Last month, we saw the year 1619 appear throughout the news media and social media, especially through The 1619 Project, an “initiative from the New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.” This work is necessary and deserving of our attention. I also think we need to pay attention to the reactions to this work. On the one hand, it’s not surprising that conservatives like Newt Gingrich called the Times project a “lie” and “propaganda” for focusing too much on slavery and not on the “other things going on.” His response of whitewashing history reveals exactly why this project is so critical, especially today.
On the other hand, the reaction I’d like to focus on here is more complex and nuanced but one that gets to the heart of the need for this project in a different way. It involves language and what happens when those writing about history seek to humanize people who were not seen or treated as human. More specifically, I’m asking: What are the implications of using “servant” vs. “slave” vs. “enslaved” to describe Africans in early Jamestown, Virginia?
On August 14, The Guardian published an article by historian Nell Irvin Painter, who wrote the groundbreaking book The History of White People (2011). The title of the article was: “How we think about the term ‘enslaved’ matters,” and the main heading stated: “400 years ago, the first Africans who came to America were not ‘enslaved’, they were indentured – and this makes a crucial difference when we think about the meanings of our past.”
The same day, scholar Alondra Nelson tweeted a link to the article highlighting Painter’s statement: “This process of turning ‘servants’ from Africa into racialized workers enslaved for life occurred in the 1660s to 1680s through a succession of Virginia laws… In short, the 1619 Africans were not ‘enslaved’.”
The next day, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times journalist who founded The 1619 Project, replied to Nelson’s tweet:
“The bulk of the scholarship disagrees. 1) Those Africans did not enter into labor contracts. They were sold. 2) Slavery can exist without being permanent or for life. 3) From the beginning, African people were treated different by law and census.”
As a white anti-racist educator and writer who has eagerly followed the work of Painter, Nelson, and Hannah-Jones for several years, this exchange gave me a chance to think more carefully about the tension over the language of “servant,” “slave,” and “enslaved” and to reflect on the language I use in my work.
On one level, Painter and Hannah-Jones have different interpretations of the historical evidence, and that’s not unusual. Painter focuses more on the ambiguous status of Africans in early Jamestown, and Hannah-Jones focuses less on ambiguity and more on a clearer inferior status of Africans in early Jamestown. That alone might not seem like a big deal. All academic fields have debates among people who still share fundamental ways of thinking. However, the implications of their debate, especially in the context of today’s atmosphere of white supremacy, put them in an impossible bind, one that gets to the deeper issue of how do you talk about a history of human beings who were not treated as human beings without further dehumanizing them? My impression, based on following their work for some time, is that they both are deeply concerned about the persistence of systemic racism, and they both have devoted their careers, despite the obstacles they have faced as black women, to raising awareness about the history of racism and its continued impact today.
While I don’t believe she said this explicitly, I think Hannah-Jones’s negative response to Painter’s article relates to the dangerous ways in which the word “servant” have recently been used to whitewash the history of slavery, a concern that I think Hannah-Jones and Painter would share. For example, in February, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam received significant criticism when his medical school yearbook page was shown to include a racist photo of a person in blackface and a person in KKK regalia. In a follow-up interview that received additional criticism, he said, “If you look at Virginia’s history, we’re now at the 400-year anniversary – just 90 miles from here, in 1619, the first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores.” The interviewer Gayle King then said, “Also known as slavery,” and Northam responded, “Yes.”
Northam’s use of the phrase “indentured servants” can be seen as a white-washing euphemism that erases the fact that African people were kidnapped and taken by force, very different from the status of indentured servants, who generally became servants willingly, often in exchange, in this case, for travel to Virginia. Likewise, in 2015, the major textbook company McGraw-Hill Education was criticized for using the word “workers” to describe people who were enslaved. We can see this same effort at the erasure of past and present systemic racism in the #WhiteLivesMatter response to #BlackLivesMatter.
When Hannah-Jones questions the word “servant” as a description of African people in Jamestown, it appears to me that she is trying to highlight the existence of antiblackness in Jamestown in 1619, and that’s important because acknowledging the existence of antiblackness relates to acknowledging the full humanity of black people. This reminds me again of the fundamental principle behind #BlackLivesMatter, that black people are human beings. It is significant to note that Painter is also trying to acknowledge the full humanity of black people in her concern about the word “enslaved” to describe Africans in early Jamestown because for her, this word reinforces the problem of thinking that, as she puts it, “enslavement is the essence of black identity.”
Together, Painter and Hannah-Jones reveal that we don’t necessarily have the sufficient language to recognize the humanity of those who were dehumanized. This should not be a surprise, given that we have not acknowledged our history, and we often deny it. For example, I think many, if not most, people in the US, especially white people, would be surprised to learn that, as Hannah-Jones writes in The 1619 Project, “10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers.” Furthermore, this same audience would likely be horrified at her suggestion that “some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.” We have such a long way to go before we have fully confronted our history, especially in an environment where explicit and implicit examples of white supremacy surround us, from violent hate crimes to structural racism widespread throughout our institutions. Yet, even as our language appears insufficient, we do change our language to do better.
With that in mind, I point to the recent shift in language from “slave” to “enslaved.” I think this shift in language is really important, and unfortunately, I had not adopted it when I wrote my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), but I have since been actively working to make this shift. The word “enslaved” reflects the humanity of the person who is being enslaved because it emphasizes how they are not inherently a slave but that status has been forced upon them. They are humans who are being treated as sub-human. Likewise, there has been a shift from the word “slaveowner” to “enslaver,” and I did not, unfortunately, take that into account in my book either. The former sounds more innocent and passive, not active, whereas “enslaver” reflects the fact that every day a person who owns other human beings has to decide whether or not to keep owning them.
As we reflect on the work of The 1619 Project and the responses to it, let’s consider: Is our language a “master’s tool [that] will never dismantle the master’s house,” as Audre Lorde put it? Or can our language change to be used for liberation?
by Karen Gaffney