Power Manifested in Language

Words, simply put, matter! The lexicon that we use to describe events or refer to individuals carry weight and meaning beyond what we may consider. On my blog, I have written about this topic numerous times. See, for example, “Our Linguistic Entanglements.” Lately, I’ve still been thinking about this topic, especially when I teach my literature courses. There, I consciously make the effort to use “enslaved individuals” when referring to people who suffered under the institution of slavery. I say “conscious effort” here because I am constantly training myself to think about the ways that my word choice affects others.

Discussing the intersections of knowledge and power, Michel Foucault points out, “It’s the characteristic of our Western societies that the language of power is law, not magic, religion, or anything else.” Taken in the context of the institution of slavery in America, language labels and classifies individuals. As such, bills of sale like the one below from Virginia led with “Negro” as the identifier, not the person’s name. This places the focus on the individual’s legally (i.e. socially) constructed race, and in so doing, strips the individual of identity. Even though the bill of sale below is for “Lizzy,” she will most likely take the name the of her new master or have no last name at all.


Looking through the archives at my university, I have seen countless bills of sale and records of the enslaved individuals that a master owned. Most of them are handwritten, and some do not even present the names of the individuals being bought and sold. One item is on a small, scrap sheet of paper. One side reads, “Bill of sale for negros.” The other side has the the name of “Captain Jeff Dale, Wilcox County” and a box with numbers added up. With this information, we can assume that this scrap piece of paper represents the lives of eight individuals who either Dale owned or purchased with this item. While the previous bill of sale at least has Lizzy’s name, this one only has a number and racial identifier. These people, under the law, did not exist as anything more than the property of someone else.

If they only existed as property, what does it mean when we simply refer to people held in bondage as “slaves”? Referring to individuals who existed within the “peculiar institution” as “slaves” linguistically strips them of any sense of agency and individuality. By placing the adjective “enslaved” in front, and using “individual” or “person” as the noun, then we affirm, on some level, the humanity and person hood of those held in bondage. On the surface, one may wonder, “What does this even matter? Slavery is over.”

Does it actually matter? Yes, it does. Meaning and identity arise from language, and more specifically is a Western context, written language. Writing about King Philip’s War, Jill Lepore notes, “If war is, at least in part, a contest for meaning, can it ever be a fair fight when only one side has access to these perfect instruments of empire: pens, paper, and printing presses?” After King Philip’s War, whose perspective (i.e. language) appeared? The word of Increase Mather, William Hubbard, Mary Rowlandson, and more colonists told the story. They portray the Wompanoag, Narragansent, and other tribes as demons and “barbarous savages” devoid of civilization and warranting defeat at the hands of God’s chosen people, the Puritans. The words exert power, and these words shape, in ways, the colonists and the early republic’s views towards Native Americans.

Later, almost 150 years after the war, writers sought to essentially mine King Philip in order to produce a distinct American literature. Washington Irving does this in “Philip of Pokanoket” (1820). In the text, he falls into stereotypical images of Native Americans, but he also seeks to recontextualize history by referring to Philip as a “patriot” who had an “untamable love for natural liberty.” With these words, Irving draws Philip in line with the Founding Fathers and their desire to be free from British rule.

Writing of Philip and the people he led, Irving again elevates Philip’s position claiming that he is “[w]orthy of an age of poetry, and fit subjects for local story and romantic fiction, they have left scarcely any authentic traces on the page of history, but stalk, like gigantic shadows, in the dim twilight of tradition.” We can take this sentence in two ways. On the one hand, Irving claims that there are no “authentic traces” of Philip or his people in the writings to that point. In this manner, we take this to mean accounts written by colonists or authors such as Irving. On another level, we can read the last part of the sentence as claiming that Philip and other Natives Americans have not left us any account, so we only have the Western account. This, in essences, reinforces Lepore’s claim about the power of the printed word and the dissemination of knowledge, something I have written about in regard to Thomas Jefferson and David Walker.


Again, though, does this matter today? During a recent episode of United Shades of America, W Kamu Bell spoke with individuals about their identity as disabled individuals. Bell concludes the episode by showing how the people he interviewed answered this question: “What do you think about the word, disabled?” The responses varied, but each person’s response highlights why words matter in constructing a self identity and the effects they have in maintaining and enforcing power.

Activist Alice Wong answers Bell’s question by stating, “A ‘disabled person.’ Yeah, I put it at the front because it describes who I am. It is something I’m proud of. It’s part of my cultural identity.” She, along with the others in the episode, define their own identity. Like “slave,” the word “disabled” eliminates that identity. The individual becomes subsumed by a label that inflicts stereotypes while ignoring the person those stereotypes affect. Through he reorienting of the term, making it an adjective, the person takes center stage.

Actor CJ Jones tells Bell, “We have relationships. We have families. So, being labeled as disabled, I don’t see myself that way. I am deaf and hard of hearing. But no, in the bigger world of things, you’re looked on as, ‘You can’t hear.’ ‘You’re disabled.’ But, that’s the medical world. I’m not a medical perspective. I’m human. I’m part of a social network. It’s not just about the ear. It’s about identity.”  This is the key, identity and humanity. We construct labels in order to have some semblance of order. Look at the taxonomy or the genres of literature. By doing these, we also construct hierarchies and power. How do we eliminate that stratification on a linguistic level? It starts by showing the humanity of all and not striping that humanity away with the words we deploy.

This is why discussing the terms we use to speak and write about individuals is important. This is why we need to take the time in our classrooms to explain to students why we use the term “enslaved” instead of “slave.” If we can get students to understand the importance of how their words construct meaning, and how history arises from the words authors chose, then hopefully we can get them to see the ways that the words they choose, even in the present, have impact on individuals whether they realize it or not.

How do we achieve this? In this post, I’ve spoke of what I do. What suggestions do you have? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.

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  1. Pingback: Language in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Battler” | Interminable Rambling

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