Re-Examining Slavery With A Different Word

Mar 16, 2017

Enslaved person - the term is used now in museums all over the South. On a recent trip, we read and heard about the enslaved people in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. At first, I was confused about what it meant, though it soon became obvious that the term is a new way of referring to the slaves. The word "slave" has become an adjective, "enslaved," to describe an actual human being.

Twenty years ago, on my first visit to Jefferson's home, Monticello, there was only a brief mention of the slavery that sustained the place. It's very different now. The introductory film tells you that Jefferson did not free his slaves upon his death. The guide tells you that he fathered six children with enslaved maid Sally Hemings. And an entire room is devoted to some of the 187 individuals owned by Jefferson. People are named and described by their jobs as enslaved cooks,  blacksmiths, and drivers. Mulberry Row, where the slaves worked and lived, is described as a "thriving enslaved craftsmen community." But because the text doesn't mention that the craftsmen couldn't leave and didn't get paid for their work, the language creates an air of unreality, as though a new version of history, a sort of happy partnership between the free and the enslaved, is in the works.

But despite reservations, I think it is progress for museums to talk about slaves as individuals. It is an important step in acknowledging the many contributions made by those who were enslaved and on the ugly stain slavery left on the nation.

I'm Deborah Booth and that's my perspective.