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Servants, Masters, and the Coercion of Labor

Inventing the Rhetoric of Slavery, the Verbal Sanctuaries Which Sustain It, and How It Was Used to Sanitize American Slavery’s History


David K. O’Rourke

This book by David K. O’Rourke presents a study of language and linguistic forms and the roles they played in the initial imagining, developing, and maintaining of a society based on coerced labor. It focuses especially on the contexts of coercion and on the differences in the roles of masters and servants from society to society. In the interaction between colonial powers and conquered peoples, O’Rourke also describes how the European colonial nations imposed their own languages, social metaphors, and utopian views as a way to disconnect those they conquered from their historic roots and re-imagine, redefine, rename, and map them into new lands and places inhabited by inferior peoples needing control by masters who understand how they should now live.
O’Rourke begins by describing how this rewriting of history is not new. He calls on well-established classical and biblical language studies to describe how older and historic oral histories and texts were rewritten to reshape the past to fit new and more useful views. He explains how rhetoric, metaphor, and pseudo-sciences were used to change Europe’s earlier contracted and coerced labor in colonial America into the chattel slavery that became the hallmark of the new and growing United States. O’Rourke also describes how the dominant culture’s current values, foundational metaphors, and sacred notions were woven together into linguistic shelters that served to enshrine the repressive process from questioning and dissent. These same linguistic elements were then used after emancipation to maintain and sanitize the remains of the slave system by presenting it as a benign institution.
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Chapter 1: Words, Methods, and Contexts




This is a book about words. It is especially about two words—master and servant. Perhaps most significantly it is about words in contexts. For words in context are alive. They live in the lives of the people whom they point to, pointing sometimes with respect and deference, more often in disdain. For the living contexts of masters and servants though usually connected are very different, very far apart.

The presumption that they are not the same is so central to this study that I want to describe the differences at the start. I will be looking at the words in their contexts so this means as set in times and places.

Trying to come up with a way to do this, to describe different worlds that are also clearly connected, has been a challenge. But I realized that I have a useful memory of that difference created recently and publicly by a gifted architect. A dozen years ago I joined a group of architects in a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, in Northern Spain. Even before it was opened the very building itself had become famous. It was a startling, visual marvel. Renowned architect Frank Gehry had worked shiny metal into what ← 1 | 2 → seemed like a jumble of rounded and fluid shapes, seemingly clashing angles, and metal palisades. I think it fair to say that I found the building, inside and out,...

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