Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Don't Say Slave: Interpreting Slavery at NAI 2011

Back from the 2011 NAI workshop and back to our regularly scheduled programing! We both have plenty to share from sessions on interpretation, field trips to local history sites, and eating breakfast in a dining car on the national registry of historic places.

Slave, servant, fugitive, runaway, master, slave owner, and farm. What do all of these words have in common? Well, if you went to Angela Roberts-Burton's NAI session, "Overcoming the Obstacles of Interpreting Slavery," you would know that all of these are words that she urged interpreters not to use when interpreting slavery and slave life. Instead, you should use: enslaved, freedom seeker, fled bondage, slave holder, and slave plantation.

Although Roberts-Burton's presentation was overall, highly informative with some great discussion, I had several issues with her presentation, mainly her handout, "Words Have Power". In the handout, she urged the above mentioned restricted vocabulary when interpreting slavery. The reasoning behind not using words such as slave and fugitive is that they are demeaning. The handout argues, referring to the word slave, that:
No one asked to be a slave. This is not what or who they were. When people (especially African Americans) are referred to slaves, it is dehumanizing. they become ambiguous, without feelings, thoughts, or individual personalities.
 Roberts-Burton's handout continues on the words fugitive and runway:
These terms imply that wanting freedom was wrong.
I agree with Roberts-Burton on what these words mean. Words do in fact carry a lot of power and implied meaning - that's their nature as bits of language. And that's precisely why I don't think interpreters can or should restrict their vocabulary when dealing with such a controversial and important issue such as slavery.

I want to use the word slave, fugitive, and slave holder interpretively. I want to be able to point out the fact, or better yet, have a visitor realize how stilted the language we use today and those in the past used to talk about slavery. I want to use the word fugitive to illustrate the paradox of someone who is fighting for their freedom and yet simultaneously breaking the law. I want to use those above mentioned terms to illustrate multiple perspectives, those of the slave holder and the slave, those who benefited from slavery and those who are only know principally for their status as slaves. Using those terms is essential to confronting one of the worst facets of slavery: that although slaves were in fact human beings with emotions, feelings, needs, and wants, they were after all in many people's minds just slaves - pieces of property to be bought and sold by slave owners and masters. I want visitors to respond to the injustice and inherent wrong that is the word slave and all that it represents.

Courtesy Prints and Photographs, LOC.
By not using these words and confronting all the difficulties and layers of meaning represented by these words, we risk losing sight of the nature of slavery, and all of its intricacies. We risk painting it with broad strokes instead of rooting out all of the details that made slavery a degrading, morally corrupt, and overtly hypercritical human system that it was. Slavery is too important an interpretive subject for us to confine ourselves to certain  vocabulary words. Instead, we need to embrace the whole vocabulary of slavery for all its interpretive possibilities and worth.


  1. I don't understand how you could study slavery or this period of US history without the "dehumanizing" aspect included. That's why slavery was so wrong, the affect it had on the PEOPLE (not property) that were held as slaves. They did not choose to be slaves, yet were held and treated as slaves despite that. They were, in fact, slaves, whether or not we like that.

    Trying to use other words to describe them in order not to hurt their feelings do them a disservice in discussing what they experienced. Slavery was an awful institution - don't try to minimize it by choosing different words. I do not like the phrase "politically correct" but it seems to me that is what the reasoning for her arguments are trying to be - describing a horror by trying to use kinder, gentler words.

    Perhaps I don't understand or know her full argument, but from what I see here, I fully agree with this entry. I guess I can see the desire to treat those individuals who served as slaves with respect, but I don't think that denying how they were used (which they were) is respectful. Try to find info about the songs they sang or ways they protested their treatment or planned escapes or other such ways they showed their humanity, but don't try to change what their situation was by using kinder words.

    And this does not even question the use of the term "contraband" but that's another discussion for a different time, I suppose.

  2. Richard,
    Thanks for the comment. It was really tough to figure out where the presenter was going with the above mentioned handout. She was vague when discussing it. No matter what she meant or where she was headed with the idea, creating hard-set rules for interpretation doesn't really seem like its ever a good idea.

  3. I just wanted to share something I posted on Twitter about the session, but neglected to write up in the post. It was an exchange someone in the audience recalled between a visitor and ranger that I found fun and telling.
    Visitor: "Slavery just wasn't a big deal around here."
    Ranger: "It might have been if you were a slave..."

  4. I'm just seeing this but thanks for posting it. I get why there are some of us who don't want to use the words slave, runaway, fugitive, slave holder, etc, but I think in doing so, we are changing the history to something more comfortable for us. And when you start making the story comfortable for yourself, it changes. As an interpreter of slave life, I'll use whatever word I find to describe the situation. If you are looking at slaves from their station in life, then yes, they are a slave. They can be easily listed among the furniture in an estate inventory as property. That is bothersome, but it lets me know exactly how this individual was looked at in their lifetime.
    I don't think by limiting the vocabulary you are doing the story of the enslaved a favor. You need to feel discomfort, you need to squirm a little bit in order to understand what life was like for those whose voices were silenced. If it makes your visitor think that this was dehumanizing and horrible, then as an interpreter, you've done your job to give the visitor an "A-ha!" moment. The visitor will start to see that being enslaved was NOT humanizing and therefore being to understand the struggle that was slavery.

    If we spend all of our time trying to figure out what nomenclature we use when discussing slavery, we will never get around to talking about it and truly learning about it.

  5. Nicole,
    I think we as a profession are sometimes afraid of offending people when talking about controversial issues. And you are right, I think changing how we talk about slavery sometimes makes it more comfortable for us. But that's not the goal. If it makes you uncomfortable, if it offends you, we must be doing something right. We can't shy away from these issues, just because it might offend someone, but rather embrace this history and learn from it - ultimately is there a better way to humanize a person, remember the dead, and state that the many thousand gone mattered? I'd argue no. Thanks for commenting.