Q: I want to teach honest history, and I want to be sensitive and respectful in how I do it—I don’t want to say the wrong thing. What advice do you have?
Teaching honest history is understandably difficult for a lot of educators, especially when discussing American enslavement. However, being silent on the topic can harm all students, particularly those whose families or identity groups were the targets of harm. One way to ensure you are being mindful when discussing hard histories is to be intentional about language.
While we focus on American enslavement here, teaching honest history—and centering the humanity of historically marginalized communities—means always choosing your language carefully. History is typically presented through a dominant perspective, so taking steps to understand and analyze the historical context of words and phrases is key. In some cases, dominant groups have weaponized language to stigmatize other groups. For example, when teaching about the history of immigration in the United States, the word illegal is often used to describe immigrants without papers and is meant to connote criminality, especially concerning immigrants of color. We recommend using undocumented instead. In general, frame class content around personhood.
Our word choices have real-life consequences. For instance, during legal enslavement, Black people held in bondage were called “slaves.” Enslavers were “slave holders” or “masters.” This language shaped how white people discussed and subsequently thought about enslaved Black people. Over time, this narrative of white power over Black bodies became the prevailing one. In short, language frames our understanding of U.S. history. And we see the harm language has inflicted on enslaved people and their descendants.
For this reason, we’ve been intentional with the language choices in our resources and materials, especially our Teaching Hard History framework. With a team of historians and educators, we deliberately wrote the framework to center the humanity of people in bondage—that’s why we use the people-first term “enslaved people.” Calling someone a “slave” undermines their personhood and centers their whole identity on being held captive. In the “Transatlantic Slave Trade” episode of Crash Course Black American History, author, scholar and educator Clint Smith explains that enslaved person “emphasizes that slavery is a condition that was involuntarily imposed on someone, rather than being an inherent condition to someone’s existence.”
Language shifts can take some adjustment, and you’ll come across some of that traditional language in valuable scholarship and other academic texts. You’ll also encounter it in useful resources outside the academy. The key is to be deliberate about the language you use with students, and it’s a good idea to explain why you’re using that language. These choices are especially critical as you discuss histories of oppression in your classroom. Otherwise, that prevailing narrative of white supremacy will continue unchecked.
To break this cycle, we need to humanize people who historically have been dehumanized. We must remember and celebrate that these full human beings contributed to American culture in myriad ways and created communities in dire, brutal circumstances.
When your language reflects that enslaved people were more than “slaves,” you and your students can tell a more complete and honest historical narrative.