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EXPLORATIONS I The Language of Enslavement


Power of Words

by Lindsey Norward

Nommo are the ancestral demi spirits of the Dogon tribe of Mali, the word itself meaning “to make one drink”. As an ideology nommo implies the power of words to create harmony and balance in the face of disharmony. In this essay, Lindsey Norward explores the use of the word “slave” versus “enslaved” to recover the power inherent in the humanity of Black people.

( Art Credit: “Migration”, by Edouard Duval-Carrié ; engraving on plexiglass, 2019.)

The word ‘slave’ came into usage in the late 1300s, almost three centuries before ‘enslave’ did. Yet in 1804, generations after the first enslaved Africans came to Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed words that would forever change the island. Marking the end of the 13-year-long Haitian Revolution, Dessalines, the first ruler over the sovereign country and lieutenant to Toussaint L’Ouverture, read the Haitian Declaration of Independence:


“…We must, with one last act of national authority, forever assure the empire of liberty in the country of our birth; we must take any hope of re-enslaving us away from the inhuman government that for so long kept us in the most humiliating torpor. In the end we must live independent or die. Independence or death… let these sacred words unite us and be the signal of battle and of our reunion…”


The specificity of these words, the intentionality of language, gave further power to those who revolted; newly free African descendants recognized themselves not as slaves, but rather as people who had been enslaved. 

Centuries since the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the usage of the word slave as opposed to enslaved is still far more common. Yet this difference–subtle to some but imperative to others–continues to change the way in which people across disciplines feel, think, and hear these past experiences. In the context of history, these words, in all their nuance and intricacy, have power. Several people, including historians, linguists, artists and educators, spoke with MoCADA about the prevalence of the terms and their meaning in today’s climate.

Dr. Jamie Thomas, ethnographer and sociocultural linguist at Santa Monica College, described the distinction between ‘slave’ and ‘enslaved’ as paramount. Working on her forthcoming book, Zombies Speak Swahili: Race, Horror, and Sci-Fi from Mexico to Tanzania and Hollywood, Dr. Thomas discussed how the difference in wording informs her work.

“I think that it’s actually a really important distinction to make. When we use the word ‘slave’, we’re often thinking just about those moments of that person’s life where they already were in that transformational and abusive paradigm. Enslaved, however, helps us to show and acknowledge and draw upon those histories that pre-date that person’s dehumanization. And it also shows that we still honor that person, however enslaved they are, however subjugated they are. We still honor that person as a person rather than simply an object of desire or an object of labor and commodification.”

The difference of humanization is engrained in the origins of each word. The etymology of the word ‘slave’ comes from Old French, translating to “person who is the chattel or property of another”. However, the addition of ‘en’ to ‘slave’ points to a “making or making into”. Many scholars vocalize that more accurately, Africans in slavery were people first.


“Using the word ‘enslaved’ and using the word ‘enslaver’ shows that there were actions involved in changing a person’s state of being and their state of mind and the state of their freedom,” Dr. Thomas said. “And there were actions involved on the part of the person that tried to put a cap on that freedom and a cap on that body, and to use and commodify that body, and there was also a transformation that took place on the part of the person who was abused.” Dr. Jamie Thomas


Dr. Deborah Willis, contemporary artist, photographer, curator, and both Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, stressed the unequivocal importance of making this distinction. In her art and research, which has consistently pioneered conceptions, cultural histories and visuals of the Black body, Dr. Willis considers the language, the humanity, and the naming process of her subjects.

“I always think in my work that it’s important for people to self-identify. It’s important to always consider their humanity. If I could find the name of the person I’m writing or reading about, I always include their name. I never, ever use’ slave’ because that is a condition,” Dr. Willis said. “My concern is also that the condition of the person is the ‘enslaved’–it is not a choice. So to describe someone as a ‘slave’, it is their identity not only to the person who’s projecting it or the person who’s seeing them as an object, but how we imagine their lives. It has a lot of entering points and intersections of identities. Not only to the person who was pointed to or considered a ‘slave’, but also the person who owns the human property.”

She continued, “As an artist, I want other artists to be able to consider another way of identifying or imagining the person they are creating in their artwork because art is multi-layered. It has different narratives of how different people enter into the visual. I always want to think of a way for an artist, when they’re making art about slavery, which a number of contemporary artists are doing, to talk about the work in a way that centers their humanity. We can think about how we use text and image, and can talk to artists about the intent of their artwork and how they perceive the subjects in which they are creating.”

When researching photographs, using her essay The Black Civil War Soldier: Conflict and Citizenship as an example, Dr. Willis constantly “[looks] at how the identities are performed in front of the camera” in order to consider their humanity. “Some people who pose were subjected to it by having their clothes stripped from them and their humanity stripped from them, but when you look in their eyes, what are they thinking? I imagine them sending a message about their location at the time.”

Gwen Ragsdale, historian and co-curator of the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum in Philadelphia, finds it important to use each word with purpose depending on the audience and context of her teaching. 

“We use both quite frankly throughout our presentations, and we can’t get away from the fact that the word is in our organization’s title. However when we talk about slavery, we most often use enslavement as opposed to slavery. Yet there are times where the word ‘slave’ really is not only useful, but far more explanatory in making our audience understand what we were considered,” Ragsdale said.


“I always start my presentations by letting my audience know that unless you can trace your roots to the Native Americans, your ancestors came from somewhere else. When it comes to African-Americans, we were enslaved. We were in bondage and were void of anything but our labor. To emphasize this severity, we go between the words ‘enslaved’ and ‘slave’, and sometimes the word ‘slave’ is far more appropriate.” – Gwen Ragsdale


There are many iterations and usages of the word ‘slave’ to denote people and their conditions around the globe. Stemming from esclave and also from ‘Slav’, the word was originally used to describe those who are “conquered”. In the 1550s, the word was also defined as “one who has lost the power of resistance to some habit or vice.” Slave-driver, slave-trader, and slave state also became popularized. Yet the word itself has been most prominently used to describe people in captivity, enslaved African people in particular, who had little option in choosing their own collective label. From being grouped together as Africans to Negroes to Colored to Blacks—the last often uncapitalized—new forms of identification, including African-American and POC (and BIPOC), have long been contested. Nonetheless, Black people across the diaspora did not lose the power of resistance—instead, many Black people fought valiantly to define themselves.

This form of redefining the language referring to Black people also extended to individual names. From Malcolm X to Assata Shakur, some Black people have chosen to change their ‘slave name’ to challenge the dominant narrative. In countries like Nigeria, newspapers often have notices where people have changed their names from a colonial viewpoint to their own. 

Though global teachings of enslavement typically re-victimize those involved by removing their agency, enslaved people remembered and cherished their lands, their traditions, and their names. In his life narrative, the formerly enslaved Olaudah Equiano, renamed Gustavus Vassa, redefined his name. In her novel Barracoon, Zora Neale Hurston centers the narrative of Oluale Kossula, known as Cudjo Lewis, identified then as the last known slave-ship survivor in the United States. Hurston described the delight the 86-year-old felt when she called him by his original name, “tears of joy” welling up in his eyes.


“Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me my name from cross de water but you. You al- ways callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil! […]

So you unnerstand me, we give our chillun two names. One name because we not furgit our home; another name for de Americky soil so it woun’t be too crooked to call.”


Despite the circumstances which led to enchainment, Kossula was more than a victim of slavery—he was a person who had been enslaved and ultimately still had a name. By recognizing the differences between ‘enslave’ and ‘slave’, one can also help redefine the agency that Black people have on their journeys to identify themselves. 

Dr. Yaba Blay, scholar-activist, professor and producer, refers to ‘enslavement’ as a necessary way in language to decenter whiteness. 

“One of our key perspectives and methodologies [in Black Studies] is to center ourselves, hence the name “Afrocentricity”. It is a response to Eurocentricity, it is a way for us to rethink and reimagine our reality. Once we recognize that everything we know about ourselves has been given to us by the very people who have oppressed us, people who oppress you are not going to give you the education that you need to get free. Recognizing everything that we’ve been told has had a particular impact on the way in which we see ourselves. If we learn about slavery in a particular way, the whites become great explorers who are going all over the world to get all these great things, and it positions them in power as if no one ever moved before they did. [Slavery from grades K-12] is taught that Black people were told to help build ‘The New World’ without any reason necessarily why it happened, but that it just was.”


“When you use the language of ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’, it just is—it’s just a fact. When you say a slave, that is who the person is. When you say ‘enslaved’, you recognize that there was a process that took place. You recognize that something was done to them, which means something was done to them by someone. It is a condition. It is a moment in time—it is temporary. Whereas slave—there’s no end in sight. For me, it’s about the temporality of the term to say ‘enslaved’ or ‘enslavement’, so that we understand that it was a moment and a condition that we could get free from.”  – Dr. Yaba Blay


Rann Miller, educator, writer, and Director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center in Camden, New Jersey, described the significance of using language in teaching Black children about their history. “In the classroom, I tend to use the word enslaved. The words aren’t interchangeable. Language matters, and the way we look at ourselves matters. We understand that we weren’t slaves, our ancestors were enslaved—there was an injustice done. It’s very important we represent people and represent conditions well, no matter what point we’re trying to get across.”

As the world currently reckons with the global violence against Black people, actively engaging with history is imperative to its progress. Dr. Thomas described this current moment of Black Lives Matter protests as one where the language of enslavement can have an unwavering impact. 


“We need to get to a point where our language is mirroring and also heralding changes in our culture. I think when we change our language, we are helping ourselves get real.” Dr. Deborah Willis


Dr. Thomas continued, “One of the things that is repeatedly hard on Black people and survivors of racialized trauma and violence, is that when we bear witness to our experiences and our pain or the legacies of that, there is a tremendous level of realness and honesty that plays into that. Often it’s a soul-searching honesty about how that experience has made you as an individual feel. We find ourselves then surrounded often by the well-meaning often articulations of other people who are not committed to seeing themselves as active participants in this system of problems. Often there’s no deep introspection as to ‘what is my role in the way I think about this thing’. I think when you begin patterning and re-patterning your language, you can’t continue in a denial-heavy environment. That’s the moment we’re in right now as a nation, where that conversation is being pushed on multiple platforms.”

Last month, the AP changed its writing style guide, used by many journalists and mass communications agencies, to capitalize the “b” in Black when referring to people. According to John Daniszewski, AP’s Vice President of standards, it denotes “an essential and shared sense of history, identity, and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa”. It will also capitalize Indigenous. Though a marginal step in the fight for justice, it represents the importance of recognizing the landscape of colonized language, and of allowing oppressed people to tell their own stories. 

“We can think about storytelling as a device. Just to think if we could nurture a story that’s on the topic of slavery through art and politics, family life, we can create a story that tells a different experience,” Dr. Willis said. 

Lindsey Norward is a Philadelphia-based journalist, researcher, and storyteller, who writes primarily about history and culture in America. Having recently completed her graduate studies in Global Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University, where she was a MacCracken Fellow, Lindsey joins MoCADA as the Social Media and Digital Editorial Associate. Her responsibilities include research, writing, and editing stories that connect the shared values within Black communities worldwide to expand and uplift the core narrative of the African diaspora.

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