Our Words Are Dangerous, Especially When We Don’t Use Them

Language is a dangerous thing not only for what is said but often because of what is left out, especially during history lessons.

Slavery verses enslavement. The state of being a slave verses the action of making someone a slave. “Slavery” conjures images of black bodies in chains, laboring in cotton fields, and being sold on the block, while “enslavement” allows for the addition of one more critical element: the white slave owner. A person is born into “slavery;” it’s a state of being that they were destined to inhabit, as if it were written in the heavens rather than a state of violent subjugation inflicted upon them by another human being. When we use the word “slavery” we subtly remove the need for a discussion about the people who captured, bought, and sold humans as they would livestock.

Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries from The Ohio State University explained the subtle, but important, distinction during a lecture he was giving on the connection between American enslavement and 21st century racism. He noted that the terminology shift was a relatively new one, even in scholarly circles. While we’re still using both, it’s an important distinction to keep in mind because it highlights the importance of our words and the power they carry. Language is a dangerous thing not only for what is said but often because of what is left out, especially during history lessons.

Recently, I visited two Southerly cities with a lot of history: Louisville, Kentucky and Alexandria, Virginia. The passive history tours in both cities, while assuredly factual, shared a proclivity for subtly problematic or altogether absent language. While on a tour of Buffalo Trace distillery—named after the bison which were intrinsic to the life of Native Americans indigenous to the land when white colonists arrived in that area⁠—the only mention of American Indians you hear is a quip about trading white dog moonshine for their land. Gliding on a boat down the Potomac River in Virginia, the recorded audio tour⁠ suggests we look to the right to see the land “taken by settlers” and alludes to the subsequent absence of Native Americans in the land due to “war and disease.” The Neoclassical Lincoln Memorial comes into view and the audio refers to President Abraham Lincoln as America’s leader “during our greatest internal conflict,” with no further elaboration. Later, it would exalt Confederate General Robert E. Lee, as we floated past his memorial in Arlington Cemetery, for his choice to abstain from Union Troop Command, rather than fight against his home state.

Both Alexandria and Louisville sit on the border of what was formally the Union and Confederacy, yet the tour guides avoid saying the words “Civil” and “War” together like they’re playing a game of Taboo. Slaves⁠—enslaved people⁠—aren’t mentioned. At all. Alexandria, Virginia was home to one of the largest slave trading companies in the country. Louisville, Kentucky was likewise supported by a robust economy of transporting enslaved people to the Deep South. Both were actively involved cities during the Civil War and both were founded on barbarously stolen Indian land.

These tours are designed to give as many people as possible a Good Experience full of fun and whimsy. It’s hard to loose yourself fully in colonial make-believe if at every turn you’re reminded of America’s brutal and violent history of organized oppression. Likewise, there might be pressure on small historic sites, who have tiny funding sources, to not make financial donors upset by getting “political.” Herein lies the rub, though: if we avoid talking about the hard history completely or if we skirt around it with word choices like “taken” land instead of “stolen” land, we can never make progress. The tour guide at Buffalo Trace probably didn’t realize that alcoholism in Native American communities is a serious issue and that it has roots in the generational trauma of the forced relocation of Indians by the American government in the 1830s. Nevertheless, the impact of his joke about American Indians trading their land for moonshine reinforces the derogatory “drunk Indian” stereotype.

We need not to erase the hard realities of our nation’s past; rather, we need to mindfully interpret that past for our future generations. We, white Americans especially, must be able to talk about the enslavement of black humans without immediately jumping on the defense. We must ask questions and push our historic sites to not shy away from including a note that, yes, the Powhatan and Algonquin lived in this land before and with the early European settlers. They walked alongside George Washington. It is critical that we use our words because silence allows the cycle of erasure and oppression to continue.

My friend, a 7th grade history teacher and activist, and I were discussing this issue in Alexandria after a tour, when I expressed that I didn’t want to interrupt the guide by asking about the slaves who had undoubtably worked there. She said wisely, “but someone has to say something. Otherwise, it will never change.”

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