The Significance of Language

In early April, Dr. Catherine Adams led our class discussion with a dialogue grounded in the current local news at the time, most notably the blackface incident, the many ensuing letters published by the Lamron, and several other less discussed bias-related incidents that occurred all around campus at the time. She spoke of what we choose to see versus what we choose not to see versus what we are in a position to see. The most important takeaway I gathered from this conversation as well as the conversations that stemmed from a message from another professor that Dr. McCoy passed on to us after the fire at Notre Dame is that now, more than ever, we need to be especially conscientious of the language we use and how it may be perceived.

Because two of Dr. Adams’ specialties are American history and African American history, she provided us with a brief overview of some of the major events in the timelines of the African Americans who were forcibly brought to the United States. For example, she taught us a bit about the Triangular Trade. One thing we discussed in class is how we should begin to say “enslaved men and women and their bodies” rather than “slaves”. I noticed that the website for which I included a link in the term “Triangular Trade” uses the phrase “enslaved Africans” a significant amount, especially in reference to the frequency of this usage as compared to their usage of the term “slave(s)”. This change in terminology seems to be meant to put more focus on the heaviness of the subject so that we may more appropriately acknowledge the atrocious events of the past. Though I was surprised to see that this website is using terminology similar to the words towards which we are turning ourselves, I was glad to see this change and I believe it is a step in the right direction.

One issue on which Dr. Adams placed special emphasis is that no one is “free” of the heaviness of the discriminatory events of the past, nor is anyone free of it now. It is like Steve Prince said in the lecture he gave at the opening of his exhibit at the Bertha V.B. Lederer Gallery—just because your ancestors did not own enslaved men and women does not mean you can breathe that sigh of relief, because we are all still involved and we all still feel the weight of the past and the present every day. Dr. Adams touched upon this dichotomy between the northern United States and the southern United States in that some people from the north think they are better, in a way, than the people from the south because they do not have ancestors that owned enslaved men and women. No one is free from the weight of these events because they are all around us, and they affect everyone, however directly or indirectly, in one way or another.

As Dr. McCoy said during this class period, “We are obligated to keep trying.” This is truly applicable to anything and everything. It is the ultimate both/and. It is something we must remember every day.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.