Express Yourself

Why We Must Stop Referring to Enslaved People as ‘Slaves’

How we use language matters

Bridgette L. Hylton
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readJun 13, 2020
A closeup of a Freedom Trail marker that shows enslaved people guided by stars at night on their way to freedom.
Detail of a Portland Freedom Trail marker, where Elias and Elizabeth Widgery Thomas lived and provided a safe house for fugitive slaves and provided housing for notable abolitionists. Photo: Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

I have a new pet project, and it appears to be a cause taken up by countless other word enthusiasts. I’m finding Wikipedia articles where people are referred to as “slaves” and editing the entries to refer to them as “enslaved persons” or “victims of enslavement.” In my editing, “masters” and “owners” become “enslavers.” In this way, enslavers rightfully join the ranks of rapists and colonizers throughout human history. References to “ownership” become references to “then legally permissible, immoral forced enslavement” and so on. Sometimes I come up with new terminology on the fly.

It’s not just transatlantic slavery that gets this treatment. Enslaved people in the Bible and throughout history are liberated from their proverbial word bondage to the word “slave” by me and other editors. We recognize how dangerous and insidious thoughtless words, when left unanalyzed, can be.

I know these preferred phrases can be clumsy and, well, wordy, but they strike me as just more accurate and necessary. They should strike you this way, too.

Since I was a child, the word “slave” has always rubbed me the wrong way. As a student, I remember thinking how wrong it was that the enslaved people in the textbooks I was required to read were referred to almost exclusively as “slaves” and not as people—even if I could not articulate why when I was younger.

Today, you’ll notice the trend if you read a textbook or Wikipedia articles that haven’t been corrected. They are filled with words that tell us how “slaves” lived, how “slaves” died, and how “slaves” rebelled. A human being who mustered the courage to attempt to escape their enslavement, in the face of certain death, is referred to as a “fugitive slave”—as if the condition of slavery followed them. The word “fugitive” evokes illegality and wrongness, even when we reject the immoral laws that permitted slavery. Using the word “slave” implies their enslavement changed their nature forever and bears little significant effect on the enslaver.

While the definition of “master” technically includes forcibly enslaving other people, all the other accepted definitions of the word…