’s history there. I too like the term “captive” here – it implies that this status was not preexisting for most Africans, as they were often captured in wars or kidnapped during slave raids.

I would undoubtedly fall into the Michael Gomez, Ira Berlin, Phil Morgan, et al school – slavery varied widely in different times and in different places, making it difficult at best to generalize about some generic slave’s condition. Atlantic slaves came from different ethnic/language groups in Africa. Some made only one stop in the Americas, others made many. Some were sold only once, others were sold many times. And so on. Settling for calling them “slave” over “enslaved” or vice-versa sells this important distinction short in my opinion.

So the question becomes, how do you teach slavery to undergrads to make an impression that is nuanced but not overly confusing? I have found in my World History discussion sections that outlining a couple different cases of slavery in broad strokes is often useful. We introduce Ottoman slavery, then African slavery in Africa, then American or Atlantic slavery, mainly in the Caribbean and North America. Honestly, this is still way too broad and does not do justice to the subtle and not so subtle differences in my opinion, but, as you know, you must make tough choices in survey classes. If it was a class on, say, the History of Atlantic Slavery, I think you could certainly do this subject its proper justice.

All my best,
Steven Harris-Scott
George Mason University

Jenny Shaw, in her original inquiry, writes: “When I teach classes on slavery, I get my students to discuss the difference between the two terms, and they are quick to see why ‘enslaved’ is more appropriate.” I am curious why she considers it a foregone conclusion that “enslaved” is more appropriate than “slave.”

To answer the query, here is one historian’s explanation. Dana Raimy Berry, _Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe_ (2007), page 167, note 4, states:

“I prefer to use the term ‘enslaved’ rather than ‘slave’ because it forces us to consider that bondpeople did not let anyone ‘own’ them. They were enslaved against their will. In most cases, I use the terms ‘bondmen,’ ‘bondwoman,’ or bondpeople’ in place of ‘slave(s)’; these terms are used interchangeably throughout the book.

“It is also my preference to use the term ‘slaveholders’ rather than ‘slave owners,’ ‘owners,’ or ‘masters’ because we cannot assume that bondpeople allowed themselves to be owned or mastered by someone else. Instead, I use the terms ‘slaveholders’ and ‘planters’ interchangeably.”

Jenny Shaw draws our attention to Deborah Gray White’s rationale in _Ar’n’t I a Woman?_ (1999), page 8, that says:

“I would use the verb ‘enslaved’ rather than the noun ‘slave’ to implicate the inhumane actions of white people. The noun ‘slave’ suggests a state of mind and being that is absolute and unmediated by an enslaver. ‘Enslaved’ says more about what _happened_ to black people without unwittingly describing the sum total of who they were. ‘Enslaved’ forces us to remember that black men and women were Africans and African-Americans before they were forced into slavery and had a new–and denigrating– identity assigned to them. ‘Enslaved’ also nudges us to rethink our ideas about black resistance under slavery.”

Berry and White make significantly different arguments with respect to vocabulary describing the relationship of master and slave. White wants to employ “enslaved” to highlight “the inhumane actions of white people” who “forced” blacks into enslavement and assigned them to a “denigrating” identity (presumably “slave”), but against which the enslaved resisted–thereby refusing to internalize that white-imposed identity as “the sum total of who they were.” Since she freighted the word “slave” with so much meaning (beyond the simple dictionary definition) that she would banish it from current usage, it would have been useful if White had described the “state of mind and being” that she reads into the word. Instead, she leaves each reader to construct what identity whites imposed that prompted “black resistance.”

Berry, on the other hand, confronts the idea that chattel slavery was about property by denying that bondpeople “let anyone ‘own’ them.” She dis-allows the existence of “slave owners” because “we cannot assume that bondpeople allowed themselves to be owned or mastered by someone” — an assertion that would have come as a surprise to James C. W. Pennington who in 1849 eloquently argued that “The being of slavery, its soul and body, lives and moves in the chattel principle, the property principle, the bill of sale principle.” Berry implies that only slaves who willingly submitted to slavery were worthy of the name “slave”– and the rest, by wishing away their status as property, could apparently transform themselves into “the enslaved” or “bondpeople” (but in what way did that change in terminology ameliorate their condition, one wonders?). Except perhaps in some metaphysical sense of someone not being able to own the Indomitable Human Spirit, an argument that citizens of our slaveholding republic did not own slaves seems an absurd denial of the historical evidence.

I use both terms and variations of “bondpeople” in my writing, but merely as a way to vary vocabulary. Recent tendency by some authors to employ inelegant verbal contortions to avoid altogether using the word “slave” strikes me as an academic fad at best. At worst it suggests an unconscious mis-application of the historiographies of resistance and agency to retroactively emancipate the enslaved (because they weren’t really slaves) by altering the historic vocabulary of slavery — as if banning the word “slave” will somehow empower the dead. Berry protests that “They were enslaved against their will” — but isn’t that the nature of slavery, the forced exploitation of the unwilling? he formerly enslaved clergymen in Savannah in 1865 did not mince words when they told Edwin M. Stanton that “Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent.”

Surely the word “bondman” is susceptible to similar criticism as the word “slave” — since enslaved bondpeople were put in bonds against their will. For that matter, the “enslaved” were “enslaved” against their will. I do not see how reinventing the historic vocabulary advances our work. Historians who choose to reject the word “slave” do not show how that word is any more inherently definitive of a person’s identify than “white people,” “African,” “American,” or “historian.”

To suggest by re-ordering our vocabulary that some Americans were not “slaves” and that they were not really “owned” is a fantasy that sugarcoats the evidence and discredits the testimony of those who lived the experience.

David E Paterson
Norfolk VA

Later that evening, three more historians replied.

I feel there is a pretty strong consensus on this, but there is a point that needs adding – David Peterson writes: ” I do not see how reinventing the historic vocabulary advances our work. ” My point is that this is not just a question of historic vocabulary since slavery continues to exist around the world, and continues in forms that vary widely in different contexts (as Steven Scott-Harris pointed is true of the past as well). The correct word to describe a relationship in which one person has complete and violent control over another and uses that control to achieve economic exploitation is, and I would suggest always has been, slavery. A person caught up in slavery is a slave (noun) but can also be described as enslaved when you are using another noun to describe that person.

In that I do a good deal of public speaking, and much of it at universities, I have also encountered this objection to describing people as slaves. Usually the reason given is that the term is “insulting” or “degrading,” but to my mind that is like saying someone is a victim of rape is insulting them. The insult, the degradation, is in the action of enslavement, and suffered by a slave, but using the term “slave” is simply the clearest and simplest way to describe that state.

This is important in the present moment when there is still some confusion on the part of the public and policy makers as to whether slavery still exists. Any dilution or diminution of the vocabulary both muddies the waters and does a grave disservice to those who are in slavery today.

Kevin Bales,
Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation
University of Hull

Thanks to all who’ve contributed to this very interesting thread. I’m chiming in here as a non-specialist, who teaches the second half of U.S. survey, but who obviously has to say something about slavery when picking up the U.S. story in 1877. Since the semester is young, those class discussions are fresh in my mind; and what strikes me is that my students (mostly frosh and sophomores) do not at all seem to attach to “slave” the connotations about which White, Berry, and other critics are concerned. The students assume that “slaves” (a term they and I use) — as well as ex-slaves after the war — were tremendously resentful toward the institution of slavery and those who enforced it. Indeed, just the other day, one young man commented that he was surprised at the seemingly amicable coexistence between the races that he perceived (perhaps a little erroneously, but that’s another matter) in a reading on post-Emancipation Virginia. He said he assumed that the ex-slaves hated their former owners and would never forgive them, and that was how he’d feel in their (the ex-slaves’) shoes. Whatever else this comment says, it certainly does not give the impression that he thinks the slaves “let” anybody own them or embraced chattel status as their defining sense of self.

Further, just two weeks ago I was prepping my American Studies students (an advanced group) for some readings by giving a quick overview of the historiography of American slavery. When I got to U.B. Phillips they were stunned to learn that anybody had ever supposed the slaves to be docile and contented with their lot. That was far from what they’d learned in high school and college.

In short, while I have great respect for the work of Deborah Gray White and others who have done so much to probe the lives and consciousnesses of people held under slavery, I get the sense that at this point, the concern over terminology may be out of date. The undergrads I encounter (who may not be a representative sample, I grant you) are not taking “slave” to mean one who did not resist. Perhaps this points toward a real victory for scholars of slave/enslaved resistance.

Roberta Gold

There were many “historically accurate” terms used to describe people enslaved in the Americas. “Slave” was only one of them. “Negro” was often synonymous with slave. Others are not fit to print. Language evolves, and our choice of language is always ours, reflecting our values and “emotional needs,” and while we need to present the past as the historical record reflects it, we need not be wedded to its terminology. Why not honor Frederick Douglass’s claim to personhood (“how the slave became a man”) by calling him an enslaved person?

David Kuchta
University of New England

The conversation was just heating up!

February 4

Kevin Bales makes an important observation when he points out that slavery still exists and a change in the vocabulary describing that condition might dilute our understanding of the horror of that condition. I don’t see the argument for the use of the word “enslaved” rather than “slave” as doing that. His example of the use of the word “victim” in legal discourse involving rape or gender violence is actually a good case in point. Many writers and courts do not use the word “victim” anymore but rather describe such persons as “survivors” as this tends to avoid the stigmatization that the use of the word “victim” may connote. When we talk about the holocaust during the Nazi era it is now rare for someone to describe those who endured those events as “victims.” Those who survived are described in just that way: as survivors.

Another example of a similar change in discourse is the virtual elimination of the use of the word “Negro” to describe a black African or African-American. This is a clear case of not wanting to cause offense but it is also a case involving the recognition that language describing a status or classification sometimes carries an emotive or pejorative connotation that we do not wish to tolerate anymore. The best example comes from the legal literature. All law students remember the first time they read Justice Holmes’ infamous statement in the case of Buck v. Bell. In justifying the sterilization of developmentally disabled by the state of Virginia he said: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough!” The law used to describe such persons as “imbeciles” or “idiots” or “feeble-minded” or “lunatics” with great regularity but it does not use this language anymore. Whether the use of the word “slave” is headed in that direction remains to be seen but I don’t think we should dismiss the argument for using the word “enslaved.” It is more accurate in that it describes what is being done rather than the person’s status and is therefore less emotive.

I, for one, would like to see the use of the word “slave” become an anachronism.

Bernard K. Freamon
Seton Hall Law School

I also think that the age old term “slave” is appropriate and sufficient. The explanation given to me by another historian is that the term “enslaved” makes the point that someone else was responsible for the person’s loss of freedom. When I studied slavery in college and graduate school, the word “slave” implied the same thing. This is one of those examples where academics play into the hands to the critics who are quick to scream POLITICAL CORRECTNESS.

More troubling than political correctness is that this is an example of dumbing down our language. Doesn’t the word “slave” inform us that the person did not voluntarily become one?

Theodore Carter DeLaney, Ph.D.
Washington and Lee University

Later that day, a torrent of replies came through.

During the process of writing the wording for a State of Florida Historical Marker application for the African Cemetery at Key West in 2001 semantics were hotly debated. The title, said one who was in charge of the group donating the money for the marker, was “Slave Cemetery”. But the people buried there – 295 – were not slaves. They were Africans, just Africans. They were not slaves when they died at Key West. They had been liberated from slavers owned by U.S. Citizens and bound to Cuba from Africa, by three U.S. Navy ships. They were not enslaved, but had been captives. After our wording, “African Cemetery” went to Tallahassee, Florida’s capitol, where everyone there is a bunch of “we know, you don’t” types, we found the title changed to “Slave Cemetery.” I got it reversed.

But this is the point that should be established: a “slave’ is an object in the world’s history, an “enslaved” African/African-American/other person is a human being. Let’s not change historical writings, but start being human by using in our time “enslaved.”

Gail Swanson
Independent Historian

Some of us will continue to use the phrase “enslaved Africans” because it helps to emphasize the belief that Africans were not captured in the state of being slaves at the moment of being captured and enslaved. Of course, once in “the new world,” they, indeed, became someone’s slaves, as their descendants certainly did. On the other hand, others will argue that some Africans captured and chained in Africa were already some African’s “servant” or “slave” and was sold off to white slavers. Nonetheless, it is not at all clear that “servant” in Africa has the same semantic weight as “slave” in the Americas.

Mackie Blanton

The answer to Ted DeLaney’s question is “no.” The word “slave” tells us nothing about how the person entered into that status. There is a famous jazz piece by Rahsan Roland Kirk entitled “Volunteer Slavery” which seeks to pointedly condemn those people who voluntarily and stupidly enslave themselves to wrong-headed and degrading ideas and practices in modern society. I agree that the word “enslaved” does not tell us much more but it is a slightly better usage in that it describes the condition and the action involved rather than just the status.

Bernard K. Freamon
Seton Hall Law School

There are still many among us who think that the “Black Studies” project is about helping black people feel better about themselves. All logic and etymology suggest that if one is enslaved, then one is a slave. If someone can beat you, rape you, work you nearly to death, and then sell you down the river, you are a slave and it doesn’t matter what you think about yourself or your situation.

Robert Hinton
The Africana Studies Program
New York University

As a non-American, American society strikes me for its willingness to re-invent the vocabulary of the English language. In my opinion, the current debate about “slave” vs. “enslaved” has less to do with the intrinsic meaning of the two words than with this attitude towards the English language.

Some words have very precise meanings, and “slave” and “victim” are just two of them. There is no doubt that “victim” denotes a person harmed by an act of violence, or an accident, or an illness, or something else done against his will. I cannot see how and why a stigma should be attached to the word “victim”. If it does attach, it is not because of the intrinsic meaning of the word but because of other factors: removing the word from everyday language will not remove those factors from American (or any other) society. The same holds true for “slave”, which indicates a person that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, loses his personal liberty as a consequence of an act of violence and against his own will. As Dr. Delaney put it, “slave” conveys the notion of loss of liberty perfectly, and it is not by chance that “slave” has been the opposite of “free” for centuries. “Enslaved”, in case, may indicate the change of status from free to slave: but what does it happen after one is enslaved? Does he regain his liberty, or not? If he enters a permanent state of slavery, than he is a slave. I agree with Kevin Bales that it is enslavement/slavery which is insulting to and degrading for a human being, not a given word: quite to the contrary, if a word can express clearly and graphically this condition of loss of human dignity (and “slave” certainly can) so much the better. I also agree that finding new, more gentle and less challenging synonyms for otherwise perfectly functioning words may dilute our perception of a given phenomenon, simply by making it non understandable anymore at the semantic level.

Last but not least, words have a history and a meaning, and this in turn gives a general sense to the languages we speak. I see the point raised by Prof. Freamon concerning the word “Negro”: it was perceived by many as an insult and, indeed, it was employed by many as an insult and therefore, perhaps deservedly, it disappeared from scholarly language and maybe also from everyday language (although the factors that caused a mere colour adjective to become an insult are still there). But why call the victim of a rape a “survivor”? Was there a direct threat against his or her life? Because this is what “survivors” do: escaping alive from a situation which logically ought to lead to their deaths. Of course, and I would like to be very clear on this point, this is not to dismiss the suffering and potentially lethal consequences of a rape. My point is that, if we focus on the word “victim” because of the stigma potentially attached to it and not on the reasons behind such stigma, we may be in the condition in, say, twenty years from now to have to find a replacement for “survivor”. Same thing for the sexual offenders: why call them “predators?

Also, I do not think that the lesson of the case of Buck vs. Bell apply in our case: “imbecile”, “feeble-minded” and the like were pseudo technical terms with no real scholarly basis, which were deservedly wiped out not only by deeper social sensibility, but also by increased medical knowledge.

Best regards,
Giorgio Rota
Institut für Iranistik
Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften

Would any illumination come from approaching this question “backwards”? That is, what term or terms were and are thought appropriate to use in connection with the emancipated or ex-slave population? If “enslaved” carries a connotation of agency (enslaved by *others*), doesn’t “emancipated” do the same? Or are we just expected to know that many slaves played a part in emancipating themselves (e.g., by deserting the plantations)? The same questions and answers might be applied to the terms “freedman” and “freedwoman.” It seems easier to point to some moment or act of emancipation than to some comparable moment or act of enslavement. If by the latter we mean the whole miserable sequence (starting in Africa) of free people taken into captivity, sold, and transported, each maybe more than once, then it is clear most of the slaves in the US did not experience this sort of enslavement. What *was* enslavement for this majority? What *was* emancipation? I suspect we have routinely “defined” both in ways that make sense in an “adult” frame of reference. Is it not more likely that slaves in America experienced both as

Doug Deal
History/ SUNY Oswego

The first time I saw anyone upset about the term slave was in August 2005. I
had just returned to the hotel from a tour of the lower city in Salvador, Bahia
-Brazil. A fellow African American who was wearing a name tag that included
her academic title, was outraged because the young Afro-Brazilian tour guide
had used the term “slave.” The young guide was amazing. He gave the tour in 5
languages, for the variety of nationalities in the tour group. I was
mesmerized by his language ability, and easily he switched from one language to
another and answered questions in the language of the questioner. I was also
struck by the his vast knowledge of Brazilian slavery. The only thing the
outraged African-American seemed to hear was the word “slave,” and she was

I could not help but think how often we miss the point when we get
caught up in semantics of this kind. I wondered if the guide knew that
Americans preferred for him to say “enslaved persons” in 5 languages. Of
course slaves were/are human beings; I don’t deny that. Just think of what we
are arguing about: slave v. enslaved persons. Is this really so important? A
human being in shackles whose sole task is to contribute to the wealth of
his/her owner is still a slave, now matter what we call him/her.

Theodore Carter DeLaney, Ph.D.
Washington and Lee University Lexington

February 5

I had researched the etymology of the word “slave” in the Oxford English Dictionary. I discovered that the word has its origin in the experience of the capture and selling into bondage of the nations who called themselves “Slavs.” Africans whom were captured and sold into bondage after the nation-name had been adopted and adapted by the Western European nations and England, were referred to by this name. It seems that the idea was to duplicate the state of bondage inflicted on the “Slavs”; this being the case, then, “enslaved” appears to be the more correct term, i.e. “slavinized Africans.” Even “slave” became valid for me once I realized the word’s origin and inclusion in many major Western European idioms.

Felton Perry

Perhaps this is not the main point addressed by Jenny Shaw, however, even if “enslaved” sounds as an euphemism, as far as I know most African carried away as slaves were not slaves in Africa, at least until they were enslaved and handed over to European or American traders.

Gustavo Acioli
USP/FACAMP (Sao Paulo/Brasil)

I think Gail Swanson has it right: “slave” conveys the sense of an owned object.

“Slave” is a political status, not an identity. The history is all too real, and no one is trying to paper that over, certainly not because of shame. The reason people have advocated using “enslaved” was to look at that history from another angle, to highlight the acts that led to humans being held in bondage, the agency of slavers and slaveholders.

It’s a mistake to think of “enslaved” as only applying to African captives, but not their descendants in the Americas. Enslavement was an ongoing process backed by force, whether it was corporal punishment, killing, withholding necessities, sexual coercion, capture of those who escaped, the constant selling and auctioning of human beings. And let’s not forget, also the recapture of free Blacks, and enslavement of Indian people who stayed on their overrun lands.”

Enslaved” points up the agency of slaveholders, and it makes people think about subjugation, the people who suffered it, and maybe not just stop at “slave” as a familiar given. I’m not advocating exclusively using “enslaved” or never using “slave,” but an expansive naming that adds these crucial insights to the historical discussion.

Max D.

I use BOTH terms deliberately and purposefully because I believe both to have conceptual implications that are not always collapsible. It is not always either “slaves” or “enslaved Africans.” Consequently, the issue at hand is not necessarily one of political correctness.

There are contexts where no other term is more accurate than “slaves”, but there are others where the use of the term is either nebulous or inaccurate. The latter is often the case when we compound the word “slaves” with other words, such as the use of “African slaves” to refer to enslaved Africans in the Americas. Given that “African slaves” also — even more appropriately, in my view — refers to slaves in Africa (especially if the slaves were also African), such terms as “American slaves”, “Brazilian slaves”, etc., eliminate any ambiguities. Bear in mind that “African slaves” potentially refers to slaves of any race/ethnicity owned by Africans anywhere, including the Americas, just like “American slaves” or “Brazilian slaves” can refer to a slave of any ethnicity/race. All this makes “enslaved Africans in Brazil” more precise that say “slaves in Brazil” (though this is adequate in some contexts) and particularly “African slaves in Brazil.”

The example Gail Swanson has given — about how some people too easily collapse African Americans with slaves — is another major reason where the term “slaves” should be avoided whenever there is a credible alternative.

I think we should pay greater heed to calls for conceptual clarity. The tendency to dismiss conceptual issues has led us to a situation where scholars make references to people “capturing slaves” (even though a person does not become a slave until s/he has been captured and successfully enslaved) and to “liberated slaves” (even though the very purpose of liberation is to remove a person from the slave status).

G. Ugo Nwokeji

Excuse me if I missed some posting where the point I would like to make might have been already expressed:

It seems to me that ante-bellum records, at least in Louisiana, often use language to the effect that the person under jurisdiction has as an inherent quality that of being a slave. I think we can all agree that this position was often at the foundation of decisions in Southern courts. I would also think that we could agree that the idea of an inherent, essentialist quality of “slave” is wrong on the face of it as we understand identity now.

Therefore, it would make sense, wouldn’t it, to describe the condition of those under jurisdiction as being “enslaved” by some agency of the right to property which is, it was argued, inherent in white males,rather than being by nature a “slave”? I would not change language in primary documents but I do and will use “enslaved” in my commentary because it is more accurate.

Jon-Christian Suggs

I am a little hesitant to contribute to this discussion because I am not a historian of slavery. However, teaching at a small college has allowed me to branch out and for the past three years I have been teaching courses on slavery and African-American history. I often use Walter Johnson’s essay in the Journal of Social History entitled “On Agency” in these classes. It’s clarity, forcefulness, and intellectual breadth make it an ideal introductory piece for my undergraduates.

One point from “On Agency” that has always stuck with me is Johnson’s hope that the study of slavery (as an institution) teaches us that enslaved persons lived lives that were powerfully conditioned by, but not fully reducible to, their status as “slaves.” In other words, slavery was but one part — an incredibly important element, of course — of the complex social and psychological life of those enslaved. But, as he points out, enslaved people were mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons; they were Christians and Muslims, they were republicans, they operated in the market, etc., etc. In other words, like all other historical subjects, they lived complex lives.

It seems that what is missing from this discussion is the way in which the term “slave” limits our historical vision of a certain group of people. First, “slave,” like “victim,” turns these subject of history into a passive objects of society (I’m not sure that “enslaved” totally gets us out of that problem, but it signals a willingness to treat slavery as a process rather than an absolute condition). More importantly, the term slave is currently saturated with popular and mythic meanings of absolute victim-hood and complete and utter despair, not to mention the near-total social annihilation attempted by the legal system that created slavery and the cultural framework that had supported it. Hence, to deploy the term slave seems to set up a semantic struggle from the get go that the contemporary historian has to work against. Why else would much of current slavery studies be dedicated to demonstrating enslaved people’s “humanity”? Are there any other historical persons that we try to _prove_ are human, that we have to argue are people? That’s a profoundly weird project. To me, the turn to the term enslaved is an attempt to sidestep what should, buy now, be a given. Enslaved people, like other people, are people. So let’s try to understand their lives in whole.

Ryan J. Carey, Ph.D.
Bard College at Simon’s Rock

Not only did the term slave come from “Slavs”, it has been used for centuries to describe slavery in the Bible. Hebrew slaves were not of Slavic descent. The first slaves in the Americas were indigenous people. Native Americans were called slaves too. Remember the unique thing about American slavery is that it is racial slavery; and in that way it differed from Old World slavery, including slavery practiced on the African continent. Remember also those white slaves in ancient Rome.

I teach a collegiate seminar called Slavery in the Americas, a comparative course that focuses on enslavement of both indigenous peoples and Africans in both hemispheres. Millions more “enslaved” Africans (slaves) were imported into the Caribbean and South America than into what would become the United States. And oddly, folks in the USA are the ones who are most keen on use of “enslaved people.”

Theodore Carter DeLaney, Ph.D.
Washington and Lee University

And the common leave-taking and greeting “ciao” comes from a dialect pronunciation of the Italian version of that word, “schiavo”, from the phrase “I am your slave”.

The Latin word for slave, “servus”, means “saved out”, i.e. from the captives who were to be slaughtered.

Pat Barrett

FWIW, I have tended to use the term “people who were slaves”, while aware of the clumsiness of it. That arose from a desire, on the one hand, not to deny the slave status; but also to reinforce to an audience of readers in a field concerned with people and how they are organized and managed (ie management studies) that its ignorance of slavery was problematic.

Bill Cooke


I hesitate to re-enter this debate once again, but somehow cannot resist. To suggest that this problem is not driven by “political correctness” in some form is to ignore where it all came from. And to suggest that using the term “slave” makes the person “objects of society” can only be true if we assume that we are ignorant of the lives, circumstances, and history of the people we are describing. Mr. Delaney makes a good point about how it is North Americans who seem most possessed by this issue. There surely are moments when one term or another is simply more useful or accurate; thus is always the case with language. But only in a society obsessed with self-esteem and in one that assumes that the function of history and knowledge is first and foremost to affirm all of us as having a place in a story of “progress” does this so readily come up. Language might make us feel better but how much real inequality does it overthrow? How many slaves were freed by one term or another?

Some seven years ago or so I chaired a session on slavery and historical sites at the annual meeting of the Public History Association. We had some three excellent papers all about the issues and dilemmas of interpretation from one region or kind of site to another. When it came time for Q and A, and after my comment, the first three-four questions were all about why I and the authors of the papers had employed the word “slaves” and even “slavery.” In a very well attended session of public historians and others we never even addressed the genuinely important and fascinating substance of the papers; we only debated the use of these terms as though nothing else mattered to that particular American audience. What, my friends, are we displacing as we continue to discuss this question of terms? In this field we used to debate such questions as whether slaveholders were true capitalists and could also believe in republicanism, whether and how slaves themselves created a rich and abiding expressive culture, and just which layers of the world the slaves made most reshaped American culture generally. We used to debate whether emancipation stemmed from moral or economic impulses. Instead, we seem to love our problem of labels. What happened to the big questions folks?

David Blight
Yale University

Several contributors have drawn a parallel between the slave/enslaved and the victim/survivor distinctions. I find that interesting and perhaps instructive. I’m not an expert on the history of victim services, but my anecdotal sense (as someone who was a volunteer counselor at a sexual assault crisis service in the mid-1980s) is that at first it was a big feminist accomplishment just to organize counseling and other support for people who had been raped or battered; and then some years later, language became important and “suvivor” came into favor. The logic seemed to be that “survivor” foregrounded strength and resiliancy, and that resiliancy was something to be proud of, and hence by highlighting resilancy we were respecting and empowering our “clients” more than we would by saying “victim.” “Survivor” quickly became the approved term within the advocacy establishment. (This may be an oversimplification and I’d love to see a good scholarly study of the history.)

I had and still have mixed feelings about all this. 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. There is no set formula such as three weeks of “the trauma phase,” six weeks of “the anger phase,” and so forth. So why should there be one universally correct term? Some people may want to highlight their resiliancy, others their victimhood, and still others may use both terms at different times. As long as we are not talking about clear-cut epithets, like “imbecile” (Buck v. Bell), I don’t see why counselors or anyone else should set up an orthodoxy. (I think there may be a similar range of opinion among people who are blind, paralyzed, etc., over “disabled” versus “differently abled.”)

Scholars writing about historical slavery can’t directly consult their subjects about semantic preferences, although sometimes they can listen to the language those people used. And as I wrote before, I’m not at all sure that “slave” really connotes lack of agency to most of our readers and students. I suspect that the most effective way to call attention to the agency of various people involved in slavery is to write or teach with good examples of what those people did to resist or to enforce the institution.

But for those who attach more weight to the nuances of language here, it seems to me that thoughtful scholarship calls for attention to the agency of slaveholders, to the agency of slaves/enslaved people, *and* to the victimhood of the latter — and hence for a varied vocabulary.

Roberta Gold

As someone who generally prefers the adjective “enslaved” to the noun “slave” for the same anti-essentialist reasons that I prefer to use the words “black” or “white” as adjectives rather than a nouns, it occurs to me that this debate raises another interesting question: what should we do with various words deriving from “freedman”? If we accept the point (well-put by Ryan Carey in his discussion of Johnson’s ‘On Agency’) that enslaved men and women were far more than slaves, then this also carries important implications for our discussions of the formerly enslaved, a somewhat cumbersome construction but one which nonetheless carries the logic of enslaved-vs-slave beyond emancipation. I wonder what the list thinks about this?

B.T. Schiller

February 8

Hi everyone: I know there has been a lot said on this, but I wanted to expand on the issues raised by David Blight. What would Frederick Douglass, /An American Slave/, have thought about our current obsession with language, terminology? I think David would agree that few in history have been more sensitive to words and their power than Douglass. When he developed an antislavery reading of the Constitution in the 1850s, he relied not only on the power of words, but their malleability–“If the language of any part of the Constitution could be tortured into a doubt whether Slavery were favored or not, we had a right to take advantage of that dubious language, and construe it on the virtuous side.”

Our current focus on words, however, has failed to link to the “big questions” just as much as the “big questions” have failed to link and acknowledge the power inherent in words. Ned Blackhawk bemoans “representational violence,” acts of omission in the historical record committed by generations of historians and other shapers of the past. The current exploration of language, I think, reveals scholars uncomfortable sharing the same word, “slave,” with the likes of James Henry Hammond, Thomas Dixon, and Bull Connor. The meaning of “slave” changed and is changing over time. How this transformation relates to the “big questions,” though, is not something that we can continue to ignore. I suspect that there is a meaningful way to bridge the two sides, but we haven’t yet uncovered the means–the words–to accurately convey the relationship.

All best,
Scott Gac
Trinity College

I respect those colleagues who have spent their careers recovering the history of slavery, but let us not forget: the denial of personhood is central to slavery. No, slavery IS the denial of personhood. And the assertion of personhood, in courts, in slave narratives, was central to slavery’s abolition. So the debate over vocabulary should be no less important to historians than other debates, some of which have revolved around the vocabulary historians use to describe the past (as in, were slaveholders “capitalists”?). Consider this debate one of historiography: how should historians describe the past? 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?

David Kuchta
University of New England

First of all, I want to say that this debate has made me think about slavery in new and in new and interesting ways – I am incredibly grateful to the participants.

I think there are two very different (but connected) arguments being made for use of the term “enslaved.” The first is that the term “slave” is reductive and static and does not accurately reflect reality. Enslaved individuals are dynamic and complex human beings – they are more than mere slaves. The second is that “slave” carries too much emotional baggage, is demeaning and hurtful. I want to share my ruminations on the former argument, though I think the latter is equally important.

When I entered my local Stop & Shop this weekend, I found a pile of glossy pamphlets in the produce section honoring Black History Month. The pamphlets were entitled “Profiles in Excellence: A Celebration of Dance” and provided a brief overview of “African American Dance,” from the 18th century to the present. The author was very careful to use the term “enslaved Africans” for the charter generation of chattel captives, which sounded fine to me in context. But (s)he also wrote that “African Americans sang and danced in the places where they worked as slaves.” Slavery sounded like it was just something they did from time to time – not a totalizing institution. They “worked as slaves,” just like I work as a grad student or my mom works as a librarian. I think such phrasing is an example of what can happen if we enshrine a predetermined set of linguistic constructs and make language a fetish over analysis.

I agree that both “slave” and “enslaved” have their merits; both should be used. I think “enslaved” draws attention to the important point that slavery is, fundamentally, a process. It’s constantly being “negotiated” (although I hate that word – I think the hoary old Marxist term – “struggle” – is far more appropriate). For slaveholders, maintaining slavery legally, socially, and culturally is a constant struggle. And the reverse is true, of course, for slaves. But slaves don’t just “work as slaves.” Even when they carve out time for themselves or challenge the boundaries of the institution, they are still, materially, “slaves.” As Orlando Patterson would say, they are still “natally alienated” chattel. It’s an empirical fact. Yes, slaves are “mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,” thinkers and actors, etc., but this does not negate their status as slaves. In fact, their slave status pervades and conditions all their other identities, either chosen or given. To suggest otherwise is to imply a degree of autonomy that was simply never there.

Labor historians don’t write of “persons alienated from the means of production.” They write of “wage laborers,” or just “workers.” Likewise, I think it’s perfectly fine to use the shorthand “slave” rather than “enslaved person,” depending on the context. It’s up to the historian to show how slavery functioned as a process (in fact, mirroring Rebecca Scott, I think we can speak of “degrees of slavery” in various times and places). We shouldn’t rely on some mandatory predetermined language to make the argument for us. A rose by any other name would still smell as foul.

Joseph Yannielli
Graduate Student, Yale


As I read this thread, I wish I had answers to share with my students….it is especially perplexing dealing with students in Northern Ireland, as the Irish were held in “thrall” from Iceland to the Caribbean—and the modern civil rights movement in Northern Ireland modeled itself on U.S. movements and “language as status” remains a significant component on both sides of the debate and across many oceans.

But back to U.S. academe—like many readers of these postings, I hesitate to jump in–but suggest perhaps we can get some perspective by looking at waves of reinterpretation from the 1960s, 70s and into the present, and ask our fellow scholars in the field of “native American history,” “Amerindian history,” “American Indian history,” “indigenous peoples of North American history,” etc. to see if they might shed some light on this particular impassioned debate—

What hath renaming wrought?

Catherine Clinton
Queen’s University Belfast

As much as I would think such a thing would never happen, I believe David Blight has missed the point–or at least my point since he ignores it. That point is not that “slave” is “politically incorrect” but that in their assumption in the legal historical record that some people have the inherent quality of “slave-ness” in them, ante-bellum jurists were philosophically incorrect by making an essentialist argument where accidentals were in play. Even if one wants to say that said jurists didn’t really believe that and it was only legal rhetoric, all the more reason to abjure.

Jon-Christian Suggs

February 10

As far as I could tell, no one in this discussion described being asked to use “slave” or “enslaved person” when she or he preferred to use the other term. The choice appears to be a matter of preference, and people have stated the meanings they attach to their own choices.

As a quondam book editor, I think both terms will and should remain in use. “Slaves” won’t go away, especially in titles; it’s a short, aurally strong, and evocative word. Repeating a phrase like “enslaved people” over and over will start to spoil one’s writing style–but so will repeating “slave,” or “bondswoman,” or any other term, after a few more uses in quick succession. Having synonyms to draw on enlivens one’s writing.

In my own writing I try to toss “enslaved” or “kept in slavery” or “held captive on a slave labor plantation” at the start of a piece, for the reasons people have stated. But I don’t mind using “slaves” as well, and I think the most powerful way to communicate that those enslaved people were people is to illuminate their lives.

(Now if we could only minimize the use of the word “persons” instead of “people.”)

J. L. Bell

Hi Everyone,

I have really enjoyed this discussion thread. The term “slave” seems appropriate when discussing the past because it holds for students and scholars a stronger identification of an individual’s experience from being in bondage. However, that does not mean that the author needs to support the term as a complete cover for a workers identity. Many people in bondage were also stone carvers, textile artisans, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and were identified as such within their communities and accepted this as their identity. I explain this to my students so that they will not excessively use the term “slave” as a single identity and that the term was a given identity and perhaps not necessarily adopted by the individual. My research interns and I deal with the problem of terminology a great deal because of our research project, Africans Americans that settled in southernmost Illinois during and after the American Civil War. I have recently had an interesting experience with this project. I located a map of the Union occupation of Cairo Illinois. On the map it revealed the officers quarters, etc and the contraband camp. When viewing the same map but created at a later date the map labels the camp as contraband/ freedmen camp.

Rachel Ensor

February 12

Ending an excellent discussion was David Waldstreicher, at Temple.

J.L. Bell is right that both terms — “slave” and “enslaved person” – will remain in use, if only because editors and publishers realize that readers value readability and elegance and will tolerate some ambiguity in terminology more than scholars do. We all know that words can mean more than one thing at the same time. Why can’t we trust ordinary people to know that the word slave means enslaved person in most contexts even if masters used it to mean something more like “natural slave”?

But even if no one has described it, as Bell rightly notes, I more than suspect that many of us have been asked, or told in high dudgeon, to change our terms. And this has been going on for a while.

A dozen years ago, I submitted an article about runaway slave and servant ads in the mid-eigtheenth century mid-atlantic to a leading American Studies journal. One of the readers for the journal spent his or her entire report lambasting my use of “runaways” and “fugitives” instead of “escaped persons.” (And this in an article that was in part about the language masters used to denigrate their human property.) The article was rejected. It was soon subsequently published in the leading early American history journal, The William and Mary Quarterly, none of whose 5 readers raised the question of terminology.

Too often, I fear, “enslaved persons” and the like function as euphemisms covering the fact that to masters, and the law, they were slaves. More importantly, such usages also may well cover over the contest over the nature of enslavement and its languages that occurred in the past. The net effect is to make us seem enlightened and in control of our language. We may rightly wish for a term that would consistently highlight (“privilege”?) the act of enslavement and the refusals of dehumanization by the enslaved , but when we do so we are playing the same game as the masters who called their slaves “servants,” and we will not control the results any more than the antebellum master class controls our present-day historical interpretations of history. (Answer: they don’t, and they do, in ways we will continue to realize. Isn’t it a tad arrogant to assume otherwise?)

It seems there’s a sense for some folks in certain (inter)disciplines — though not in the discipline of history, for reasons that David Blight and others have raised — that policing people’s everyday language, even in discussing the past, is central to the educational enterprise and its politics, and more important than actually discussing history itself. (I know it is considered impolite to raise disciplinary differences in our interdisciplinary paradise, but we can hardly transcend them or improve our fields without discussing them.) Since, in this sociological view we mainly study the history of slavery (sorry… the enslavement of Africans?) in order to resist racism, dehumanization etc., why not get right to the point and attack slavery every time the word is uttered?

To me this is something of an Education school view of the role of historical and scholarly discourse. My interdisciplinary credentials are solid enough for me to say that when we do this we aren’t doing good history insofar as we are simplifying if not cutting off the very discussion about the uses of language _in the past_ that we ought to be having.

So if you are talking to kids and you want to be sure they understand that slaves were real people and had been forcibly enslaved and/or kept in slavery, because that point may not have been made or understood yet, go ahead and use “enslaved persons” until the point gets across. But in a forum like this list, or most places wherein educated adults and I think college students are concerned, I think we can say “slave” and “slavery” & save more of the worrying about language for the language of our subjects, which is worthy of at least as much care as we devote to our own language.

David Waldstreicher


Today, there isn’t much heat left in this debate. Historians have more or less settled on careful usage of the term enslaved for the interpretive power it lends readers, while allowing some balance and interchangeability to not, as J. L. Bell wrote, “spoil one’s writing.”

For my part, I believe Professor Blight’s insistence that the term “slave” is only in bad faith when we truly don’t understand the people we label slaves is directed at the wrong element in the equation. We write not just so that we can understand the past, but so that others can, too. We might know the subjects we label slaves, but to ensure that readers never forget the work and power it took to create American slavery, it helps to use the term “enslaved” as often as possible.

Also, I find it interesting how times have changed. Some professors still cling to the pejorative use of political correctness, but I would wager that most understand it as an important function of modern societies. Just five short years ago, even professors were nearly halting debate over important decisions regarding vocabulary and terminology by throwing up their hands and spitting “politically correct!” One day, I may find my views on this issue and political correctness silly, but from 2015 looking back such critiques of very important discussions like these seem only petty.