Here’s how I put it to my students. The most famous of all abolitionist speeches is probably the one that Frederick Douglass delivered in Rochester, New York, in 1852. (My grandmother told me that her teachers required pupils to memorize it.) Douglass called the speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” He did not call it “What to the Enslaved Person Is the Fourth of July?” If it was good enough for Douglass, I tell my students, it’s good enough for me.
It is misguided to believe that “enslaved” tells more truth than “slave” because “slave” defines the victim by the perpetrator’s crime. This makes as much sense as rejecting the word “hostage” because it defines the hostage by the crime of the hostage-taker.
When I was a graduate student, it was Herbert Gutman from whom I learned an important distinction. When he spoke about slaves doing work, being punished, choosing spouses, having children, taking care of families, mourning the dead, worshiping God, and so on — in short, acting as human beings — he referred to them as “men and women.” What a powerful statement he made by that simple choice of concrete nouns. I pity the person who imagines herself achieving the same result by substituting “enslaved person” for “slave.