It’s time to stop using the word “slave” and refer to the human beings who were enslaved as “enslaved people.”
Africans were forcibly brought to this country and enslaved, but they were fully human, even when enslaved. Using the term “enslavement” puts the onus where it belongs, on those doing the enslaving, while “slave” strips the human beings enslaved by treating them as property, or things, which, of course, is how their owners regarded them.
Calling them an enslaved person shows they’re a person who has been pulled into bondage. To put it another way, the people the term “slave” describes are more than their current or historical condition, which can and does change.
Before Africans were captured and loaded onto ships, they were not slaves. After emancipation, they were not slaves. That there was a beginning and an end to their enslavement reinforces the fact that slavery was the condition they were held in and not who or what they actually were. Using the term “slave” has allowed us to make a permanent statement about who they were, with no regard to their many other roles and conditions in life.
When it comes to our history, referring to our ancestors as slaves can be downright disrespectful. The enslaved were counted as less than human by their owners. By dehumanizing those kidnapped Africans and reducing them to “slaves,” they could be bought or sold just like a tool or object. Slaves had no value as human beings only as tools to be used for profit.
Dictionary.com will no longer use “slave” as a noun to describe people because it’s dehumanizing. John Kelly, managing editor of Dictionary.com notes, “Our old, very outdated definition described Harriet Tubman as “US abolitionist, escaped slave and leader of the Underground Railroad.” But what is the effect of calling Tubman an escaped slave? It’s dehumanizing. It’s dehumanizing to her, it’s dehumanizing to all of those people who were subjected to chattel slavery. It takes away her agency and does not hold enslavers accountable.”
Tubman is now identified as having “escaped slavery,” an edit which Kelly notes is subtle but profound. It’s a lot like the argument to call an “autistic child” a “child with autism.” It’s meant to put the person first and the condition as something they have, not something that defines them. Those brought to this country as enslaved people did not choose to be in that situation. The best thing about using the term “enslaved” is that it reminds us of that very important fact.
Now that we know better, it’s time to do better. If slavery was wrong, and we know that it was, why would we disrespect our ancestors by using a term to describe them that was used by those who abused them? Language matters, and in this case, we are able to emancipate our ancestors and their history. Give them the respect and dignity they deserve.
Other efforts to use language that is more inclusive and reflective of modern-day society include capitalizing the words “Black” and “Indigenous” when referring to people. These changes are an important part of respecting the power of language and its ability to offer representation and dignity.