A Debate Over Titles

The other week, I participated in a somewhat heated discussion that fellow interpreter, Dontavius Williams posted on his Facebook status. He was asking which was more appropriate, using the term “slave or servant”? When I first saw the status update I just brushed it aside, this was a conversation that I’d had with people before and I was feeling disengaged at that point. But after a few responses, something in me said…please respond. This is a much more complicated question that has an even more complicated answer than people realize.  And I did.

When it comes to discussing slavery and appropriate names, I think we too often err on the side of caution to remain politically correct. My initial reaction ran along the lines of “To call a slave a servant is surely watering down history and making ourselves comfortable when the times were anything but.” Then I began to think. And then I started to see the often utilized response, ” a slave is a slave”.  THAT is when I finally said something. A slave is not a slave. A slave is an individual whose social status is that of property, but whose intellect varied from person to person . There were skilled tradesmen, blacksmiths, carpenters, drivers, architects, engineers and scientists (ever been to a rice plantation and actually learned the process of flooding the fields with the correct water type? Pure science and engineering). Seamstresses, nurses, teachers, culinary artists, Ministers of the gospel, and yes, servants. Handmaidens and manservants who waited hand and foot on those who enslaved them (hell, those who OWNED them). Body servants who went wherever the master went, insuring his safety and putting (I’m sure unwillingly) their life before their masters.  But yes, there were men and women who were in positions to “serve”. It was their job. So to acknowledge their position within the institute of slavery is to acknowledge that using the word might indeed prove correct in some cases.


A few of us later in the discussion talked about how stations and positions within the plantation society determined what you were called and we mentioned primary documents. Anybody who has perused diaries of slaveholders, or people who just so happen to be passing by know that today someone saying servant is about as nice as you can get. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like reading about “n—– wench Jenny” as she nurses your sickly child back to health while neglecting the health of her own child. Those documents aren’t for the faint of heart or as a friend said, “the armchair historian”. While we worry ourselves with how we should talk about the slave/enslaved and what language we should use in order to feel somewhat at peace when teaching others about this moment in time, the things we should be paying attention to is how society viewed these men and women and how they viewed themselves; that lies in the documents of those who lived it. It is those gut wrenching moments of documentation that make me understand how important station, or “job titles” were to the slaves.  A body servant that travelled with their master was exposed to a very different life than those who worked on the fields or those who worked solely in the house. Being able to travel possibly up North, or to the coast where escape was possible? That came with the position one held. Understanding what being listed as a “servant” meant, to me, is key to understanding how things operated back then. You don’t have to like it, but you need to understand it.

HOWEVER, I do know that there are those who use the term servant just to make themselves feel better about having to discuss slavery. Not all slaves were servants in an occupational sense. To merely group them in that category because of your own discomfort is not only misleading and wrong, it’s historically irresponsible. With slavery being so controversial, context is everything. It dictates how materials are read, it determines how your audience will perceive you and the misuse of it can ruin your credibility. I’m not sure if I’ve used this quote before, but it’s one of my favorites and I read it my first semester of grad school. It was in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream and it stuck with me from the second I read it. As a historian, it is my creed and it’s so simple. “There is one sacrifice no historian must make. He must not distort or pervert the facts of history to suit the present struggle”  Maybe we should think like that first before we get all willy-nilly with how we feel things should be stated, said and named.

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2 Responses

  1. Dontavius says:

    Well said. Peter Novick’s quote will forever ring in my heart as I walk this path of interpretation.

  2. I’d be curious as to what term those that were enslaved used when referring to themselves? I could see a tradesman referring to himself as such, for example.

    Perhaps part of the problem with determining the correct “title” today is that we’re trying to pigeonhole those that were enslaved into too narrow of description in terms of how they might have referred to themselves. By that, I mean that definitions may have changed depending on context. For example, an individual who was enslaved could have referred to himself or herself by what they did, be it a blacksmith, shipwright, field hand, handmaiden, etc. Yet, on another level, when pressed, each knew that they were quite simply slaves, unable to fully determine their own fate.

    Anyhow, you raise an interesting question, and definitely one I hadn’t thought about.

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