Why I don’t talk about black slaves in America

When there was slavery in America, Americans were enslaved. Yes, at first it was Africans who were brought here from Africa and enslaved. But once those Africans had children here in America, who were then enslaved, Americans were enslaving other Americans. And after 1808, when the slave trade was ended here, all enslaved people were Americans.

 I just think that calling enslaved people “black slaves” or “African slaves” or even “African-American slaves” carries water for slavery. It’s human nature to be a little more accepting of harsh treatment for outsiders, for foreigners. We think, Well, if these people were Africans, it’s natural that whites should think enslaving them was acceptable, though of course it wasn’t.

But they weren’t Africans. They were Americans. Americans enslaved by their own people. We got very angry at Saddam Hussein for attacking his own people. Unlike attacking foreigners, attacking your own people is always seen as immediately wrong. That’s why we hesitate to admit we have enslaved our own people. But instead of easing the pain of looking at slavery in the United States by saying blacks or Africans were enslaved, let’s be honest and call it as we know we see it: enslavement of our own people. Did black people who had been enslaved suddenly become Americans in 1865? No.

 (Yes, of course I know that enslaved black Americans were not considered to be legal citizens during slavery. But should I go along with that? If you’re born here, if you move here, if you’re brought here, you are an American.)

So there were enslaved Americans. Not black slaves, or even slaves. I don’t like to use the word “slave”. To me, it validates the concept that people can be changed from people to slaves, things, property. Many people have been and still are enslaved around the world. But no human being is a slave.

These issues of nomenclature may seem small, but we see the huge difference between “pro-abortion” and “pro-choice”. Every little word matters. 

7 thoughts on “Why I don’t talk about black slaves in America

  1. Definitely check out the new book entitled, “Slavery by Another Name – The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” by Douglas A. Blackmon. After the end of slavery, old massah didn’t take it too well, and Black Americans were falsely arrested and then forced to work to pay off fines and to pay for their own arrests. The US government then leased these people to various companies and plantations, putting money in the government’s pocket made of the backs of innocent Black Americans. It has been said that the torture in labor camps was far worse than what was regularly experienced during slavery. In addition to jail slavery, other Black Americans were just kidnapped and enslaved, never to be seen again by their families. [Slavery By Another Name]

    My Dad went to an HBCU in the 60’s, and he said that most of his friends from Alabama, Mississippi and other southern states said that slavery was still alive and well there. They didn’t mean share cropping either. I read this article entitled “The Damned” that was in the Washington Post years ago that really breaks down what was happening then. If you weren’t aware, one of the last prosecutions for holding slaves was in 1954 when the Dial brothers in Birmingham, Alabama were convicted of holding 2 Black men by threat of violence. They were only prosecuted because someone from their plantation took one slave’s body to the morgue and he was bound and had been whipped to death…and they called the police. The Dial family had one of the largest plantations in the Delta and had been kidnapping Black Americans and holding them as slaves for years. They were only sentenced to 18 months in jail. [Washington Post]




  2. Thanks for bringing this important if hard-to-read book to everyone’s attention, Noli. It’s hard to face up to our unspeakable abuse of fellow Americans, but it has to be done.


  3. I appreciate how you differentiate between the word “slave” and “enslaved.” I’m very particular about the way that I speak and am surprised I haven’t noticed this difference before.

    I also like the idea of calling it by it’s name-the enslavement of one’s own people.

    There’s another concept you touch upon but don’t say in the way I’m used to saying. You write, “[i]f you’re born here, if you move here, if you’re brought here, you are an American.” This is true. However, in my thinkink, I like to differentiate between African Americans-the first generation of people who have stood on both African and American soil- and American’s of African decent-those who’s lineage traces back to africa but who have been born in the US. Many American’s of African decent claim to be African American when, in fact, very few such people exist in the US today.


    1. I like your idea; it’s certainly more accurate than “African-American.” But I would prefer if we could all stop prioritizing our ancestry and start owning our American identity first and foremost. It’s a problem unique to the U.S., of course, because no other nation has our immigrant history. But maybe it’s time to turn the corner on that.


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