Episode Four

Languages of Slavery

Written and produced by Baylee Adkins, Brennan Garcia, and Cameron Watts (cite)

In this episode, Baylee, Cameron, and Brennan consider the different ways in which slavery is used as a political and personal metaphor in the novellas and plays by Aphra Behn, as well as some of the problematic ways in which we use slavery as a metaphor in popular culture today.

Show Notes

Topics covered in this episode include:

  • a discussion on how Behn uses slave language in Oroonoko to show the realities and horrors of slavery.
  • a discussion on how slave language is used in The Rover as a metaphor for love, with a reading from act two of the play.
  • an analysis of Britney Spears’s modern hit song, “I’m a Slave 4 U,” and its broader implications.

Resources mentioned in this episode include:


(CW) Note this episode makes reference to the enslavement of people of color, rape and sexual violence.

ELIZABETH. Author, spy, political propagandist, Aphra Behn was one of the first English women to earn a living by her pen. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the English Civil Wars, expanding transatlantic slave trade, and settler colonialism in the Americas, with frankness and complexity Behn’s work engages a range of topics, from gender identity to political power.

My name is Elizabeth Tavares and I am so pleased to welcome you to “Aphra Behn: The Podcast.” This limited series celebrates the 350th anniversary of the first public performance of a work by Behn, surveying major trends across translations of romances and scientific texts, timely plays, erotic poetry, and inventive novellas. Researched, written, and produced by University of Alabama undergraduates during the coronavirus global pandemic in the spring of 2021, this series offers a primer to one of the most influential writers in English you’ve never heard of.

Listen to the seven episodes, covering topics from climate and gambling to gossip and marriage, in any order. Each episode includes a special feature, including short performances from plays and interviews with world-class scholars. Want to learn more? Check out our website for show notes as well as links to popular and scholarly resources. We’re grateful to the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, the Samford Media Center, and the Alabama Digital Humanities Center for their support of this project. And thank you for listening. Now on with the show.

CAMERON. Hello and welcome to Aphra Behn: The Podcast. I am Cameron Watts and will later be joined by Baylee Adkins and Brennan Garcia. We would like to thank you for tuning in for our discussion on how slave language is used throughout Aphra Behn’s works and how slave language is used in modern works. We start with a discussion on her most notable work about slavery, Oroonoko, and then explore the ways in which similar metaphors are used in The Rover. We will finish by examining how modern artists like Britney Spears have used this language and how it appears in pop culture today. As movements such as the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have received more attention recently, examining the way slave language appears throughout different works and time periods makes the realities of slavery more impactful.

BAYLEE. When searching for scholarly articles that discuss Behn’s use of slave language, most scholars tend to focus on Oroonoko because the plot deals with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The narrator describes Oroonoko as a “great man … the most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man, both for greatness of courage and mind, a judgement more solid, a wit more quick, and a conversation more sweet and diverting.” Oroonoko was well-educated, he had a “royal tutor” and could speak multiple languages.

Przemysław Uściński argues “the politics of this text in terms of race, slavery, class, royalist ideology and gender are complex and often ambiguous, while the main character—the royal slave Oroonoko, later renamed by the plantation managers as Caesar—is equally ambivalent in being constructed as a paradoxical ‘noble savage.’” This idea that he can be noble while also being a savage is complex, and even controversial. For example, when the narrator describes the relationship between the Suriname and the white colonists, she considers them as “being on all occasions very useful to us, we find it absolutely necessary to caress ‘em as friends and not to treat ‘em as slaves,” and they also note that the white colonists are “outnumbered.” Because they are beneficial to the white colonists and could not take over their country, they treat them with kindness; however, if they were not, this could potentially be a different story.

As the novel continues and the narrator describes how the king devises his plan to steal Imoinda from Oroonoko, he justifies his actions by saying “besides, he many times enquir’d how the prince bore himself: And those of whom he ask’d, being entirely slaves to the merits and vertues of the prince.” This context seems to be nudging at the idea that the king sees the townspeople as slaves to his and the prince’s power, enslaved by their own morals and virtue to do right by the king. This is interesting because the narrator refers to this idea of Oroonoko being more noble than others because he is so humble, which contradicts that idea entirely if he feels that the townspeople are slaves to him.

As the story progresses, we learn later that Oroonoko is taken into slavery himself. An English sea captain comes to celebrate Oroonoko’s newest military victory, and he is accepted in as a royal guest. The Captain invites Oroonoko onto his ship, then kidnaps him selling him to Trefry, a slave owner. The narrator describes this event: “the same treachery was us’d to all the rest; and all in one instant, in several places of the ship, were lash’d fast in irons, and betray’d to slavery.” So distraught at the thought of being made a slave, and “so that being deprived of all other means, he resolv’d to perish for want of food; and pleas’d at last with that thought, and toil’d and tir’d by rage and indignation, he laid himself down, and sullenly resolv’d upon dying, and refused all things that were brought him.”

At the first moment of being captured and sold into slavery, the motive seems based on appearance, on objectifying Oroonoko and disregarding his intelligence and humanity. Trefry suggests he bought Oroonoko because he “fixed his eyes upon him, and finding something so extraordinary in his face, his shape, and mien, a greatness of look and haughtiness in his air, and finding he spoke English.” Part of the entrapment strategies Trefry used to trick and capture Oroonoko includes making him believe “he ever after loved him as his dearest brother, and showed him all the civilities due to so great a man.” Once captured, Trefry’s attitude changes and he works to erase Oroonoko’s previous identity, including renaming him as Caesar, convincing Oroonoko “that name will live in that country as long as that (scarce more) glorious one of the great Roman,” but really making it impossible for his family to rescue him. Like Oroonoko, when the narrator described the enslaved as having “lost the divine quality of man, and became insensible asses.”

Like the paradox of the noble savage, Oroonoko is given a new degree of joy and horror to discover his beloved, Imoinda, has also been captured and renamed Clemene. Within a short period of time after they marry, “she conceived with child, which made Oroonoko even adore her, knowing he was the last of his great race.” Oroonoko grew anxious to be released back home, and so inspires a slave revolt: “And why (said he) my dear friends and fellow-sufferers, should we be slaves to an unknown people? Have they vanquished us nobly in fight? Have they won us in honorable battle? And are we by the chance of war become their slaves?” Unable to outrun the slave owners, the pair are captured, and Oroonoko is whipped. In a second escape he murders both Imoinda and their unborn child in order to spare them from further enslavement: “Oroonoko scorns to live with the indignity that was put on Caesar.” Oroonoko is eventually put to death by dismemberment, ensuring his body is ultimately understood by the remaining slaves as an object, robbed of his humanity body and soul.

BRENNAN. The use of slave language is consistent across Oroonoko and The Rover, although their contexts are different. Whereas Oroonoko describes the more widely recognized form of slavery, in the play The Rover uses slavery as a metaphor to explore the objectification and commodification of humans, specifically for sex. For example, in act two the wandering English playboy Willmore attempts to convince the expensive sex worker Angellica to have sex with him for free. He claims that he is a slave to her beauty and acts in such a way that emphasizes the innate power that sexual attraction has over humans.

ANGELLICA [BAYLEE]. Sure, this from any other man would anger me; nor shall he know the conquest he has made.Poor, angry man, how I despise this railing.

WILMORE [BRENNAN]. Yes, I am poor; but I’m a gentleman, And one that scorns this baseness which you practice. Poor as I am, I would not sell myself, no, not to gain your charming high-prized person. Though I admire you strangely for your beauty, Yet I condemn your mind.

CAMERON. Condescendingly, Willmore begins by using pity to try to woo Angellica. He admits he has strong feelings because of her beauty, but does not respect her enough to admire her mind as well—hinting that this speech is purely for physical means. He continues with his begging.

WILMORE [BRENNAN]. And yet I would at any rate enjoy you, At your own rate, but cannot: see here The only sum I can command on earth; I know not where to eat when this is gone. Yet such a slave I am to love and beauty, This last reserve I’ll sacrifice to enjoy you.

CAMERON. Repeatedly, Willmore calls himself a slave to her love and beauty. This is a bit of a paradox. Someone who is enslaved is someone who is forced to do something, as if he is forced to love her. However, she is the one that he is trying to coerce into having sex, and no one is being forced to do anything. Willmore continues.

WILMORE [BRENNAN]. Nay, do not frown, I know you’re to be bought, And would be bought by me, by me, For a mean trifling sum, if I could pay it down: Which happy knowledge I will still repeat, And lay it to my heart; it has a virtue in’t, And soon will cure those wounds your eyes have made.

CAMERON. By stating that Angellica is “known to be bought” and would be bought by Willmore if he could “pay it down,” Willmore clearly sees Angellica as a commodity to be bought on credit, so not even cash up front, and used for his own physical pleasure. By making himself the victim, or “slave” in this speech, he is manipulating her into doing what he wants without compensation. The speech then comes to a close as he continues to admire her in a purely physical way.

WILMORE [BRENNAN]. And yet, there’s something so divinely powerful there– Nay, I will gaze to let you see my strength. By heaven, bright creature, I would not for the world. Thy fame were half so fair as in thy face.

ANGELLICA [BAYLEE]. His words go through me to my very soul.

CAMERON. Some critics have said that they believe this type of diction countributes to rape culture. As Anita Pacheco contends, “Angellica’s metaphor of conquest suggests the extent to which the psychology of rape is embedded in a society governed by an ideology of male dominance.” Willmore is so desperate to conquer Angellica that he calls himself a slave to her, as if his entire mission isn’t to force her to participate in sexual labor without compensation.

Using slavery as a metaphor for anything other than the enslavement and disenfranchisement of human beings is extremely damaging. For one reason, by using this real violence metaphorically, the strategy evacuates the seriousness of human trafficking, an issue that would mar the United States in the century that followed. Lest we think that contemporary popular culture is devoid of such exploitative euphemisms, slave metaphors continue to be pervasive. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Britney Spears famous hit song “I’m A Slave 4 U” which premiered at the 2001 MTV Music Awards where Spears performed wearing an albino Burmese Python on her shoulders flanked by numerous Black back-up dancers literally animalized in costume. Spears’ performance was named on the “Top 10 Most Offensive VMA Performances” list.

Similar to The Rover, Spears uses the term “slave” to imply sexual intentions. It seems for Behn this word has a double meaning; one that is a horrific reality for some, and one that is romantic and even erotic. For Spears, however, the term “slave” is as sexualized and eroticized as ever. In the first verse of the song, the lyrics state:

All you people look at me like I’m a little girl

Well did you ever think it’d be okay

For me to step into in this world

Always saying little girl don’t step into the club

Well I’m just tryin’ to find out why

‘Cause dancing’s what I love

Spears has referred two herself as a little girl twice in this verse, and this trend of being viewed as youthful or innocent appears in a lot of her music in her early career. Trying to appear youthful, like a minor, and also trying to appear like a sex icon is wildly inappropriate, damaging, and tone-deaf to the real threats of child pornography, pedophilia, and sex trafficking. The metaphor appears later in the chorus:

I’m a slave 4 U, I cannot hold it,

I cannot control it, I’m a slave 4 U,

I won’t deny it,

I’m not trying to hide it.

Spears is now referring to herself as a slave for the person she is dancing with. She has created a mainstream pop dance anthem that is rooted in the sexualization of a youthful girl who is calling herself a slave. This song and these trends in pop culture not only desensitize society to these real and threatening horrors, but they also contribute to corruption by flooding the mainstream with predatorial content.

Feminist scholar Ariane Cruise explains how “violence becomes not just a vehicle of pleasure but also a mode of accessing and critiquing power,” meaning that participating in this trend and using the language of “slave” and “master” can empower individuals sexually. That empowerment, however, comes at the cost of enslaving or restraining another from freedom of movement or choice. The entanglement of sex and slavery as Behn explored the issue continued to be entrenched and unchecked in contemporary pop songs, romance works, and other artforms from our era, and this has become a noticeable trend.

BRENNAN. As we have seen, slavery has been problematically appropriated to describe states of physical attraction from the seventeenth century until today. Slavery metaphors, or language that refers to the objectification of someone, human bondage, and working without pay, is a terrifying reality for people whose ancestors experienced slavery in the past, and people who are living enslaved today. According to the US Office for Victims of Crime, “of the six hundred to eight hundred thousand people trafficked across international borders each year, seventy percent are female and . . . the majority of these victims are forced into the commercial sex trade.” While in Oroonoko, The Royal Slave, this word adheres to the literal meaning. On the flip side, slave language can be used as a metaphor for being enamored by someone, as shown by Willmore’s lustful, yet passionate speech to Angellica where he calls himself a slave to her beauty. And yet the sentiment remains, as Willmore is trying to get Angellica’s labor for free. We hope this gives you pause the next time you, obsessed in love or put in a difficult situation, want to reach for slavery as a metaphor.