What Does it Mean When We Call a Key a “Slave”?
On the Power and Responsibility of Metaphor
Part of the business of tyranny is to bankrupt certain words of meaning so that they become, in the process, destitute. –Michael Chabon, adapted
Language and its expectations
about the relationship
we would have had. –Solmaz Sharif
I am in possession of what is known, apparently, as a slave key. The more common, more polite, less charged, and more obfuscating term is valet key. It was handed over in the last in a series of transactions at the car dealership, where Ann and I traded in our old Subaru and bought a new one. This is a moment of ritual, a keenly American scene: the smiling representative of commerce and industry, both smug and deferential, and the giddy new owners, awash in our good fortune. The parties sit opposite, on either side of the desk, which feels like territory successfully traversed; we are in this together (sort of) but adversarial as well: each side out to milk the other for the best terms. The business manager offers up congratulations, not only for the car, gleaming in the lot, but also for the other, unspoken triumph: that with this purchase we have reconfirmed our place in the middle class.
The keys seal the deal. They stand as evidence the transaction is complete. Contract, warranty, money, manual. Now there’s nothing left but this cut and coded logic. She gives us three: two masters and a third she calls a slave key.
Automobile in America,
Chromium steel in America,
Wire-spoke wheel in America,
Very big deal in America! –Stephen Sondheim
Valet, a man-servant performing duties chiefly relating to the person of his master.
You can think of this in terms of access. The master key has full, open, undifferentiated access; it fits all the cylinders. The slave or valet key has restricted access, set to pre-coded specifications. It prevents the valet from gaining access to valuables that are located in the trunk or the glove box.
The more keys a man has the richer he is.
In ancient Egypt, a man secured his wealth with keys, carried on the shoulders of slaves, known as key-bearers.
We had twice crossed a deep gully, at the bottom of which was a thick covert of brushwood. We were crossing it a third time, and had nearly passed through the brush, when the overseer suddenly stopped his horse exclaiming, What’s that? Hallo! Who are you, there?
It was a girl lying at full length on the ground at the bottom of the gully, evidently intending to hide herself from us in the bushes.
Who are you, there?
Sam’s Sall, sir.
What are you skulking there for?
The girl half rose, but gave no answer.
Have you been here all day?
How did you get here?
The girl made no reply.
Where have you been all day?
The answer was unintelligible.
After some further questioning, she said her father accidentally locked her in, when he went out in the morning.
How did you manage to get out?
Pushed a plank off, sir, and crawled out.
The overseer was silent for a moment, looking at the girl, and then said, That won’t do; come out here.
The girl arose at once, and walked towards him. She was about 18 years of age. A bunch of keys hung at her waist, which the overseer espied, and he said, Your father locked you in; but you have got the keys. After a little hesitation, she replied that these were the keys of some other locks; her father had the door-key . . .
That won’t do, said he, get down. The girl knelt on the ground; he got off his horse, and holding him [the horse] with his left hand, struck her 30 or 40 blows across the shoulders with his tough, flexible, “raw-hide” whip. –Frederick Law Olmsted
The first usage of the master-slave metaphor in technical literature dates to 1904, when astronomer David Gill describes a clock he designed for a Cape Town observatory: The Clock consists of two separate instruments: (A) A pendulum (swinging in a nearly airtight enclosure maintained at uniform temperature and pressure) and (B) the “slave clock” with a wheel train and dead-beat escapement, the pendulum of which has a period of vibration slightly shorter than one second.
Mathematician Ron Eglash, elucidating the metaphor, refers to the first instrument as a free pendulum, and notes that the second clock, the “slave”—originally set in quotes to suggest the deliberateness of the designation and to indicate this is an ersatz slave, not a real one—is subject to periodic corrections from the master.
In 1924, Major Prince, speaking before the British Horological Society, said that he used the term “slave clock” intentionally because he thought it was intelligible to the ordinary person.
In 1963, the Wall Street Journal reported that several railroads, in an effort to cut labor costs, were testing a “slave” locomotive. The “slave” would ride in the middle of the train perhaps 200 cars long; automatic sensing devices would keep it pulling the back end of such a train in rhythm with the manned ‘master’ locomotive up front. This rendering has the familiar tropes: the slave operates automatically; it performs hard labor, pulling approximately 100 cars; it pulls them in rhythm with the master, located at the front of the train; and the master is manned (while the slave is unmanned, thus emasculated), an adjective that hints at a hyper masculinity (fast forward to our current day man up).
A slave locomotive is also called a slug.
The patent application for a master-slave key, filed with the US Patent Office in 1972 by Kenneth D. Sauder, is numbingly inscrutable except for the following: Both the master tumblers and slave tumblers are biased into a predetermined position.
The master key controls the slave key. Ford’s version, called MyKey, allows you to configure one or more of your Ford keys to control your vehicle’s safety settings, even when you aren’t behind the wheel (emphasis mine). Mostly it’s used to encourage good driving habits in teens, but Ford allows it can be used to reinforce alternate habits in other adult family members as well. In one fun case, posted on BOB IS THE OIL GUY’s car forum by an employee at a Ford dealership, the husband set the wife’s key [the slave key] to not go over 75mph, radio volume on low, disabled the phone while moving, and made the “low fuel” warning come on at half a tank. The wife was screaming at us about the car and we told her she needed to have a talk with her husband about that because we cannot override the master key settings.
When I looked up slave in the OED, I expected, language being malleable and contextual, to discover a multi-stranded history, a derivation that amplified its meaning, lent it nuance—but slave has always meant precisely what it means. It hasn’t changed. Its linguistic force derives, in fact, from its immutability, from its absolute fixity. In French esclave, Provençal esclau, Spanish escalava/o, Portuguese escrava/o, Italian schiava/o, medieval Latin sclava/sclavus, German schlave, Dutch slaef. And then there are the Slavs of central and Eastern Europe, long subjected to conditions of bondage, whose slave status became their very name. And my friend’s ex, whose last name is Schiavo.
George Washington’s personal valet was a slave named William Lee, purchased in 1768 for 61 pounds and 15 shillings. Lee attended to Washington’s personal toilette, combing and tying his hair, and during the war, served as his military aide, bringing the general a spare horse or his telescope or whatever else might be needed. –Fritz Hirschfeld
Can slave be used as a metaphor? Or rape (i.e. bandwidth rape)? Or are the circumstances from which they derive so specific, so horrific, that it degrades them to be used in other contexts?
In Israel, the word survivor refers to a Holocaust survivor. It is only understood in that context. One cannot be a survivor of sexual assault, for instance. A friend of mine learned this when she taught a women’s self-defense class, and referred to the trauma of sexual assault survivors. The students in the class clarified: survivor is not used, not understood in that way.
My friend didn’t say what took its place.
Let it matter what we call a thing. –Solmaz Sharif
In the bureau in the downstairs hallway, along with outdated owner’s manuals for electronics we no longer own and disemboweled pens and two rabies tags for cats long dead and stuffed mice toys for the ones we have now and five eyeglass cases and four combs and salvaged scrap paper so Ann, if she goes out and I’m not home, can leave a note about her whereabouts, and an envelope of Forever stamps, there’s a disordered stash of keys. I would have guessed around 30, not inconsiderable; it turns out there are 69.
Are keys treasure? If treasure is entry to locked and secured places, to domicile and money under the mattress (a few years ago our modest reserve was stolen by someone who came in through an upstairs window) and lovership and friendship and cars and attics. A few of the 69 are house keys friends and neighbors have given us, entrusted to us, dispensing and receiving keys being acts of trust, often propelled by practicalities—feed the cats, bring in the mail, water the bonsai, let your neighbor in if she’s locked herself out—and sometimes indicative of a certain threshold of intimacy. Can friendship be measured in the exchange of keys? We have friends who used to have our keys and whose keys we used to have and now our locks have changed and the friends have moved and the key swap no longer distinguishes our relationship, which has, over time (and this is the point, isn’t it?) diminished greatly. Or was it like this? One party offered up the keys and the other didn’t, the offer, in this unreciprocated circumstance, becoming more like a plea, and therefore an embarrassment. I can’t remember now how it happened.
The rest of the 69 are relics. They have no tags. They are unidentified and unidentifiable, as if they’ve been neutered. They don’t unlock anything now. Several are encrusted with the powdery white leakage from an old alkaline battery, which I carefully wipe off my fingers. Still, I keep them, sort them, if sorting means dividing them into piles then wholesale tossing them into a 4” X 7” manila envelope and putting them back in the drawer.
What is left after the essence has departed? . . . things you want to throw away but somehow can’t. –Olivia Laing
Keys can also incriminate. They can signal you have something to hide, something to secret away. Lapsed contracts, racy love letters, ill-gotten gain. Or, if you are an unauthorized person, a marginalized or suspect person, or 3/5 of a person, something, purportedly, you have no right to possess: your privacy, your body, your life.
When Ann and a colleague went to a conference in Berlin circa the early 1990s, they stayed in a Soviet-style hotel in what had been, before the wall came down in ’89, East Berlin. The desk clerk gave them their keys. There were room keys of course, and keys for the wardrobes inside the rooms and keys for each of the drawers inside the wardrobes and keys for the inner compartments within the drawers, a series of boxed enclosures, ever-narrowing, increasingly confining, making the detritus of one’s life, indeed one’s life itself, under lock and key, into contraband.
In 1968, computer scientists John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz deployed the language of slavery and business—slavery having been a profitable business—to describe their new operating system: [A]ll computing for users takes place in the slave computer, while the executive program (the ‘brains’ of the system) resides in the master computer. It is thus impossible for an erroneous or runaway user program in the slave computer to ‘damage’ the executive program and thereby bring the whole system to a halt.
In this hierarchy, the master computer houses the executive program (CEO), which is referred to as the brains of the operation. Brains, with their innate authority and seemingly effortless know-how, occupy the top slot. In contrast, the slave computer houses the user, where computing, i.e. work, necessary but secondary in status, occurs. The user, by implication, is the brawn.
Further: an errant user program is a runaway, an escapee, with the capacity to bring the whole system to a halt. (Slave owners understood this danger to the system very well. They placed “runaway ads” in newspapers to avoid the financial losses that fugitive slaves represented.) To prevent this, the executive program exerts its privilege and overrides or cancels out the erroneous behavior, thereby making it impossible (unthinkable) for the runaway to damage the executive.
In 2003, an unidentified employee of Los Angeles County filed a complaint with the Office of Affirmative Action Compliance about video equipment labeled master and slave. At first, the division manager of purchasing and contract services, citing the cultural diversity of the county and the sensitivity of its residents, said such terminology was unacceptable. We would request that each manufacturer, supplier and contractor review, identify and remove/change any identification or labeling of equipment components that could be interpreted as discriminatory or offensive in nature. An exhaustive search was undertaken to root out all masters and slaves. Then, apparently, other sensitivities were aroused. Vendors complained. The division manager was deluged with emails calling him stupid and recommending his firing. He backed off, adopting a tone of apology, accommodation. His memo was nothing more than a request, he said, not an ultimatum. I do understand that this term has been an industry standard for years . . . and this is . . . [just] a plea to vendors to see what they can do, he said. It appears that some folks have taken this a little too literally.
[O]ne of the explanations proposed in the 2003 listserv traffic . . . was essentially that much engineering terminology is boring, and engineers themselves are stereotyped as boring, so they would be attracted to the master-slave figure of speech simply because it makes their work seem more interesting. –Ron Eglash
There is an etymological link between the slave and the robot. Robot, German, is related to the Old Czech and Old Polish robota, which mean forced labor, hard work, and the Old Church Slavonic rabota, which means servitude. The Slavic rabu, slave, is also a linguistic cousin to the German arbeit, work, and leaps forward, hundreds of years, to the phrase spanning the front gate at Auschwitz, Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Sets You Free. The gate was made by prisoners of the camp, many of whom died there.
There’s a phrase called “moral injury,” Claudia Rankine said. Does anybody know that phrase, moral injury? It’s a phrase they use for the military, and it’s when a soldier goes into war, goes into battle—and the things that they’re forced to do, the things that they’re forced to see, don’t line up with who they are as human beings. And so they experience a break in themselves. That’s what’s called the moral injury: their moral idea of how they are in the world has been broken, and they’ve become broken because of it. I almost wish that we didn’t have the capacity to stave that off, as citizens. That it didn’t have to be that we went to a war zone to get there. That we could understand as human beings that certain things should not be acceptable. That they don’t line up with us as human beings. Not as women, or white people, or black people, or Asian people, or Hispanics, or whatever—as human beings. And…when we are confronted with that, at that moment . . . we . . . understood . . . that was a moral injury.
Eula Biss: For me, whiteness is not an identity but a moral problem.
With the slave/valet key tucked in the glove compartment, where the Subaru manual recommends putting it, you can also download an app called Ghetto Tracker or SketchFactor or Good Part of Town or RedZone, in case you’re driving through an unfamiliar city and want to get the lay of the land.
Every moment of this carnival . . . feels like a test with one question: What kind of ugliness are you willing to be a part of? –Laura Collins-Hughes
As a self-defense student and then teacher, I was taught and then taught others to challenge and object to racist or otherwise harmful speech. I believed in this even as it sometimes felt righteous, reductive, or rote. Better to be clumsy than complicit. In class, in a safe space—another formulaic construction, but sometimes formulas are needed: i.e. fake it until you make it—we practiced. Name the behavior, say what you want. That’s anti-Semitic. I don’t allow such speech in my home. In retrospect, this is ridiculously self-inflated speech but maybe we needed it in order to speak at all. We didn’t have to be clever, articulate, or original: just clear. It took nerve.
Now I am unclear. Someone asks me how I responded to the business manager when she turned over the slave key—when in this consummating consumer moment she used that term—and implicit in this question is the assumption that I said something, that I registered my objection, or at least my discomfiture, or that I should have.
I did not.
Name the behavior. Say what you want. This model seems preposterous here. You’re in a car dealership, one of the sleaziest showrooms of capitalism. You’ve just bought a $27,000 car with a moon roof. It beeps if you change lanes without signaling. You paid by check, i.e. no monthly payments. As part of the process—one of the myriad papers pushed across the desk—the business manager asked you to sign a disclaimer waiving your right to sue the dealership. Pro-forma, she says with a dismissive shrug when you ask.
How do you talk about race and class? How do you parse out history on the fly? Should you have started, as your friend M. later suggested, with something like this? Hey, I’ve never heard that term before. It makes me kind of uncomfortable.
Rankine again: Why is it so hard to call out racism? Because making other people uncomfortable is thought worse than racism. It has taken me a while to train myself to speak out.
To say that I am in possession of a slave key is also to say that I am possessed by it. Uti possidetis, ita possideatis, as you possess, so may you possess. The origin of possess is clear: it derives from ownership, property, seizure, domination, control. To possess something is to own it and to be possessed by something is to be owned. Whiteness itself deals the injury. –Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda
On TreasureNet/The Original Treasure Hunting Website, a member, identified by the avatar relichunters, wonders if he’s found a slave key. The key in question came from a mansion, built circa 1790, with slave quarters in the back; recently a pair of old cuffs had turned up there. Perhaps the key belonged to them? He posts a picture of what looks like a rusted skeleton key. Any ideas? he asks.
Gypsy Heart responds: I just wanted to make a note here, that genuine slave shackles usually had a different type key . . . as shown in the pics below. She’s provided three examples: two pairs of handcuffs, one for an adult and one for a child, and a pair of leg irons, all with their keys.
EBay auctions off an Authentic Antique 19thC African Slave-Trade Bronze Rattle Ankle Shackle to the highest of 28 bidders, at $597.00. The condition of the item is Used.
Our car is used now too. We’ve had it for over a year. The slave/valet key is stashed away, biased into a predetermined position, in the downstairs bureau with all the other keys, in case we ever need it.
The unseen is almost always underlined with the unsaid. –Viet Thanh Nguyen
A slave key opened and closed a slave lock on a slave shackle encircling the wrists, ankles, or neck of an enslaved person on a slave ship, at a slave auction, or in a slave pen.