Terminology: Slave, Servant, Commodity, Property

Recently there has been an attempt to “soften” history as the story of African slavery is broadly re-told and shared. If left unchecked the transatlantic slave trade, at least in Texas, will be known as the ‘triangular trade.” Abraham Lincoln will have freed servants rather than slaves. We say, “Stop It!” Soft pedaling does not provide an accurate description of the facts. We find it offensive to rely on one version of truth-telling and subsequent linguistic apologies.

This is not a new phenomenon. The truth has been colored over like Tom Sawyer’s whitewashed fences of long ago; Madison Avenue’s “air brushing” of yesteryear ads or today’s computer software, which not only alters images to the presenter’s taste, but can invent falsehoods and present them as reality. Putting on the game face is all the rage.

To the point, Africans were enslaved in the Americas and were labeled slaves; the assumption is that most of us are descended from enslaved people. They were slaves and property by legal definition. These terms are not subjectively interchangeable. Although the enslaved did in fact certainly serve, there is not a servant alive who will assent to being classified as a slave. In this hemisphere, except through grace or escape, slavery was for life and beyond into later generations. That became a fact of existence for most Africans and their descendants throughout the hemisphere by the 17th century. How wonderful it would have been if it could have been associated with a term like indentured servitude that came to a contractual end.

By all accounts, indenture did not work out too well over long periods of time. Great effort, however, was made to establish a permanent and restricted labor force – that is not service on negotiable terms. What was attempted in speaking of slavery involves slippery terminology argued from contentious viewpoints, but “slavery” was not ever “servitude” or “indenture.”

Take for example separating and defining the terms “slave” and “commodity.” How hard it is for the mind to unpack these terms! The parallel of slave and property we might grasp, even “chattel” slavery. To group people with chattel property like livestock is one thing, but to realize that the slave in recent analysis was defined and treated as a “commodity,” twists and negates the idea of humanity itself.  Defining a person as an object, a thing, something to be used up then discarded, is impossible to fathom.

Does that mean that Africans and their children were viewed more like plants– something living, requiring sustenance, even care with a functional purpose and the ability to reproduce? Or were they more like machinery or robots requiring maintenance and fuel in order to function and junked when they were beyond use?  Of course, we know from history that even if that was the interpretation, it did not actually apply. If it had, there would have been no need for slave codes designed to determine behavior and status. Resistance in any form would not have occurred. That would be inconceivable. Perhaps that would explain an obsessive theme in popular science fiction with the fear that machines will take over one day. Does that hark back to slavery? If any intelligence, artificial even, is acknowledged, then does that constitute a threat to those in control?

Then maybe we can extend this exercise with terminology a little further. Can people in the Americas be considered “of African descent” and “dangerous” as interchangeable identities? How about what happens when little insurrections begin? Naming a man what you care to name him is an attempt to define who he is to himself and others. When that same man names himself, he flips the script entirely. In claiming himself to be Olaudah Equiano, Gustavas Vassas shed his slave identity, becoming no longer a commodity belonging to a ship’s captain. In the act of naming himself, he became an abolitionist out to end slavery, and on a personal level absolutely obliterated the signifiers “property” and “chattel.” In re-naming himself, he piloted his own ship, and re-claimed his own humanity. Language and the capacity to manipulate it is power.

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