I was 16 paragraphs into the powerful opening essay of The New York Times’ recent 1619 Project on the 400th anniversary of chattel slavery in the United States when I realized author Nikole Hannah-Jones had studiously avoided using the term “slave.”

In its place she deployed variations on “enslaved,” as in the passage where she noted that the U.S. Constitution “prohibited the federal government from intervening to end the importation of enslaved Africans for a term of 20 years, allowed Congress to mobilize the militia to put down insurrections by the enslaved and forced states that had outlawed slavery to turn over enslaved people who had run away seeking refuge.”

That this was a distraction for me as a reader was likely intentional.

A debate has been percolating for the last quarter-century or so — mostly in academia — about whether “slave” is a needlessly dehumanizing word to describe a person who was in bondage.

Humans first

In a 2015 Slate essay on the subject, Katy Waldman described one side of the debate this way: “The heightened delicacy of ‘enslaved person’ — the men and women it describes are humans first, commodities second — (does) important work: restoring identity, reversing a cascade of institutional denials and obliterations,” she wrote.

“To reduce the people involved to a nonhuman noun … reproduce(s) the violence of slavery on a linguistic level; to dispense with it amount(s) to a form of emancipation.”

For a counterpoint, Waldman quoted Columbia University historian Eric Foner: “Slave is a familiar word and if it was good enough for Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists who fought to end the system, it is good enough for me,” he said.

“I do not think that ‘slave’ suggests that this is the essence of a person’s being,” Foner said. “It is a condition in which people (found) themselves and that severely limit(ed) their opportunities and options, but it does not mean, as some claim, that the word means they (were) nothing but slaves.”

In many ways, then, the debate over “slave” is part of the larger debate over “people first” language, a movement in which advocates ask us to use circumlocutions that stress the humanity of individuals rather than their characteristics.

“Person with a disability” rather than “disabled person,” for instance. Or “person living in the country illegally” rather than “illegal (or undocumented) immigrant.”

Self-parady

Occasionally this effort veers into self-parody.

For example, Glen Koorey, a transportation and safety specialist in Christchurch, New Zealand, has long argued that the word “cyclist” conjures “images of a relatively small bunch of weird people,” but the term “people who cycle” reinforces how normal most of them are.

And in July, the San Francisco Board of Examiners passed a nonbinding resolution urging city departments to begin using “people-first language with respect to people with criminal records.”

Instead of “inmate,” they recommended “currently incarcerated person,” for example.

Instead of “juvenile offender,” they recommended “young person impacted by the justice system.”

And occasionally the effort backfires.

In 1993 the National Federation of the Blind passed a resolution declaring “people with blindness” to be “totally unacceptable and deserving only ridicule” because that term (and other euphemisms such as “visually impaired”) “implies shame instead of true equality, and portrays the blind as touchy and belligerent.”

Similarly, the National Association of the Deaf rejects the term “people with hearing loss” and notes on its website that “deaf and hard of hearing people prefer to be called ‘deaf’ or ‘hard of hearing.’ ”

The NAD also frowns on “hearing impaired” because it implies that a person is “substandard, hindered, or damaged … and ought to be fixed if possible.”

A counterargument to the use of “enslaved person” for “slave” is that stressing the humanity of African Americans who were in bondage “implies a degree of autonomy that was simply never there,” historian Foner said in the Slate article. Therefore, it stands to gloss over the comprehensively and grotesquely dehumanizing quality of slavery.

Yes, some people who are readers are rolling their eyes at this column and grousing to themselves about “political correctness.” But that’s always the first step in the transformation of language.

— Eric Zorn is an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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