Why language matters

Knowing how best to use the language associated with the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade can be complex. Many words are considered offensive and dismissive because they served to objectify the people who were enslaved and disregard the African perspectives of the history. Terms used when teaching slavery are very important, but, when used with careful consideration, historical and contemporary words within the subject can be discussed and analysed as part of the learning experience. Review the terms in this section as an introduction to good practice in when teaching this subject. Also see the Glossary for full definitions of terms and their meanings.

African countries rather than Africa
Africa is often described as if it is a single homogeneous country rather than a continent of great contrasts. There was also a very different Islamic slave trade operating from East Africa. Being specific in discussing West Africa when referring to the transatlantic slave trade and, where possible specifying countries and states such as Benin, Ghana etc. will help clarify the aspects of the history being addressed.

Chattel slavery rather than slavery
The term chattel slave rather than slave makes it clear that African people trafficked during the transatlantic slave trade were treated as property, with no possessions and no rights as a means to differentiate the transatlantic slave trade from other forms of slavery and serfdom, both historical and contemporaneous.

Enslaved rather than slave
Using the terms African people, men, women, children, captives, and enslaved rather than slave throughout teaching helps to reiterate the fact that people were being treated like property. These words avoid the objectification of African people and the tendancy to make the history and the inhumanity abstract and insignificant.

Freedom fighter rather than rebel
The term rebel can have negative overtones whereas freedom fighter is a more positive, respectful phrase. Language and words that give dignity to the people oppressed are important. Using resistance and rebellion also illustrate the fact that the enslaved were active and capable, in contrast to the way they have been described within the history as subhuman and therefore lacking intelligence.

History rather than story
The word story tends to trivialize the importance of this history and raises questions about the reliability of the evidence used in lessons; using history helps to reinforce the facts. However, using the word story can be useful when discussing personal narrative accounts.

Maafa rather than Holocaust
The term holocaust is often used when discussing the transatlantic slave trade to draw comparisons between the the extermination of the Jews in the Second World War and underline the extreme brutality and mass annihilation of both peoples. Maafa is the contemporary term used to describe the enslavement of African people in the 1700s and 1800s, and makes the distinction between the two historical periods.

Racial terms
The words negro, negress and nigger will appear in many historical documents and need to be understood as specific to the historical period. The term black has been used to define people of African descent in Emancipation and Legacy on this website and white to decribe Europeans.

Transatlantic slave trade rather than the slave trade
There have been slave trades throughout the course of human history and they still exist today. When referring to the forced deportation of African people across the Atlantic being specific in describing it as the transatlantic slave trade will reinforce the distinctions between this and other periods in history.