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Oh the Humanity

Today in class I mentioned that I was bothered by some of the language used to discuss slavery. This is not necessarily a criticism of An Empire for Slavery but more of a curiosity about the language surrounded the issue itself. Campbell’s discussion of slavery in Texas is very factual and objective; he maintains the traditional language and labels of the time to speak about slaves and their lives. In doing this however, he is using the consumer driven language that was used to distance slaveowners and whites in general from the realities of slavery. The slavery era language was shaped so that slaves were discussed as property, as objects to be bought and sold. There is some danger in using this language now. It is too easy to refer to slaves or the slave trade without the harsh reality that these were enslaved humans. Instances of such language include when slaves are cited as having been imported, when they are called “fresh supplies”, or when they are referred to as taxed assets that slave owners try to leave off the tax rolls (52). One advertisement coldly describes the different talents of slaves for sale; they are cooks, servants, ironers, and many more. When spoken of this way, picking out a human to enslave sounds almost like picking out a model of a car. It seems wrong to be this distanced from the realities of the lives involved.

China Galland tries to move away from such language and comes uncomfortably close to over reaching in her attempts to identify and sympathize with enslaved peoples and the legacy left behind. If both author’s language is bothersome, how do we deal with this problem of language? What words should we use?

Are we supposed to get rid of this overly distanced, objective language so that we can begin to speak about these individuals as humans rather than products or would changing the language used to speak about the time be another instance of trying to brush over or erase the atrocities of slavery?

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 1, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    I completely understand where you’re coming from in reference to what language we should use when referring to people who were enslaved. It’s kind of something I brought up earlier in the year, but on a broader scale. Sometimes I get the impression that calling someone black or a Jew or gay is wrong too, but there aren’t always more respectable ways to say these things without drawing more attention to them, thus continuing on a notion we are trying to destroy. But I think the best way to handle it is to just be as PC as possible without being condescending. I think maybe we will all become better at knowing what that means throughout the course.

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