Juneteenth! And Words About Enslaved People

What is Juneteenth?

This Juneteenth marks 155 years since June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War had ended, putting into effect the Emancipation Proclamation and ordered that all previously enslaved people were free. It is worth noting that this was two months after the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, VA, and more than two and half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. 

Juneteenth is also known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, and Cel-Liberation Day! 

We’ve linked a helpful timeline and map to help contextualize Juneteenth here!

This brings us to an important point about language: We know it’s not Monday but we have some words for you to chew on over the weekend.

Word we are unlearning:
Slaves

Word we are learning: 

Enslaved (Africans, people, mothers, workers, artisans, children, etc.) as an adjective to describe the human beings that were enslaved.

What’s the difference?

Human beings who were ENslaved had full, whole identities outside of their being enslaved. Don’t reduce them to “slaves.”

Word we are unlearning:
(Slave) Master

Word we are learning:
Enslavers

What’s the difference?
The term “master” gives credit to the enslaving class, rather than to the people they forced to work for them. It implies that owning other human beings was net-positive, communicating the aspirations of the enslaving class without naming the deeply harmful practices in which they engaged in order to get the title of “master.”

Other words we’re going to avoid and some alternatives for them:

  • Slave breeding (forced reproduction)
  • Slaveholder/Slaveowner (those who claimed people as property/those who held people in slavery)
  • Runaway slaves (fugitives from slavery, self-liberated, self-emancipated individuals)

Other important considerations:

  • Use the term “stolen labor, knowledge, and skills” when talking about what was taken from persons who were enslaved. It certainly wasn’t just “work” that enslavers stole from them without compensation.
  • No one was “born a slave;” people were born with “free” or “enslaved” status.
  • There was no possible consent between enslavers and the enslaved women they forced to have sexual relationships with them. There is nothing romantic about it. Please refrain from reductive language like “slave mistress” or “had an affair with an enslaved person.
  • Honor the humanity of people who were enslaved by calling them by their names whenever you are able to learn them

It is okay if it sounds messy — kidnapping human beings, forcing them to reproduce, physically torturing them, forcing them to work without any form of compensation, and so forth is more than messy. We need to get to a place where we are deeply, deeply uncomfortable with the wrongness of slavery. We owe it to the humanity of those who were enslaved.

Thank you to P. Gabrielle Foreman, and team for this VERY helpful document. (if you are writing about or teaching about slavery, please, please use this resource!)

All words we know to talk about enslaved people of African descent in these Americas prove insufficient, both for the brutality against them, and for their remarkable overcoming.”– Dr. Laura Adderly

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