Language, Interpretation, and Understanding

Words matter.  What words one uses carries implications once should consider carefully.

I still recall how a comment Reid Mitchell made in a 1992 essay on Civil War soldiers struck me as so obviously correct that I’ve come to practice it routinely.  It appeared in a note: “Throughout this essay I have consciously avoided the habitual use of “the South” and “southern” as synonyms for the Confederacy.”  The good sense in this observation was readily apparent: before long I was also careful to use “white southerner” or “southern white/s” over “southerner,” because many southerners were not white (some people who boast that they are “southerners” overlook this all the time).  I’ve also come to see “Union”and “United States” as interchangeable, because, after all, Ulysses S. Grant commanded the armies of the United States: his commission does not say he held rank in the “Union army.”  The boys in blue fought as United States volunteers or as United States Colored Troops.

Precision in language is important.  A majority of white northerners may have harbored serious racial prejudices, but a majority of Republicans fought for equality before the law for African Americans during Reconstruction.  It distorts our understanding of history to overlook the presence of northern Democrats, many of who harbored deeply-felt prejudices: that fact helps us to understand the course of American politics in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Not all white southerners were Confederates: indeed, a rather significant number were not.  And in my prose, I’ve pressed for the use of freedpeople over freedmen, although some copyeditors have swallowed hard.

With this in mind, I urge you to consider this blog post (hat tip to Bob Pollock).  Over the last several years I’ve introduced “enslaved” into my discussion of slavery, although I still use “slave.”  I note that when I use it some people notice it, and a few question it.  That’s all to the good: anything that I can do to make people ponder slavery and the enslaved is too the good, especially when I note that other people still hold on for dear life to notions of happy and faithful slaves who somehow lost their way during Reconstruction before white supremacist terrorism and segregation restored the (white) order.

You doubt this?  Read this and weep: “[S]egregation was clearly a reaction to Reconstruction abuses.”  After all, as someone else tells us, “[N]ever forget that the KKK saved the white people of the South from extinction. Try reading Thomas Dixon, Jr.”

Of course.

So words matter.  So does history.  So long as there are people who defend Reconstruction terrorism or segregation, or who tell us about how slavery wasn’t so bad for the enslaved, there will be work to do.  Frederick Douglass once called upon people to “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”  We also need to educate, educate, educate.