The Language of Slavery

[The following is a comment I made to a New York Times article.]

This is a great story, and I certainly enjoyed reading it and felt better informed afterward. However, I do wish we could someday get beyond the characterization of these African American enslaved human beings as “slaves.” They were never slaves, but human beings who were enslaved by white Europeans who were something less than enlightened. To call them slaves seems to me to buy into the Southern mentality concerning these people’s biological status and not to recognize indelibly the injustice done them. Also why don’t we have a workable word for the “owners” of these human beings? “Slave owner” again contains the incorrect depiction of a human being. The “enslavers”? Doesn’t sound quite incriminating enough. If there is such a word, I can’t think of it. If we could coin such a word, now that would be a word worth using. Lets say it again — These human beings were never slaves. They were the enslaved.

The words we use to describe these crimes against humanity come in the language of the perpetrators. Its limitations, purposely conceived during the execution of the crimes, continue to victimize those enslaved and their descendants. I see this as a non-trivial issue and part of the continuing problem of coming to terms with racism in America and throughout the world. As is frequently said about politics, perception is reality, and until we change the perception imbedded in the language we will always struggle to change the reality of racism in America.

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