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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

“Enslaved” versus “Slave”: Yale, Virginia, and New Jersey

Slide from the Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective Conference,” Oct. 28-30, 2021

What should you call a person who is owned by another person? Traditionally, the common noun for such a person has been “slave.” Lately that word has been called into question. Instead the common noun has been dropped and replaced by the adjective “enslaved” from the verb “to enslave” now placed before the word “person.”

This proposed name change recently has been mentioned by Yale and The New York Times.  During the “Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective Conference,” Oct. 28-30, 2021, Michael Lotstein, University Archivist, Manuscripts and Archives, spoke about it. Then on November 1, 2021, on the front page of The New York Times, the slave/enslaved words was one of the binary choices included in “On the Left, a New Scramble over the Right Words to Say.” One should note that the front page article immediately below this one was “Ugly Infighting and Virginia Election Fill Democrats with Dread.” The next day was the election. This combination of presentations and actions serves as a reminder that the debate over slave and enslaved isn’t simply an academic one but part of the culture wars with political consequences.


The New York Times article included the following:

The effort to substitute “enslaved people” for “slaves” has been long advocated by many Black academics to emphasize the violence that defined American slavery and the humanity of those subjected to it, said Anne Charity Hudley, a linguist at Stanford.

As best I recall, Lotstein reported that the Dictionary of Archival Terminology was going to be updated accordingly. In other words, there is a process going on of mandating the use of this politically-corrected vocabulary.

Common nouns, of course, are not inherent to people’s identity as a human being. Calling Lotstein an “archivist” does not invalidate his humanity or conflate the person and the term. Calling someone a “professor” does not denigrate the person’s humanity. People well understand that calling someone a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker does not mean the common noun is inherent to their identity as a human being. From my own experience from the Exodus to Spartacus to slavery in America, it never once occurred to me that the use of the term “slave” restricted the humanity of an individual to that one and only trait thereby requiring an extraction to separate them.

In other words, what we have here is exactly what we have with voter integrity. People concoct a problem and then devise a solution which then is mandated/legislated. The so-called problem exists solely in the mind of the beholder. It is fairly easy to determine what the agenda is of those who support voter suppression in the name of voter integrity. Determining the motivations of the people who fabricated this problem and then concocted a solution requires more investigation.


Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, and take it one step at a time. The word “slave” derives from the Slavic people. It arose because for centuries they were the people the civilized people of Europe enslaved.

So common was the slavery of Slavs that the people eventually gave their name to the condition. The people owned were called “slaves” after their ethnicity. This occurred prior to the invention of the concept of a white race. Slavs were the uncivilized people from beyond the pale so it was acceptable to enslave them. As a general rule, people do not enslave their own kind however they choose to define themselves.

Here we have an example of “Xerox,” the proper noun, becoming “xerox,” the verb meaning to photocopy. Similarly Google has come to mean “search.” Besides Slavs, Gypsies and Jews also have seen their name become ordinary words, in these cases, verbs. Generally, these usages are considered unacceptable today. However it is still seems to be permissible to use and abuse the Slavic name.

How to people become slaves? One common way is that they are taken captive in a war. Being in captivity then redefines the person from being “free” to being a “captive.” Is “captive” inherent to their identity as a human being? The word “captive” appears to fulfill the criteria for “slave” in being a word requiring politically-corrected updating. Has it happened?

Captives may also be considered to be “prisoners.” Here again, we appear to have a word requiring politically-corrected updating to extract the humanity from the condition forced upon the person. No more POWs. For that matter, no more cons, convicts, or ex-cons. Is “slave” really the one and only word in the English language where the separation of the humanity of the person and condition imposed on the person needs to be applied?

What about the person who seeks to avoid becoming a captive or a prisoner and then becoming a slave? A person who flees may become a “refugee.” This condition is forced upon the individual. To be consistent, should the person be a “refugeed person”?

What about immigrant? If the refugee then becomes an immigrant, does the humanity of the individual still require extraction from the term?

Come to think of it, what about students who are forced to attend school until age 16? Shouldn’t there be separate terms for people who are forced to be students and those who freely choose that status?

How many common nouns need to be updated if the English language is to be purified?


During the Yale conference on slavery, three speakers mentioned the need to atone for Yale’s history of slavery.

Yale should acknowledge, engage, atone, and educate.

Yale should use its financial resources to repair and atone.

Yale should gather together as a community to talk about this Yale history presented at the conference history and bring it to the visible space to educate and atone.

For a Puritan-founded school, the call to atone for America’s original sin makes sense. It’s fine if Yale wants to atone for its sins but how will that play in Peoria? In New Haven? Or in Virginia?

In the concluding session, various participants and conference organizer David Blight talked about what is next for Yale. Yale has an opportunity to proceed on two levels. As a national and internationally-renowned university, Yale is poised to take a leadership role on the study of slavery in American history. That certainly would be consistent with Prof. Blight’s own position in the academic community as a scholar. On a second level, Yale is located in New Haven. As was brought out in many of the presentations, Yale’s history of slavery is part of New Haven’s (and Connecticut’s and New England’s history) as well.

By coincidence, during this Yale Seminar, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote “The Self-Isolation of the American Left.” He said:

Modern progressivism is in danger of becoming dominated by a relatively small group of people who went to the same colleges, live in the same neighborhoods, and have trouble seeing beyond their subculture’s point of view.

The Yale conference was online, but in general terms it met the description published by Brooks right in the middle of it as the presenters were Yale professors, Yale students, and Yale graduates.

One subculture is sometimes using its cultural power to try to make its views dominant, often through intimidation.  

This is exactly what is happening with the mandating of “enslave” as an archival category for a non-existent concocted problem.

Here then is the challenge for Yale. At some point, “slave/enslave” may join 1619 and critical race theory in the culture wars at the national level. Remember it only took one guest appearance on Tucker Carlson to ignite the critical race theory explosion. It is easy to imagine the same weaponization occurring with “enslave.” The message of the need of white people to atone for being white is not a winning one. The message that if you want to be a visible saint, an elect of God, you will use our morally superior vocabulary, is not a winning one. The message that you are backwards and racist if you do not use our morally superior vocabulary and repent is not a winning one.

As a teacher said at P.S. 295 in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn about diversity books, “Why can’t we read normal children’s books?” One may add, why can’t we speak “normal.” Perhaps there will be legislation requiring it. No one begrudges the right of people to want to think of themselves as morally superior. But creating an established church that forces its vocabulary and doctrine on others is doomed to failure. It did not work for the Puritans in the 1600s and will not work for the New Puritans in the 2100s.

10 thoughts on ““Enslaved” versus “Slave”: Yale, Virginia, and New Jersey

  1. There is one crucial difference between an archivist, a professor, or a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, and an enslaved person. All the former made conscious choices to pursue these occupations. They are voluntary. The status of an enslaved person was not. Refuges flee on their own accord. Immigrants migrate, presumably, voluntarily. Moreover, The preferred use of the term enslaved person is fairly widespread among historians and in public history; it’s not just elite Ivy League institutions like Yale that find it more appropriate. If you visit Mount Vernon, for example, the tour guides all use the term enslaved person. When I use the term enslaved when I teach and write, I don’t consider myself “morally superior.” From my perspective, the minor switch in terminology helps to inject a bit more humanity into the status of the enslaved, underscoring the role of an enslaver denying them basic human dignities and treating them like property. Frankly, it’s odd to me that someone would find the change in language so problematic or offensive. While I appreciate your advocacy for history and the good work you do, this strikes me as wrong-headed and unnecessarily provocative.

    1. I remember being in a history meeting of about 20 white people pre-Covid. One person used the word “slaved” and then was gently corrected by a more politically-correct person afterwards. In the next 10 days I counted five examples of the use of “slave” by African Americans who had no problem with the word. A few weeks ago, in an online talk, I heard one African American express dismay at what it was going to take to get people to switch to “enslave” after all these years. I don’t question the success in the spreading of the politically-correct. But that’s like pointing to all the voter suppression laws as proof that the problem of voter fraud is successfully being addressed. Thanks for writing.

  2. Very good piece — you and I have talked about the subject after you mentioned it at an online meeting and I wrote a poem about it. This piece adds depth to the subject and brings up the rather confusing subject of atonement. What does a segment of society in a country owe to another segment that was victimized by the society — particularly when many members of the society are descendants of groups — German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, etc. who weren’t even parts of the society when the victimization occurred.

    While these groups did not participate in the victimization, they did participant in the fruits of the economic benefits that ensued from the labor of the enslaved and, of course, benefited if they moved to lands seized from Native Americans, the other great group victimized earlier American caucasians.

    A thorny question!

    1. Sometimes it is easy to figure out. For example if you were denied participation in the GI Bill, then your descendants should be offered the opportunity to participate in an equivalent today. If your neighborhood was destroyed due to urban renewal or building of interstate highways then the past can not be restored and how do you calculate the cost of the victimization? I have a feeling that the country will be wrestling with these questions for years to come.

  3. Hello Peter (Feinman), its great to see this current article. I have used ‘enslaved’ in my presentations for some time now — and you are correct to use “ensalved” it adds, as Diane Miller Sommerville states, a sense that these are real humans forcibly taken and worked to death. Some African-Americas are not yet aware of the importance of using the term ‘enslaved’ but given time they will. Thanks once again, Peter. Renee Moore, Founder, Solomon Northup Day,

  4. Peter:

    Thanks for the enlightening email. While working with a group of people several months ago for what kind of information to be included in an interpretive sign related to the discovery of an undocumented slave (enslaved) cemetery connected with the Schuyler family of the “Schuyler Flatts”, I naively used the word “slave” or “slaves” regarding the development of the sign and was gently informed that the word “slave” was considered offensive and to use “enslaved” instead. An embarrassing moment.

    FYI, the sign has been mounted on the forward pathway at the Schuyler Flatts Cultural Park on Rt. 32 Broadway just north of Menands before one enters Watervliet. The Schuyler Flatts Park is listed on both the National Register and recognized as a National Landmark Site as well.

    See attachments and thanks again for your informative posts.

    Kevin Franklin
    Town of Colonie N.Y.

    1. When I first went to the site there was nothing there. The archaeological work was just getting underway. Yes, people who use politically incorrect language should expect to be corrected by politically correct people. That’s just the way the world is now. The overkill in the last sentences on the sign attest the need to be politically correct.

  5. Not nearly as significant, but I’ve learned the difference between “ambush” and “ambuscade” from the incident in Van Cortland Park involving the Stockbridge Native Americans w/Daniel and Abraham Nimham….

  6. I think you protesteth too much. I am an aging leftie, but I am very worried about overreach, especially in the world of lexicon, that Republicans use to such effect. As the author of a new series of public interpretive panels in Hastings-on-Hudson (unveiled last month) about the Battle of Edgar’s Lane (1778), I learned how to thread the needle in discussing slavery without condemning everyone in sight. You can use BOTH expressions in the same context (it’s almost unavoidable) and I believe that “enslaved Africans” is a salient point to make. It does speak to the dignity of the enslaved population, and as a white person I would be loathe to challenge it, although you, apparently, are not.

    I recommend a visit to the Whitney Plantation, in Louisiana, which I made this year. It is the only plantation tour in the South that is told entirely from the viewpoint of the slaves who toiled there. (See, I used both terms!) It is a real eye-opener, and while I appreciate the alarm you sound about “weaponization,” I also think you take a very apologist view that forwards an unscrupulous appoach to our history.

    1. I am aware of that plantation from reading about it but have not visited it. I know here in the Hudson Valley, some historic houses have presentations from the servants view. I think you are confusing what slavery is with the word to identify a person experiencing slavery. To object to the politically-corrected terminology now being forced upon us is not to support slavery itself or how it has been covered or not covered in American history textbooks.

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