Working through Oppression: Language as a Tool

July 19, 2018 at 10:11 pm Leave a comment


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Vintage postcard features formerly enslaved woman standing at the New Orleans site where enslavers sold her. (Collection of author.)

Slaves. Fugitives. Runaways. Slave mistress.
Masters. Slave owners. Slave holders. Slave traders. Overseers. Plantations …


Our books, learning, teaching and imagination are steeped in limited frameworks. These terms reinforce the culture of dehumanization. Yet they often remain central and unchallenged forces in our lexicon.

Recently I followed a scholarly discussion via Twitter that highlights the trouble of this convention. Several historians reflected on their processes for finding words that better contextualize the truth of slavery. They also mentioned resistance they’ve encountered from editors who find their alternate expressions cumbersome.

On several occasions I’ve experienced opposition when I didn’t generalize oppression. The intransgience of some academics, museum professionals, and publishers can trip up, or even repel, those who are just entering these fields.  It is disheartening. However, it is not surprising. Ideologies of white supremacy and colonialism are foundational in these domains. Fortunately, some scholars, curators, educators, artists, students, designers, and others continue pushing at oppressive frameworks. We need to know who they are, how they work, and what they’ve created. We need to imagine what can we build together.

I’ve archived my favorite moments from the online discussion on Wakelet – The Afterlife of Slavery: Language & Ethics.”




Entry filed under: Art.

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