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'Slave' or 'enslaved'?

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Four years ago, The New York Times published The 1619 Project, a collection of stories and essays about the lasting impact of slavery in the United States.

Among the many ideas advanced in the project that continue to surface today is the language that Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones embraced as she and her co-authors wrote about the people who were enslaved and those who enslaved them.

Because language use in journalism tends to be a window into other values that guide the work, we asked NPR how its journalists use these terms. Read on to see what we learned.

We also spotlight a story about the mental health of pilots that grew out of a forum on the topic, hosted by the National Transportation Safety Board.


We ask NPR one question about how the work comes together.

What is NPR's guidance on using the terms 'slave' and 'enslaved'?

Some journalists and historians prefer to use the term "enslaved" instead of the word "slave," to better describe those held in American slavery, and to acknowledge the horror and exploitation they were forced to face.

The language nuance was discussed by the leaders of The New York Times' 1619 Project, which was published in 2019 with an aim "to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative."

During a Fresh Air interview in 2020, the project's creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, said, "I think when we hear the word 'slave,' we think of slavery as being the essence of that person. But if you call someone an enslaved person, then it speaks to a condition. ... These people were not slaves. Someone chose to force them into the condition of slavery. And that language, to me, is very important, as is using the word 'enslaver' over 'slave owner' because these people didn't have a moral right to own another human being, even though the society allowed it."

We researched how NPR journalists make decisions about this language.

Like most news organizations, NPR follows guidance from The Associated Press Stylebook. The AP says the word "slaves" "denotes an inherent identity of a person or people treated as chattel or property," while the term "enslaved people" emphasizes that "the slave status has been imposed on individuals." The Stylebook says to try to determine an individual's preference, but that either term is acceptable.

That guidance was added to the book in 2021 and developed by members of AP's race and ethnicity reporting team, AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke wrote to us in an email. "They believed that either term was OK but, as we note, try to determine a preference," she said.

If a preference can't be determined, Froke said journalists should use both terms — "slaves" and "enslaved people" — in the same story.

We wondered what AP meant by determining an individual's preference. Froke said the AP "had in mind sources who are descendants of slaves or enslaved people. But if someone who is not a descendant of slaves/enslaved people uses either or both terms in describing slavery, that's OK too."

Individual preference is also important, she said, because there are still instances of slavery in today's world, including in the United States, such as victims of human trafficking.

"That's along the lines of what we say about person-first and identity-first language: Try to determine a preference, and if a preference can't be determined, use both approaches," Froke said.

NPR does not have specific guidance beyond following the AP, standards editor Tony Cavin said in an email. He added: "If asked to choose, unless it's a direct quote, I think 'enslaved people' is preferable because it highlights the humanity of those who were held in bondage, but because 'slave' is so well understood I think it's still acceptable."

NPR used both "slave" and "enslaved" in recent reporting, including within the same story:

  • An August Morning Edition story, about a new study creating a possible way for Black Americans to trace their ancestors, said that during centuries of slavery, "families were split by slave owners and traders who did not record familial connections." And it later said that researchers are "using the DNA of forgotten enslaved and free workers there to tie them to people in the present."
  • In an All Things Considered story in September, about California voters' stances on cash reparations for slavery, NPR used the term "descendants of enslaved African Americans." The article also said, "California was never a slave state."
  • An October book review of the novel Let Us Descend said that Jesmyn Ward's story "pulls readers into the life of a slave on a long, painful journey," and refers to the character as "the daughter of an enslaved woman." The book was also featured as NPR's Book of the Day, and a description said the main character is "an enslaved Black woman."

NPR's Code Switch co-host B.A. Parker has reported about her enslaved ancestors. She said she was taught as a kid that "the word 'slave' is a label placed onto someone instead of something that happened to them, so saying that someone was 'enslaved' is different than the label of just being a 'slave.'"

Parker said it's important for journalists to consider whom a word is helping and whom it's hurting. She said using the term "enslaved people" over the word "slaves" might seem slight, but it makes a big difference "in maintaining respect, maintaining legacy and maintaining history to be able to pass that along and move forward in sharing those stories."

It can also affect the audience's understanding of a subject.

"If it doesn't sound like I'm respecting the person that I'm talking about," she said, "then how am I going to get a listener to?"

Evolving our use of language to become more accurate — and respectful — is important. We understand the significance of establishing a source's preference if possible, and why the AP says the use of both terms is acceptable, which does allow for nuance. Even so, language preferences aren't always applied universally. The editors of a book that expands on The 1619 Project, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, wrote that, in most cases, they avoided using the word "slave" to describe people in bondage, instead using "enslaved person," but noted exceptions: "In some instances where it does not refer to a person (e.g. 'slave state') and in some of the historical poetry and fiction, 'slave' does appear."

Still, AP itself lays out why "enslaved" is generally more accurate and contextual: It conveys that being held in bondage was something that happened to enslaved people, that was forced upon them, not something that they inherently were. As Parker noted, the difference between the two terms may seem slight, but it can be meaningful. We favor using accurate and precise words as much as we can. — Emily Barske Wood and Kayla Randall


The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

Pilots' mental health

National Desk Correspondent Joel Rose recently reported about pilots' concerns with mental health in the aviation industry for Morning Edition . Some pilots experiencing anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorders are afraid to seek treatment, fearing they'll lose their medical clearance to work and fly. Rose covered a recent mental health forum held by the National Transportation Safety Board. A personal story from a pilot who sought treatment provided an inside perspective on the issue, and Rose's reporting gave context and prompted the audience to think deeply about it. — Emily Barske Wood

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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