In The Partly Cloudy Patriot Sarah Vowell describes a tour she took of Salem, MA. Walking past one farm’s slave quarters she notes that her tour guide, a teenager with an upward canting voice that “puts every sentence into the interrogative,” gestures to them calling them “where the enslaved Africans lived.”
Vowell is taken aback. Thinking it’s an overly PC term she asks why they’re not just termed “slaves.” The tour guide responds “we’re trying to point out that it’s not all they were. Vowell opines that she “gets it” but is critical of the neologism. After all, when one is a slave, the point is that “that’s all you are.” Moreover changes in terminology such as “enslaved Africans” can have the unfortunate consequence of downplaying the sheer horror of the situation in favor of the comfort of modern sensibilities.
I mention Vowell’s account because, when touring the Royall house, the docent referred to “enslaved Africans” rather than slaves. It was the first time I’d heard it in person and I began wondering is this a New England slavery thing? Or perhaps it’s unique to the farm? There was only one way to find out.
“I notice you keep using the phrases “enslaved Africans” and “enslaved people,” I delicately asked as we climbed the staircase from the ground floor to the bedrooms. Not being a successful writer or regular contributor to This American Life I figured I’d shoot more for “professionally inquisitive” rather than “confrontationally interrogative.”
The docent, a pleasantly expressive 40-ish woman, gave me an arch smile. “Yes, we do.” She turned to face me, and braced herself against the banister on the landing. This was obviously a topic she felt passionate about, much to my delight. With all due respect to Vowell’s tourguide, I expect this woman might have a more complete answer.
“We call them enslaved Africans here because while the Royalls obviously saw them as their property — as did the Royalls’ social circle — the ‘slaves’ obviously saw things differently. While they did work from sun-up, when they helped Isaac Royall get dressed in the very room we’re standing in, to sun-down, when they turned down every cover in every room, that was not all they did. Alexandra Chan’s dig underscores that. We have artifacts that show what they did in the little bit of leisure time they had. They made pottery, jewelry, charms; there’s a pendant that displays Akan art from Ghana. Some of these seem to have been protection amulets they might have worn to ward of dangers in the new world. They created, entertained themselves, maybe even tried to resist in some small ways in addition to being property. They had entire lives in the spaces between what we know about them. Some of them even became free blacks, like Belinda. So we try to show that really, being enslaved wasn’t all they were.”
I nodded, listening, silently wishing I’d thought to ask if she would mind being tape recorded at the beginning of our tour. Then again I’d have had to somehow type up an informed consent form, so that wouldn’t have solved anything. I definitely see the logic, I though to myself. While maybe it is a touchy-feely sentiment the bottom line is that they are human beings so perhaps its best to err on the side of giving them agency. Besides, like the African-English former slave Equiano said on slaves during the Middle Passage, “they endured.” That counts for something.
“I noticed the Akan charm in the slave quarters display. I feel that also shows they were trying to incorporate their old identities as West Africans to their new identities in North America.”
The docent nodded. “That’s very true. Chan writes it was the beginning of their new identities as African-Americans. While we don’t know all that much about them and can’t state too much that is definitive about their lives we do know that they had their own narrative apart from the Royalls. The little we do know about them is precious.”
So there you have it. While my jury is still out on the terminology I don’t think I would go so far as to label it “PC,” with all due respect to the great Sarah Vowell. I do, however, agree that the little we do know about the lives of the slaves/enslaved Africans is precious beyond price. Hopefully I can somehow add to that scanty knowledge in some small way.
I am leaving for NY for the 4th of July holiday so entries will be even more sporadic than usual. I’m hoping to take a trip down to Providence and Newport soon, and hopefully have an interview with the Royall House docent (complete with recorder and consent form). I’ll keep you posted.