Many pasts? The words we use
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Levi Jordan


They're more important than you may think....and what's "politically correct" has little to do with it....

by Carol McDavid

The words we use in conversations about the past sometimes reveal our points of view, even when we aren't aware of it. When we first published this web site in late 1997, several people pointed out some of the words that appear all over this web site are, well, a bit of a problem. Here are some of the "problem" words that several people have pointed out to us.

A "cabin" brings up a certain picture in most peoples' minds. Of course, this word may well have been used by the people who worked on the Jordan Plantation when referring to the places in which they lived. But do we really know that? Historical records for this plantation don't offer any clues. What if they used the same words that Levi and his family used to speak of the place they lived? Such as "home", or "house"? Do these words paint a different picture in your mind?

To look at this idea, first I looked up "cabin" in the thesaurus, and came up with words like shanty, shed, shack, hovel, hut, log home, lodge, and cottage. I then looked up "residence" and found the words habitation, domicile, dwelling, home, abode, mansion, and manse. But can't a "cabin" also be a domicile, dwelling, or abode? What thoughts do you have about this? (Go to Feedback and let us know!)

While it is certainly true that the Africans and African-Americans who worked for Levi Jordan until 1865 were enslaved, that word is a problem for some people, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it reduces the person down to one essential "being" – it defines them only in terms of an economic relationship between him or her and another person. It also assigns an identity to someone that is forced on them by someone else. A lot of people prefer to use the word "enslaved person", and we have tried to use that when we can. The people who were slaves were only slaves because someone else made them that way – and "enslaved person" may communicate that idea a little better.

Ideas about this? – go Feedback.

These words are used in much academic writing about the religious practices in some African groups, and so they appear here in much of the material written about the person at this plantation who appears to have been using African healing methods. A more "western" word would, perhaps, be "doctor", or "healer". What do you think about this? What do the words "magician" and "curer" mean to you, as opposed to "doctor" or "healer"? Are there other alternatives we could use?

Ideas about this? – go to Feedback.

Should we change the problem words?

Well, we could go through the entire web site and just replace all the problem words with more appropriate (some would say more "PC") word choices. But that would not only be VERY difficult, it would probably be never-ending, because these sorts of language debates never really end. They shift and change as people develop different sensitivities to words that offend other people. Whatever replacement words we come up with could easily need to be replaced in, say, 5-10 years. Or even sooner!

Also, much of the material included on this site is from published sources. We can't go back and change those bits of text, because they are already in print.

Finally, replacement language is frequently cumbersome and awkward. For a good discussion of semantics in the way we talk about history, you might have a look at a paper written by Cheryl LaRoche (45), in which she talks about semantics and New York Burial Ground project (http://r2.gsa.gov/fivept/fphome.htm).

It's a problem, and we don't think we can really solve it. But we can talk about it, and and by doing so maybe we will all be more sensitive and aware of the words we use. What do you think? What "problem words" have you found, here and in other places?

See feedback pages and let us know!

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Carol McDavid 1998