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WNIJ Perspectives
Perspectives are commentaries produced by and for WNIJ listeners, from a panel of regular contributors and guests. You're invited to comment on or respond to any Perspective on our Facebook page or through Twitter (@wnijnews), in keeping with our Discussion Policy. If you would like to submit your own Perspective for consideration, send us a script that will run about 90 seconds when read -- that's about 250 words -- and email it to NPR@niu.edu, with "Perspectives" in the subject line.

Perspective: The Vocabulary Of Slavery

British Library
Slaves cutting sugar cane in Antigua, 1823

As a specialist in Caribbean literature, I teach about slavery every year. When we read the Cuban novel, Sab, or watch Tomás Alea Gutierrez's film The Last Supper, we study the organization of plantations, how sugar cane is cut and processed and the vocabulary of slavery.


At night, slaves were locked into huts called barrancos so that they would not run away. Escaped slaves formed communities known as palenques or quilombos, where they defended their freedom by recreating the villages they had left behind in Africa. When we read poems by Cuba's Nancy Morejón we discuss rapes and sexual abuse, as well as other physical forms of punishment. There are new words to learn: latigazos are whippings, bocabajo is placing the slave face down on the ground to be beaten, cepo means immobilizing head, arms and feet by placing the slave in a stock to endure heat and humiliation in public. Even an insignificant reference to the sound of drums has meaning because they allowed secret communications between plantations. Drumming during the night meant a slave revolt was imminent.

I teach the vocabulary of slavery to my students, so they understand what they are reading, but until now, I did not realize that they needed this vocabulary to understand what they are seeing: that the images of George Floyd pinned down on the ground, was a bocabajo, just like the slaves in the Caribbean centuries ago.

I'm Frances Jaeger, and that is my Perspective.

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