What’s in a Name? When It Comes to the History of American Slavery, the Stakes Are High

georgia 1860s.jpeg

Enslaved people in Georgia, 1850s.

Last week in my lectures on evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, I never used the word “plantation.” Inspired by Edward Baptist and this recent article from the Smithsonian Magazine, I relentlessly referred to “slave labor camps.” For example: “Many enslavers built churches at their slave labor camps to promote a theology of submission to authority.”

In my lectures, “masters” did not “own slaves” who worked on “plantations.” Instead, they enslaved people and compelled them to work in brutal conditions.

Now here’s the interesting thing: I made this interpretive move unannounced and did not draw attention to it. None of my students commented on it or asked any questions about it. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that they understood I was talking about plantations.

Now, it seems to me we need to have a debrief about last week’s lectures. We need a conversation about how language shapes historical interpretation and our remembrance of the past. I think I need to ask my students directly what words I might have used instead of “slave labor camp,” and ask them why they think I used the words I did. Perhaps I could ask them what words or images or associations the word “plantation” brings to their minds, and then ask the same of the phrase “slave labor camp.”

Depending on how they answer those questions, I may ask them to think about whose perspective is foregrounded depending on which phrase we use. Neither phrase is neutral.

I don’t know how this little debrief will go, but one possible point of conclusion is to take this in the direction of memory and culture through the lens of something like Gone with the Wind. My concluding point of emphasis is that only in a white supremacist society could something as awful and barbaric as the 19th century southern plantation become encrusted in layers of nostalgia and romance.

Because of white supremacist memory, “plantation” no longer actually signifies that to which it refers. A place of inhumanity has become a symbol of a lost world of southern gentility. I intend to keep using “slave labor camp” instead, but I’m very curious to hear my students’ thoughts about it tomorrow.

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