As I continue to work on You Will Not Be Forgotten, each Wednesday I am going to post about something I’ve learned in the process of writing this book. Maybe it will be something about myself or about slavery or about history in general; I’m not sure. One thing I do know is this – writing this book has changed me in more ways than I will probably ever know. I hope you’ll check in each week to see what I’ve discovered in the process. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too.
Black, White, Yellow, Brown, African American, Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, Colored, Color, N . . . no, I can’t go there even by way of example. The terms we use to refer to race . . . so fraught. So murky.
As I write, I am mindful of my own choices. The way “slave” limits a person to their status and the way “enslaved” seems to minimize the all-encompassing nature of their situation. “Held” calls to mind the fact that a person cannot actually own another human being but also belies the fact that, well, these people were actually “owned.”
Something that I found jarring is the use of the word “blackness” in “I thought I would find some sort of evidence that showed a blackness at the center of his soul.” Especially in this context it really hit me. I think the use of words like “blackness” and “dark” as adjectives to convey something negative or criminal or sinister can either arise from or unintentionally reinforce anti-black racism. That was obviously not your intent here! Is there another non-color based adjective that could be just as effective?
My sense of evil is so associated with the color black that I didn’t even see what I had said, but now, seeing it, I’m left with the mild horror of this unconscious association on my part and left to ponder what it means for me to say someone is “black.”
It is easy to write off these questions as merely political correctness, some kind of attempt to avoid controversy or overt offense. But I don’t see these things that way. I see these – as I see all language – as speaking something about who we are as people. Words shape us as much as we shape them.
I don’t know what the “right” words to use are; I’m not sure there are “right” words. My way – flawed as it is – is to simply be mindful of my choices. I alternate “enslaved” and “slave,” and I refer to an enslaved person being “held” and “owned,” to the master “holding” and “owning.” I am trying to eradicate my association of black with evil in my words; maybe that will lead to a clearing of my mind. At least it’s a start.
If I could, I would ask Richard and Cato and Malvina and Kessiah and Aggy how they would like to be called. I would talk to them about how these words lay upon their spirits. I would do what they wish.
But I cannot ask. They cannot answer. There is only the attempt and the getting better.
What do you think of the words “slave” and “enslaved” or the use of the term “black” to refer to people of African descent?