I was 16 paragraphs into the powerful opening essay of The New York Times' recent 1619 Project on the 400th anniversary of chattel slavery in the United States when I realized author Nikole Hannah-Jones had studiously avoided using the term "slave."
In its place she deployed variations on "enslaved," as in the passage where she noted that the U.S. Constitution "prohibited the federal government from intervening to end the importation of enslaved Africans for a term of 20 years, allowed Congress to mobilize the militia to put down insurrections by the enslaved and forced states that had outlawed slavery to turn over enslaved people who had run away seeking refuge."
That this was a distraction for me as a reader was likely intentional.
A debate has been percolating for the last quarter-century or so - mostly in academia - about whether "slave" is a needlessly dehumanizing word to describe a person who was in bondage.
In a 2015 Slate essay on the subject, Katy Waldman described one side of the debate this way: "The heightened delicacy of 'enslaved person' - the men and women it describes are humans first, commodities second - (does) important work: restoring identity, reversing a cascade of institutional denials and obliterations," she wrote.
"To reduce the people involved to a nonhuman noun ... reproduce(s) the violence of slavery on a linguistic level; to dispense with it amount(s) to a form of emancipation."
For a counterpoint, Waldman quoted Columbia University historian Eric Foner: "Slave is a familiar word and if it was good enough for Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists who fought to end the system, it is good enough for me," he said.
"I do not think that 'slave' suggests that this is the essence of a person's being," Foner said. "It is a condition in which people (found) themselves and that severely limit(ed) their opportunities and options, but it does not mean, as some claim, that the word means they (were) nothing but slaves."
In many ways, then, the debate over "slave" is part of the larger debate over "people first" language, a movement in which advocates ask us to use circumlocutions that stress the humanity of individuals rather than their characteristics.
"Person with a disability" rather than "disabled person," for instance. Or "person living in the country illegally" rather than "illegal (or undocumented) immigrant."
Occasionally this effort veers into self-parody.
For example, Glen Koorey, a transportation and safety specialist in Christchurch, New Zealand, has long argued that the word "cyclist" conjures "images of a relatively small bunch of weird people," but the term "people who cycle" reinforces how normal most of them are.
And in July, the San Francisco Board of Examiners passed a nonbinding resolution urging city departments to begin using "people-first language with respect to people with criminal records."
Instead of "inmate," they recommended "currently incarcerated person," for example.
Instead of "juvenile offender," they recommended "young person impacted by the justice system."
And occasionally the effort backfires.
In 1993 the National Federation of the Blind passed a resolution declaring "people with blindness" to be "totally unacceptable and deserving only ridicule" because that term (and other euphemisms such as "visually impaired") "implies shame instead of true equality, and portrays the blind as touchy and belligerent."
Similarly, the National Association of the Deaf rejects the term "people with hearing loss" and notes on its website that "deaf and hard of hearing people prefer to be called 'deaf' or 'hard of hearing.'"
The NAD also frowns on "hearing impaired" because it implies that a person is "substandard, hindered, or damaged ... and ought to be fixed if possible."
A counterargument to the use of "enslaved person" for "slave" is that stressing the humanity of African Americans who were in bondage "implies a degree of autonomy that was simply never there," historian Foner said in the Slate article. Therefore, it stands to gloss over the comprehensively and grotesquely dehumanizing quality of slavery.
Yes, some people who are readers are rolling their eyes at this column and grousing to themselves about "political correctness." But that's always the first step in the transformation of language.
Many rolled their eyes when first told that "retarded" was no longer an acceptable way to refer to people with intellectual disabilities or an acceptable insult. They groused when first scolded not to say that someone is "confined to a wheelchair" or "crippled." But most got over it and have adapted.
You glossed right over my use of "African Americans" just above, didn't you?
Because you probably don't remember or even know of the eye-rolling, protestations and general huffiness that followed the December 1988 news conference at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare at which the Rev. Jesse Jackson announced that his people would now like to be called "African American" instead of "black."
"We were called 'colored,' and we're not that," Jackson said, "and then 'negro,' and we're not that. To be called 'black' is just as baseless. To be called 'African American' has cultural integrity. It puts us in our proper historical context."
And using it has become second nature.
Most of us now effortlessly use "postal carrier," "firefighter," "flight attendant" and other nongendered terms for professions that earlier generations considered prissy and forced. And each time we do it strikes a subliminal blow against sexism.
In the same way, most of us are likely to begin saying and writing "enslaved person," if not in place of then at least interchangeably with "slave." It will become less and less distracting and more and more a tiny but healthy reminder that these men, women and children were not property that could be owned - terminology and practice of the day notwithstanding - but human beings with the same inherent dignity, rights and feelings as anyone else.
It's precisely because "enslaved person" is a repellent contradiction in terms that we should try to use it more often.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Eric Zorn is an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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