Maafa, the Swahili word for “great disaster” or “great tragedy,” is a term used to refer to the centuries-long enslavement and murder of millions of Africans by white Europeans, North Americans, and others—and the lasting impacts on African Peoples and the descendants of those who were enslaved. As a historical event, this is often referred to as the trans-Atlantic slave trade or the Middle Passage, but many scholars consider these terms inappropriate and inadequate in their encapsulation of the atrocities it entails. The word Maafa is meant to serve as a concise term for a mass-scale event much like how the word Holocaust is used to refer to the systematic mass slaughter of Jews by the Nazis. Relatedly, another term that’s sometimes used to mean the same thing as Maafa is African Holocaust. Such terms are used by some scholars to emphasize their assessment that genocide (and cultural genocide) were not simply unintentional results of the system of chattel slavery, but rather part of its design. Currently, there is no consensus around a single term. Some prefer the term Maafa because of its origin in an African language while objecting to the term African Holocaust due to the established use of Holocaust in relation to Nazi atrocities. Others criticize the use of Maafa (which can also be translated as “accident”) because they say it does not sufficiently capture the brutally systematic nature of hundreds of years of enslavement. The increasing replacement of the word slave (with terms like enslaved person) is likely to result in increased avoidance and replacement of the term slave trade. (Still, some argue that the term trade is useful for its emphasis on the role of economic institutions and motivations in the perpetration of slavery.) Read about why we updated our dictionary to refer to enslaved persons instead of slaves, as well as other important changes and additions.

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