Thursday, August 20, 2015

"Slave Mistress" and Language Matters

In the Sunday obituary in the Times for Julian Bond, there was a sentence that got a lot of us going (angrily) on Twitter. The offending sentence went: "Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.”

The Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, addressed the problematic phrase "slave mistress" this morning in an article entitled "Times Regrets ‘Slave Mistress’ in Julian Bond’s Obituary."  Sullivan wrote that "Many readers wrote to me to protest the phrase, on the grounds that a slave, by definition, can’t be in the kind of consensual or romantic relationship that the word “mistress” suggests."

Sullivan wrote to Dean Baquet, who is now serving as the first African-American editor of the Times. He said he regretted the use of the term and added, "It is an archaic phrase, and even though Julian Bond himself may have used it in the past, we should not have.” Bond had referred to his great-grandmother as a "mistress" to her owner in a 2013 interview.

Sullivan closes her article:
There’s no question that Times editors heard readers’ voices loud and clear. Retiring this phrase and expressing regret about using it has nothing to do with political correctness. It’s about recognizing the history of slavery in America, at a time when race is at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Language matters. This is the right call.
I hope to cover this topic during one of my "language matters" exercises in at least one of my classes this semester.

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