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Slave Terminology

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New slave group arrivals to the Americas were designated by countries of origin -- Guinea Negro, Congo Negro, Gambia Negro, Gullah Negro. To put slave buyers on notice, African “Congo” alone, and “Guinea” were used loosely to signify the more valuable because they spoke Pidgin English; “New Negro” and “salt-water Negro” -- for those who did not.

Throughout subsequent history, both “Negro” (Spanish) and “Black” (Portuguese) were applied periodically to persons of African descent. In correct English, both “Black” and “White” should be lower cased because they are designations based on color.

However, to give offense and to keep reinforcing a “minority” subordinate status, Whites used “Negro” with a lower case even though correct English says designations based on race -- e.g. “Negro” or African-American -- are to be upper cased. Incidentally, today, many writers upper case “Blacks” and lower case White, even though the practice is inconsistent, in order not to give offense.

Once settled on the plantation, the slave became a “field” or “hoe” or “house” Negro -- although “Plantation Negro” was the general term. The words “slave” and “servant” were often used interchangeably because at first, in the 17th century, White indentured servants worked alongside the slaves.

Hence, to make distinctions, “Negro” was put into word combinations -- like “Negro quarters” -- for a century before it was more common to say “slave quarters.” The “house gang” worked in the vicinity of the plantation owner’s home while the “house Negro” worked inside the home. Attractive female “house Negroes” often bore some of the slave masters children -- called “Mulatto” or “Mulattoes.”

Those children who were very light-skinned were “White Negroes” or “Albinos.” A “dower Negro” was one given to a White bride as part of her dowry or that was owned by her at the time of her marriage. Descriptive names for dwellings included: “Negro house or hut or cabin.” “Negro kitchen” was the kitchen in which food for slaves was prepared. Such terms as Negro boots and shoes and cotton and cloth (also called “plains” -- usually blue for house slaves and white for field slaves) described the special clothes.

Some clothing was made up on the plantation out of gunny sacks or “crows” (large sacks made from loosely woven coarse material such as burlap bags that rice or potatoes are put into). Punishment terms included cat-hauling “painful and prolonged rough questioning” and man-drover “cruel people who rounded up any Black person for enslavement.”

Pidgin English learned from the “Southern gentleman” and from the less educated dialects of White overseers served “okay” at the beginning but was inadequate for the next generation of slaves. Since their native tongues were useless for communicating with most of their fellow slaves, each of whom had different native tongues, African languages were largely lost.

A new and more expansive language emerged to serve the many functions of any language -- to communicate thoughts and feelings about food and mealtime, intimacy and sexual activities, bodily functions, story telling and songs, gossiping and rumors, methods for surviving without resorting to self-defense, and concepts about the White’s man Christian religion (which most slave owners considered their duty to impose on their slaves).

As it turned out, although many slaves were brainwashed into accepting the religious hypocrisy and the White man’s declaration of what God said (how would Whites know that beyond simply claiming it to be true?), some slaves extracted more from Christianity that their masters would have suspected. The reason is that there is a good deal of subversive talk in the Bible about people liberating themselves from slavery, smiting the oppressor, and so on.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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