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Language matters: Should we say “plantation” or “slave farm”?

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

What does the term “concentration camp” bring to mind? What about “Internment camp” or “re-education center”? Is the word “plantation” the best word for tobacco and cotton farms (were they farms?) that existed on slave labor?

Have you been to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s “what do you call it?” Over 200 enslaved people lived there when Jefferson died. He inherited over half of them from his wife’s father, who raped (is that the best word?) Sally Hemings’ mother. Jefferson then “raped” Sally Hemings when she was 16 and he was 47. Jefferson’s wealth was based on slave labor and the selling of enslaved people (is that the right word?). It turns out that Monticello was much more than “Jefferson’s home.”

When we were recently in New Orleans, we visited the “Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum.” The tour began with each of us receiving a card with a photo of a child’s statue and name. We put the string attached to the card around our neck before we entered a small chapel. Our host told us that our cards matched the statue of a child in the room; a child who was born into slavery before the Civil War. Their stories were collected from interviews with survivors by writers of the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930’s. I went over to Albert Paterson’s statue, and read what was written on the back of his card:

I remember our plantation was sold twice befo’ de war. It is sheriff’s sale, de white peoples dey stand up on de porch an de black men an’ women an’ children stand on de ground, an’ de man he shout, “How much am I offered fo’ plantation an’ fine men and women?” Somebody would say so many thousands…an’ after while one man buy it all.

The tour then took us to a wall with the names of the place’s enslaved people. There was also a cage used to “discipline” unruly workers, and the slave quarters. The tour ended with a walk-through the master’s mansion. So, what should we call this place?

We can change our vocabulary.The city of Berkeley, for example, now celebrates “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” instead of “Columbus Day.”It all depends on the stories we tell, and, of course, the stories we have been told.It may be that we cannot tell the truth until we find the words

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