“Slaves” vs “Enslaved People” in My Son’s Classroom

My blond, blue eyed boy is the descendant of an enslaved person and named for someone who escaped from slavery. So how do I handle it when his teacher refers to “slaves” instead of “enslaved people”?

I just spent 30 minutes observing my son’s classroom. My role was to see how my kid was doing.

To protect anonymity, let’s say it was a 6th grade class in Maryland.

The subject was the Civil War. Students were formulating questions they wanted to answer during their studies.

I was impressed by the students — they had deep questions about the roots of racism, the politics of Lincoln’s opponents, and the use of symbols in quilts to promote resistance to and escape from slavery.

But the teacher’s use of the word “slaves” and “masters” got me stuck. Really stuck.

A while back, someone told me that to use the word “slave” defines people too narrowly. It takes away other elements of their humanity. It makes invisible the fact that someone else was using force to enslave them. It freezes them in time — perhaps they were born free or won their freedom. A better term, I was told, is “enslaved people,” or “enslaved Africans” when referring specifically to African people. Excellent discussion here: Slaves vs Enslaved People and Detailed Exploration of Phrase “Enslaved People”

Saying “enslaved person” makes a lot of sense to me. You see, my own grandfather was enslaved by the Nazis. While I did not know him (he died the year before I was born), I know that he was much more than a slave. He was an entrepreneur, an assimilated Jew, a German (until the Nazi’s stripped his citizenship), a soldier, an animal trainer, a husband, a brother, a father, a Holocaust survivor, an American. He’s also my son’s namesake.

So my blond, blue eyed boy is the descendant of an enslaved person and named for someone who escaped from slavery.

I have taught my son to use the phrase “enslaved person” and to be in solidarity with all other enslaved people, because it is the right thing to do, and because of his great grandfather’s experience.

So I was kind of shocked when the teacher in my son’s class used the words “slaves” and “masters” or “owners” uncritically.

She does not know my family story, but most of the kids in the class are African American, and presumably many of them have ancestors who were enslaved. (And some students probably have ancestors who were slaveholders — a fact that I think requires exploration, awareness and sensitivity by the teacher as well.)

For now, I am thinking about how I can bring this up with the teacher. I am all in favor of teachable moments, not shaming. That’s how I would want her to teach my son.

I appreciate that she teaches with questions. Perhaps she can bring this issue to students in the form of some questions for them to explore. I know they’ll have some interesting ideas, opinions, and proposals.

A teachable moment, indeed.

I welcome your thoughts, resources, and ideas.

(BTW, Did you know it is your right as a parent or guardian to observe you child’s class? If you don’t do it, you’ll never know what is really going on in there.)


About Zahara Heckscher

Writer, educator, social justice advocate. Co-author of How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas (Penguin, 2002) and forthcoming Volunteer Travel Reimagined: The Learning Service Guide. Instructor at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD and co-inventor of The Poetry Game. Mom, wife, cancer thriver, advocate for a world of justice.
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2 Responses to “Slaves” vs “Enslaved People” in My Son’s Classroom

  1. Robert Nawalowalo says:

    Hi Zahara, it’s your dark skinned first cousin here! My Fijian ancestors enslaved other Fijians and Pacific peoples. (and were cannibals and idol worshipers in pre-missionary days) It’s not just about skin colour, and enslaving and being enslaved has happened throughout history in many cultures. I agree with you that such practices are to be admitted and accepted as part of our history that we can all learn from. I support the right of your son (won’t name him) to be taught about his equally enslaved great grandfather, and the significance of the Diaspora and Holocast.
    Merry Christmas to you and all our American relatives,
    Blessings, Robert.

  2. Update: First of all, Robert, I really appreciate your insights. Also, I did talk with the teacher, and she was very open to my perspectives and exploring different terms. She even did her own research and found resources about using “enslaved person” rather than slave. Finally, another friend told me that there is a difference between forced labor of the kind that my grandfather did in a concentration, and the condition of enslaved people. Some do not use the word slavery to rely to the forced labor done in concentration camps, but others do. I will try to keep learning.

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