Why We Must Stop Referring to Non-Enslaved Black People as “Free”

Bridgette L. Hylton
Published in
5 min readMar 11, 2022

So you’ve stopped referring to enslaved people as slaves, what’s next?

You’ve recognized that assigning a status related identity to enslaved persons legitimizes the existence of the system of enslavement and diminishes reflection around the inhumanity that such a system embodies, now what?

It’s time we reflect on the idea that the antithesis to being an enslaved Black person is being a “free Black person.” That’s not true. The antithesis of being an enslaved Black person is having no connection to the system of enslavement whatsoever — that is, being a human who happens to be Black.

Photo by Social History Archive on Unsplash

Many of us have no personal qualms with the word free or the word freedom themselves. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that they are perhaps two of the most beautiful words in the English language in a wide variety of contexts. In the United States, the word itself pretty exclusively has positive associations whether with the perpetuation of democracy, or the ending of wars, and that is only amplified by what the word means for Black Americans and for other Black societies impacted by the systems of enslavement.

However, from another perspective, the idea that the only conditions that we can attribute to Black identity retrospectively during the period of enslavement and reconstruction are the diametric relations to enslavement diminishes the humanity of Black people.

You don’t have free human beings and enslaved human beings of other races, and for Black people it should be no different. Most of humanity has not been identified in their relationship to a system of oppression, albeit a longstanding, brutal, and consuming one. We don’t refer to White people or other non-Black people who have not been enslaved as free Whites in contrast to Whites who may have been enslaved, or what have you. We don’t refer to people who were not vassals as free. We don’t refer to Jewish people who did not get ensnared in the brutal binds of the Holocaust, “free Jewish people,” in contrast to our Jewish brothers and sisters who did.

In that light, there are only Black human beings who were not trafficked into enslavement — which is to say, Black human beings and those…