The Narrative Matters: Guidelines on Writing about Slavery

January 25, 2016 Cazzie Reyes Opinion 

Earlier this week, one of the headlines in The Guardian posed the question: What happens when children’s books fail to confront the complexity of slavery? Referring to the controversial cover of A Birthday Cake for George Washington depicting a smiling black cook and his daughter baking a cake for the president, the article’s author posits that keeping the narrative about chattel slavery honest is constant work.

In addition, it’s not just representations in popular media and creative mediums that more or less water down the history of slavery. Textbooks such as the one published in Texas saying ‘The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations’ wrongly suggests that slavery was some form of voluntary migrant work. Historic sites and house museums referring to slaves as “servants” in order to dissuade visitors’ discomfort do so at the risk of minimizing the abuses faced by slaves.

Challenges and problems with portrayals of slavery continue on to the present. We’ve already talked about the visual stereotypes for human trafficking. This post discusses points to keep in mind when writing or talking about human trafficking today.


When referring to a person who is or was trafficked, ask what they’d prefer to be called whenever possible. Some want to be identified as victims, while others want to be called survivors. Moreover, there are people that don’t want to be forever associated with those two terms and would like to be acknowledged by the life and work they’ve carried out after their trafficking ordeal.

Next, use adjectives carefully. When describing those in slave-like conditions, it’s easy to see the despair and only call them helpless, hopeless or powerless. However, these words create a savior mindset and ignore the fact that trafficked people have the agency and ability to make choices and be active participants in their own recovery. On that note, avoid infantilizing trafficked people. For example, don’t call women “girls.”

Last, check the text throughout the story to see how individuals are framed. Is the narrative overemphasizing the fact that a trafficked person is also an illegal immigrant? Is the prostituted person called a stripper or a sex worker? Doing so creates bias against him or her, suggests complicity and assigns culpability.


Cite peer reviewed articles and use statistics from reputable sources, but be transparent about the limitations of these studies. Furthermore, be aware of the possibility that what might be true for one group of people might not be true for an individual.

Additionally, try to be inclusive and to reflect the global distribution of human trafficking. Oftentimes, men, boys, women and transgendered people are left out because popular discourse is completely focused on girls forced into prostitution.

To close, just as mentioned in the visual stereotypes post, avoid telling sexualized and graphic stories if the only purpose is to sensationalize or trivialize someone’s experience. There are times when people who survived trafficking wish to disclose all that happened to them, and yes, absolutely give them the space to do that. But, be mindful of how you use their narratives in the future.

Amidst the controversy and social media backlash, Scholastic stopped distributing A Birthday Cake for George Washington. This instance is a reminder of how differently we all interpret and think of slavery. It is also an opportunity for us to reevaluate the way we talk about human trafficking and slavery. After all, the stories that we tell are pivotal to the way that people today – and generations from now – understand slavery, both chattel and its more modern forms.

Topics: News

About the Author

Cazzie Reyes

Cazzie Reyes graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.