Since reading the novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge’s recent New York Times essay on historical markers of African-American women’s history in New England, I’ve been mulling over her use of enslaved. There’s been a debate about the language of slavery — or slaving, as some writers prefer to call the institution — for several years. The changes that many have proposed, and that Greenidge embraces in her essay, put the emphasis on the humanity of people who were brought to this continent against their will and forced to work in bondage for generations.

Thus, in her essay, Greenidge refers to enslaved people rather than slaves; to a woman the Royall family enslaved rather than a Royall family slave; to a previously enslaved man rather than a former slave. The difference such language choices make became starkly apparent to me the day after I read the essay. I’ve been doing research for a novel set at the turn of the 20th century. In the biography of a Missouri governor, David Francis, I read that Francis’s father “sold the farm, the horses, the cows, three of the slaves, and both the gold watches. … His meager possessions included one slave, an 8-year-old mulatto boy. Five years later, [he] owned no one.” The point of this biography (published in 2001) is not the plight of those who were enslaved by the senior Francis, yet I’m struck by the objectifying language that allows the reader to feel only the plight of the fallen white family.

Are we ready to write and read biographies that might word this information as “sold the farm, the horses, the cows, three of the people he was enslaving, and both the gold watches. … His meager possessions included one enslaved, mixed-race 8-year-old boy. Five years later, [he] lacked the means to enslave anyone.” The debate continues. Nick Sacco, a park guide at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial Site, has written both about the question of replacing slavery with slaving and the logic of using enslaved person rather than slave. He writes:

I like the idea of bringing enslavement into the present and using active verbs and language to highlight the “historical process” of slavery [but] it seems like this “slavery vs. slaving” debate needs to be played out first at the academic level before public historians introduce a concept like “slaving” to their audiences. . . . While I think that “enslaved person” more precisely acknowledges the humanity of those forced into slavery’s chains, the term is unavoidably presentist. We today acknowledge the humanity of these people, but the institution of slavery was horrible precisely because it made humans into pieces of property.

Sacco’s solution, as a park guide, is to use terms interchangeably, though he notes that he has been using enslaved more and more. In fact, the academic discussion he invites has been taking place for several years, as this summary of a discussion thread on H-Net, the website of an organization of humanities and social-science scholars, points out. More recently, Thomas Pulido’s cover story in The Atlantic, “My Family’s Slave,” received a great deal of pushback from readers. The debate here hinges not just on language but on syntax. If a person is enslaved — e.g., “My Family’s Enslaved Woman” — someone is doing the enslaving (even though Pulido found no way to free Lola, the woman he writes about). And the most startling change in my recasting of those sentences from the Francis biography, for me, is “he lacked the means to enslave anyone.” Whatever we think of slaveholding families in the antebellum South, we tend not to consider them enslavers; we tend to see the enslavers as only those who ripped human beings from their homes, brought them across the water, and sold them as chattel. But the fact is that, even in Pulido’s case, the status of slave is one that is assigned, every day, by the person in power — and that assignment is, arguably, enslavement.

Sometimes the change seems more salient than others. Even a hardened reactionary would hardly go on about “the happy enslaved people down on the old plantation.” But I doubt the film title Twelve Years a Slave would be changed substantially had it been Twelve Years Enslaved.


While writing this post, I asked Kaitlyn Greenidge about her preference for the term in the New York Times piece. She pointed out, “Enslaved person is an accepted term in U.S. history. … I prefer it because I think the root of our current mess of a country is the valorization of those who committed genocide … It also reminds the reader that slavery didn’t just exist in a vacuum -- it was enforced and upheld through the cooperation and indifference of the majority of white people in this country, only a few of whom were actual slaveholders.” Indeed, the writings of notable abolitionists of the early 19th century, like Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, brought the choice of words to bear on their argument: “We deny that an enslaved man is property by the constitution, and we might deny that any man can be enslaved under our constitution, and consequently, that he could be chattelized. . . . Things may be appropriated -- persons may not. … [The Constitution] prohibits the slightest approaches to enslaving, or holding in slavery, which is continued enslaving.”

So perhaps the term is not “unavoidably presentist.” Perhaps it’s the language of abolition. And we are all abolitionists now. Aren’t we?