As I watched the movie “12 Years a Slave” gain critical acclaim and garner awards, I couldn’t help but cringe every time I heard the name of the movie.
Sometimes, American English is tricky: The verb “to be,” conjugated as “
is a slave
” in the present tense, or
“was a slave”
in the past tense, often unintentionally suggests identity. Resultantly, every time we say that someone was a “slave,” which by definition is “a person who is the chattel or property of another,” we unintentionally accept and promote the identity that was assigned to countless people by money-hungry oppressors who liked to refer to themselves as “masters.”
My hope, as we continue to look at this part of American history in film and other mediums, is that we change our language so that it more clearly reflects what actually happened. Would we refer to those who were shackled and stripped of language, identity and humanity as “those who were enslaved,” or “those who were told that they were slaves,” or “those who were treated like property” versus “slaves.” Although “those who enslaved them” would like for us to believe that they were “slaves”—property with identity or worth outside of their ability to work and breed—our language doesn’t need to support that idea. It can and should speak against it.
*Note: Please excuse any unintentionally ironic grammatical errors, as I had neither the patience nor the energy to perfect this post. In fact, it’s been sitting incomplete on my laptop for more than a week, and today I decided to just get it done.