Don’t You Know My Name…

Little bird got a name, you call it sparrow…

Drop of water got a name, you call it rain…

He is a man, but its slave you call him…

From the song, SLAVE, sung by Dionne Warwick

In the warmth of the October sun, on a tour of a Louisiana plantation, the guide spoke of the persons who were responsible for maintaining the life of this plantation. He knew their names, their origins, their religious practices and cultural habits. He knew these people intimately, and yet he repeatedly called them slaves. The entrenched assumptions about American slavery prevented this man from considering the humanity of the people about whom he spoke so knowingly.

SlaveryThe word, slave, recalls for me a people trapped in a helpless and hopeless existence devoid of any history or cultural narrative. Slave imagines a lack of pride, purpose or might; inferior to the core and incapable of anything but servitude. Slave suggests a passive place in the universe; a people out of favor in the Divine order. In American history, the word slave has a potent meaning seared into this nation’s consciousness with an unquestionable reference to one group of Americans. The word unfairly and inaccurately assigns a description to the ancestors of African-Americans that identifies what they did not who they were. It completely negates the humanity of those Africans who were brutally enslaved.

It is time we banished forever the word, slave, in describing the ancestors of African-Americans. They were not slaves, they were enslaved persons. Re-crafting the way we situate and name our enslaved ancestors in the American slavery experience is a first step in reclaiming and renaming a chapter in American history that modern African-Americans simply do not talk about. We are ashamed of this episode in our history on this side of the Atlantic. It is a shame that, while understandable, is entirely misplaced.

That enslaved Africans were subjected to a horrific example of what one group of human beings is capable of doing to  another does not diminish them. In fact, their incessant will to be free, their imprint on the nation that enslaved them, the strength with which they endured and survived enslavement should occasion unbridled pride. A little more than four generations beyond slavery and a cultural and social force designed to break the spirit of the enslaved African, their progeny, a son of Africa sits in the highest seat of the most powerful nation on the planet. The shame rests with those who would enslave not the enslaved.

It is the legacy of survival against the backdrop of slavery that should be, for African-Americans, a shared cultural narrative, understood and appreciated by every descendant of America’s enslaved Africans. Just as the descendants of free blacks proudly proclaim that their ancestors were never enslaved, so too, must the descendants of the enslaved proudly acknowledge that their ancestors survived enslavement and built this nation in the process.

The recognition that our ancestors lived in forced servitude under conditions unworthy of any human being is not a welcomed legacy; that they would leave a foundation for their progeny to survive and thrive into the 21st century is a legacy worth celebrating.

The word slave obscures that magnificence.



  1. Christine Adams

    I’m in awe of this newfound knowledge. You have captured a time that I hate to even think about and have managed to make me proud of my heritage. I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for enlightening me.

    Your new biggest fan!

  2. I will never call my ancestors slaves again. A enslaved people is far more accurate for such a people who endured the unthinkable experience of American slavery.

    Thank you

  3. I will never call my ancestors slaves again. A enslaved people is far more accurate for such a people who endured the unthinkable experience of American slavery.

    Thank you Dr. Pinkard!