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The 2013 best picture 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who was kidnapped in 1841, sold in Louisiana, held for twelve years as a slave, and finally freed in 1853. The film succeeds for many reasons, not the least of which is its uncompromising take on the slave South. It also helps, I think, that Northup’s story neatly encapsulates the whole history of New World slavery: the initial capture and sale, the anger and despair of losing freedom and family, the dehumanizing effects of slave society, the accommodations and adjustments necessary for survival, and the return to a problematic freedom. We see it all unfold through one man’s eyes—his pain, his compromises and, finally, his relief upon returning home to his family.

It’s important that Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) starts and ends the movie as a free man. Logically, this shouldn’t make much of a difference in how we perceive the horrors of slavery. If slavery is truly evil, it shouldn’t matter whether a person is born into slavery or enslaved later in life; in either case, a free and equal human being has been reduced to a piece of property, like an ox. This is precisely why the sight of a free black man living happily with his family served as the strongest possible rebuke to any racial justification of slavery. In the film, the early scenes of Northup working and taking care of his family in the North exacerbate the viewer’s sense of the injustice and brutality of what follows. Though compelled to work as a slave, Northup never becomes a slave to his desires, challenging by his restraint and silence the dehumanizing gaze of his successive masters.

As 12 Years a Slave repeatedly shows, the idea that black slaves were something less than human—although appealing for obvious reasons to masters— was subject to an inevitable tension, first at the abstract level of argument and then, more fatally, at the concrete level of daily life. The movie’s signal achievement is to bring out the various consequences of this tension, perhaps most powerfully in the relationship between the white master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps, who repeatedly refers to his slaves as his “property” and compares them to baboons, nevertheless warns his jealous wife that he would sooner send her away than lose Patsey. Later, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Epps is himself driven into a jealous rage by his suspicion that Patsey has escaped his control and cheated on him with a neighbor. Unable to whip Patsey himself, he compels Northup to do it. As Northup draws blood, Epps looks on with a blend of satisfaction, hatred and horror utterly belying his claim that Patsey means no more to him than a ball of yarn or a beast of prey.

For the historian David Brion Davis, this dynamic describes the basic “problem” of slavery. Ideally, as Aristotle noted long ago, a slave is like a tool or a domestic animal—something the master owns and over which he has complete control. Yet such a “natural slave” has never existed; and no system of slavery has ever successfully dehumanized its slaves to the point where they are indistinguishable from mere property. This inherent contradiction led, according to Davis, not only to complicated relationships between masters and their slaves, but to organized opposition, for which “the essential issue was how to recognize and establish the full and complete humanity of a ‘dehumanized people.’”

When and how the contradiction of treating a person as property became enough of a moral issue that people would demand an end to slavery is the question that has occupied the bulk of Davis’s career, especially in the three long works culminating with The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, which he completed this year at the age of 86. Reviewing that final volume for the Nation, the historian Eric Foner described the Problem of Slavery trilogy as one of the “towering achievements of historical scholarship of the past half-century,” while in the New York Review of Books Drew Gilpin Faust credited Davis’s practice of “embedding ideas in social and political action” with “shap[ing] scholars and scholarship for decades to come.”

It is possible that even this high praise undervalues the scope and power of Davis’s contribution. Although the latest volume is belated and in many ways inferior to the previous two, it demonstrates, particularly in its focus on “dehumanization,” what distinguishes Davis not just as a historian but as a thinker with relevance far beyond his field. Is slavery a sin? What exactly constitutes our “full and complete humanity”? Because he considers such questions not just historically but also philosophically, Davis’s research opens out, like 12 Years a Slave, into broader topics such as freedom, forgiveness, and the possibility of transcendence. Slavery, Davis saw, was a profoundly human problem, and therefore to reckon with slavery would mean to reckon with human nature—that is, to reckon with the kind of being that was simultaneously capable of perpetrating such a system and also of coming to see the need to dismantle it.

Emancipation and the end of slavery didn’t end the dehumanization of blacks in America, of course. After the brief interlude of Reconstruction, there followed decades of lynchings based upon the myth of the “black beast” rapist and nearly a century of Jim Crow segregation. In fact, Davis’s emphasis on exploring dehumanization through concrete moral problems derives from his experiences growing up in the racially segregated America of the mid-twentieth century, especially his service in a segregated army in Germany right after the end of World War II.

Davis was born in Denver, in 1927, to parents of a writerly and artistic persuasion. His father, a journalist turned novelist turned screenwriter, took the family around the country as he switched newspapers and professions: Seattle, Buffalo, Carmel, Los Angeles, Manhattan. Traveling with them the whole time was Davis’s grandmother who, born in 1861, remembered hearing the news of Lincoln’s assassination on her family’s front porch. When Davis graduated from high school more than eighty years later, in 1945, he had never shared a classroom with a black student. Such were the realities of race in America in the middle of the twentieth century.

Three days after graduation, Davis headed to basic training at Camp Gordon in Georgia to prepare for the invasion of Japan. This was his first time in the Deep South, and the depths of its racism shocked him. When Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war in Japan in August, the young recruits suddenly received a new mission for which they were not particularly well prepared: police work in postwar Germany. On the ship to Europe, an officer gave Davis a club and told him to go downstairs and “keep the ‘jiggaboos’ from gambling.” The army was still segregated in those days, and the ship contained two thousand black soldiers in its lower holds, as Davis was surprised to discover when he descended the staircase. “I came upon what I imagined a slave ship would have looked like,” he later recalled. “Hundreds and hundreds of near-naked blacks jammed together, many of them shooting craps.” One of them glanced up at Davis. “What you doin’ down here, white boy?” he asked. Davis hid in the shadows for four hours, until his shift was up.

Davis served as part of the army’s security police in Mannheim and Stuttgart. His commander was obsessed with rumors of Nazi conspiracies and spent his days trying to root out supposed neo-Nazi meetings. For his part, Davis had been horrified by the revelations that followed the liberations of Dachau and Bergen-Belsen that spring. On the ground in Mannheim, however, he found the Germans warm and friendly. Most were simply glad not to be in the Russian sector (which would later become East Germany). Davis made friends with young men who were interested in American culture and willing to help investigate the black market. Meanwhile, young German women proved eager to dance and drink beer with the soldiers. Davis recalled that there was no prostitution in Mannheim: “Americans joked that there was simply too much nonprofessional competition.”

But the German women didn’t care whether the soldiers they dated were white or black, and that caused trouble. White soldiers fumed about “the Goddamned black sonsabitches” who dated German women; a major general was cheered for saying it had been a mistake to send black troops to Europe. One night Davis and the other security police were called out to a dance club where black and white American troops had been fighting over the issue; blood already covered the sidewalk and the dance floor. Davis’s commander soon got into a shouting match with a black captain, who represented about a dozen unarmed black troops. “Our lieutenant ordered us to pull back the bolts of our submachine guns, so we were ready to fire into this crowd of blacks,” Davis recalled. Just then a white major marched in and cut the tension by calling everyone to attention. Even some sixty years later, Davis remembered this incident as “probably the scariest event in my life.”

Kara Walker, beacon (after R.G.), 2010

Davis noted the contrast between the Germans, who were supposedly Aryan-supremacist Nazis yet welcomed Americans regardless of race, and the Americans, who had supposedly fought for freedom and democracy yet maintained a segregated army. “Perhaps I sound a bit shrill,” he wrote home at the time, “but it is difficult not to become alarmed when not one or two but dozens of men openly proclaim their hatred of the black race and take every opportunity to shoot or arrest or beat up colored soldiers.” Looking back, he concluded, “I strongly suspect that this experience in Germany influenced my later decision to devote over forty years to the study of slavery and race.”

Davis had already decided to become a historian. The idea first occurred to him while he was on R&R in Nice a month after the close call in Mannheim. He explained his reasoning to his parents in a long letter that fall, just before he returned to America:

When we think back into our childhood, it doesn’t do much good to merely hit the high spots and remember what we want to remember—to know why we act the way we do, we have to remember everything. … Perhaps such teaching could make us understand ourselves. It would show the present conflicts to be as silly as they are. And above all, it would make people stop and think before blindly following some bigoted group to make the world safe for Aryans or democrats or Mississippians.

Back in the United States, Davis enrolled at Dartmouth on the G.I. Bill. He wanted to study history, but the department was so weak that he turned to philosophy instead. Interested in the history of political thought, he took a lecture course taught by Francis Gramlich about changing views of human nature. The course, culminating with a reading of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man, introduced Davis to the ideas that would guide his career for more than half a century. From Niebuhr, Davis learned to think of the central human problem as arising from the tension between the reality of mortality and the desire for transcendence. This tension leads, according to Niebuhr, to sin. Some humans deny their capacity for transcendence and become immersed in the material world of sensuality. Others—one thinks here of totalitarian dictators— deny their limitations by cultivating a tremendous self-pride, usually paired with an equally tremendous contempt for other, lesser humans.

After graduating in 1950, Davis tried to find a job in journalism, failed, and then began graduate school at Harvard’s History of American Civilization program. But as with Dartmouth’s history department, Davis found Harvard’s American Civilization program unsatisfying. The program was devoted in those days to tracing different “isms” in American thought: Rationalism, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, an endless stream of abstractions that flowed into and out of one another. That kind of detached intellectual history didn’t interest Davis at all. “I was taken by the notion of studying concrete human problems,” he explained years later, “as a way of tracing, within social and cultural frameworks, broad shifts in beliefs, moral values, assumptions, and ideology.”

The desire to study intellectual history through human responses to lived experience led Davis, initially, to look at homicide. He wanted to write his dissertation as a large interdisciplinary study of homicide in American history, but he also needed to research and write the whole thing in a single year. Need won out and Davis focused on attitudes toward homicide in early nineteenth-century American fiction. “Homicide,” he wrote, “despite its many changing social and legal implications, is a universal problem, the culmination of all human aggression, and an ever-present means for the resolution of conflict.” In retrospect, one can see Davis beginning to apply the Niebuhrian framework to human social relations, something he would do far more explicitly in his treatment of human slavery—“the archetype,” he later wrote, “of this [Niebuhrian] sin of pride and contempt for others.”

In the spring of 1955, while Davis was still in Cambridge trying to finish his dissertation, he met Kenneth Stampp. Stampp taught at Berkeley, but he was spending the semester as a visiting professor at Harvard. At the time, Stampp had nearly completed a book about American slavery—the first history of American slavery in a generation, since well before World War II. As Stampp talked to him about slavery and race, Davis realized that he had learned little about the subjects during his years at Dartmouth and Harvard. He later recalled “the awkwardness and embarrassment surrounding the study of slavery in the early 1950s.”

The academic study of American history as we know it today emerged in the late nineteenth century at places like Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Harvard. The idea was to make the study of history objective by focusing on the evolution of laws and institutions, much as a biologist might trace the evolution of a species. The studies of slavery that came out of these schools were narrow investigations, often focused on individual states, which actively avoided saying anything controversial or even noteworthy. The only real attempt to grapple with American slavery as a whole came from James Ford Rhodes, a Northern industrialist who had retired and moved to Cambridge to write his multivolume History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. Rhodes focused mostly on politics, but in his first volume, published in 1892, he paused between the presidencies of Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce for a comprehensive eightypage chapter called “Slavery.” “It is my wish to describe the institution as it may have appeared before the war to a fair-minded man,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, this chapter can only be a commentary on the sententious expression of Clay: ‘Slavery is a curse to the master and a wrong to the slave.’”

Though Rhodes’s history was greeted with great praise, it also provoked a reaction among Southerners who felt that their peculiar institution had been unfairly maligned. Already in the 1870s, as the North retreated from Reconstruction, Vice President Henry Wilson had recognized that the South, “though accepting the destruction of slavery, still believes it to be the proper condition of an inferior race, and the corner-stone of the most desirable civilization.” By the 1890s Southerners admitted that slavery may have been evil, but they maintained it had served an important social purpose. “The time has gone by when it was necessary to exaggerate the evils of slavery in order to nurse the passions of men for its overthrow,” one Tennessee-born historian wrote in a review of Rhodes’s first two volumes. “The time has arrived for the cooler impartial study of the nature of this temporary relation between the highly civilized white race and the deeply barbarous negro race.”

In 1893, the year after Rhodes’s first volume was published, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, speaking at a historical congress held at the World’s Fair in Chicago, urged Americans to forget their divisive slavery struggle and focus on their cooperative push west. Far more important than the “slavery question” was expansion along the western frontier, which had nurtured American individualism and democracy while also providing a field for the growth of national legislation and transportation. These economic, political and social developments were the real story of American history, Turner maintained. “Even the slavery struggle,” he said, “occupies its important place in American history because of its relation to westward expansion.”

Kara Walker, savant, 2010

The Progressive historians who followed Turner largely downplayed the importance of slavery, arguing that even the Civil War was primarily a struggle between the industry of the North and the agriculture of the South, as opposed to a battle over the future of slavery. One exception was Ulrich B. Phillips, who taught alongside Turner for half a decade at Wisconsin in the early twentieth century. Phillips was born in 1877, the year Reconstruction ended, in a part of Georgia that W. E. B. Du Bois once called “the center of the Negro problem,— the center of those nine million men who are America’s dark heritage from slavery and the slave-trade.” He made a career out of studying slavery and the slave plantation’s role in driving American expansion across the old Southwest. This culminated in American Negro Slavery, which in 1918 became the first full history of slavery—as opposed to the political debates over slavery—in the United States.

Phillips finished American Negro Slavery while he was serving at Camp Gordon, Georgia, during World War I. This was the same camp where Davis would train a generation later for World War II. But in contrast to Davis, who was appalled by his first real experience with segregation, Phillips relished his return to the South after years of teaching at Michigan. The black soldiers training there seemed, to him, the same as plantation slaves of old. They “show the same easy-going, amiable, serio-comic obedience and the same personal attachments to white men, as well as the same sturdy light-heartedness and the same love of laughter and of rhythm, which distinguished their forbears,” he noted. Phillips acknowledged that slavery might have had its share of horrors, but in general— good Progressive that he was—he saw it as a school or a settlement house in which benevolent whites could train barbarous blacks for civilization. “There were injustice, oppression, brutality and heartburning in the régime,—but where in the struggling world are these absent?” he concluded. “There were also gentleness, kind-hearted friendship and mutual loyalty to a degree hard for him to believe who regards the system with a theorist’s eye and a partisan squint.”

Despite its assumption of black inferiority, Phillips’s work continued to dominate the study of American slavery well into the civil rights period. Davis’s new friend Kenneth Stampp hoped to change that. Essentially, Stampp applied the lessons of the burgeoning civil rights movement to reverse Phillips’s racist assumptions. “Innately Negroes are, after all, only white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less,” he wrote. He was willing, as Phillips was not, to treat black people as human beings, which meant considering “what slavery meant to the Negro and how he reacted to it.” In The Peculiar Institution, published in 1956—just two years after Brown v. Board—he took Phillips’s framework and evidence, substituted an antislavery perspective and a sympathy for the slaves, and produced a point-by-point rebuttal. The combination of Stampp’s work and the civil rights movement irrevocably changed the way historians wrote about American slavery, making it impossible to look at slavery without considering the experiences of the slaves themselves. But it remained unclear whether anyone had learned anything fundamentally new about slavery. Stampp’s basic points were, after all, a return to what the abolitionists had said a century earlier; he was still involved in an old debate about whether slavery was good or evil, and whether blacks were inferior or equal.

One historian who tried to get outside the increasingly tired moral and economic debate that had occupied historians like Rhodes, Phillips and Stampp for decades was Stanley Elkins. Elkins was less interested in arguing about whether slavery was good or bad, profitable or ruinous, than he was in figuring out how to study its effects on human behavior. In Slavery, published in 1959, he attempted to use the lessons of World War II to investigate the psychological consequences of slavery. In particular, he hypothesized that information about prisoners in German concentration camps might provide some insight into how oppressive institutions affected the psychology of their victims. He thought there might be some basis in reality for “Sambo,” the childlike stereotype of the black slave who was “docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing.” “The only mass experience that Western people have had within recorded history comparable in any way with Negro slavery was undergone in the nether world of Nazism,” he explained, recounting how the camps destroyed the personality of prisoners and reduced them to children who identified with their masters. This was a role that survivors were taught to play. “If the concentration camp could produce in two or three years the results that it did,” Elkins suggested, “one wonders how much more pervasive must have been those attitudes, expectations, and values which had, certainly, their benevolent side and which were accepted and transmitted over generations.”

Elkins’s work provoked a generation of scholars who set out to show that slaves, far from becoming childlike drones, had developed a complex culture of their own. Davis’s early writing on slavery reflected Elkins’s influence in a different way. Davis was interested in slavery’s psychological consequences—for its victims as well as its perpetrators—but primarily as the gateway to what he called a “problem of moral perception.” Given that the inherent contradictions of treating a person as a “conveyable possession” had been a “source of latent tension” for centuries, the true intellectual riddle was how it had suddenly come to be seen as an intolerable evil. “The central question, the absolutely central question that fascinated me,” he wrote, “was, given the fact that slavery evoked virtually no moral protest in a wide range of societies and cultures for literally thousands of years, how could we explain the emergence of a new moral perception by the mid-to-late eighteenth century?” This was the question that drove the narrative of The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, Davis’s 500-page “introductory volume” to his projected history of antislavery movements.

New World slavery in the eighteenth century was not uniquely evil; men in the eighteenth century were not uniquely virtuous. Slavery had existed in the West for thousands of years, and it had the considerable weight of classical philosophy and Christian accommodationism, as well as centuries of experience, behind it. It simply seemed like a necessary part of human society, a consequence of our sinful nature as humans. But it also seemed like a clear source of conflict, fear and philosophical contradiction. “The underlying contradiction of slavery became more manifest,” Davis noted, “when the institution was closely linked with American colonization, which was also seen as affording mankind the opportunity to create a more perfect society.” At roughly the same time, a complex series of developments in Western intellectual culture was changing the way many people thought about human nature, equality and individual freedom. Some Enlightenment thinkers relied on natural laws to sweep away traditional authorities, while others emphasized the basic inner goodness of human beings and recommended a new ethic of benevolence. The rise of evangelical religion reinforced both the burden on humans to do good in the world and the belief that all were capable of spiritual redemption. Africans began to be seen as not only barbarous and beastly, but also innocent and potentially virtuous. “By the eve of the American Revolution,” Davis concluded, “there was a remarkable convergence of cultural and intellectual developments which at once undercut traditional rationalizations for slavery and offered new modes of sensibility for identifying with its victims.”

Reviewing The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture in the New York Review of Books, the ancient historian Moses Finley concluded that Davis’s book was “one of the most important to have been published on the subject of slavery in modern times.” Yet Finley also found the book frustrating on the “decisive question” of why slavery was finally abolished in the West. Davis had written a successful history of ideas, explaining how it became possible for large groups of people to believe that slavery was a moral wrong. But even after this shift in moral perception enabled abolitionist thought to emerge, antislavery ideas did not triumph overnight. The intellectual possibility of abolitionism did not translate directly into government policy. New World slavery was still alive and well at the end of the book. “Nothing is more difficult perhaps than to explain how and why, or why not, a new moral perception becomes effective in action,” Finley wrote. “Yet nothing is more urgent if an academic historical exercise is to become a significant investigation of human behavior with direct relevance to the world we now live in.” He added, hopefully, “it may be that what I am looking for will find its proper place in the next volumes.”

Davis did wrestle with these questions in his next volume, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975). The book actually dealt with two problems. The first problem was the same as before, the moral and philosophical contradictions that come from insisting on treating a person as a thing. The second problem was the new problem, described by Finley, of how exactly abstract ideas fed into social movements, which then led to political change. Davis worked to trace these dynamics over the course of a fifty-year period that saw political revolutions in America, France and Haiti, as well as an economic revolution that gave rise to industrial production and mass wage labor.

Kara Walker, the secret sharerer, 2010

Much of the thinking and writing took place at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, where Davis received a yearlong fellowship in 1972. (By this time Davis had also moved from Cornell to Yale.) He happened to share his year there with Eugene Genovese, who was hard at work on his own big book about slavery, eventually published in 1974 as Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Genovese’s interpretation of Southern slavery placed a strong emphasis on paternalism, an ideology that supposedly helped mediate the contradictions inherent in slavery by covering them in a web of human relationships, with masters serving as protectors and providers to their childlike slaves. During their year in California, he and Davis worked together in what Davis called “an informal seminar on the general themes of dominance and submission.” They exchanged drafts and had long talks, and the influence of each on the other’s work is clear. Genovese’s Marxist perspective on capitalism and labor loomed large in the background of Davis’s Age of Revolution. Yet Davis was too subtle of a thinker to apply the Marxist lens without augmentation. Indeed, the historian George M. Fredrickson praised Davis’s second volume precisely for reviving a form of intellectual history respectful of the link between, “on the one hand, social and economic realities and, on the other, the realm of abstract ideas and principles.” When Davis wrote about “ideology,” for instance, he did not mean it simply as a rationalization for economic interests, but saw it rather as an evolving set of principles or values, influenced by economic conditions but certainly not reducible to them.

This distinction was important especially because the core of Davis’s argument in Age of Revolution involved the functions of the antislavery movement in the emerging republican and capitalist ideologies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The ideology of antislavery, he wrote, “must be understood as part of a larger transformation in attitudes toward labor, property, and individual responsibility.” This transformation resulted in a shift in perceptions of dominance and degradation. Slavery became a problem that was used to test the outer limits of new societal attitudes and political arrangements: What was freedom? What was labor? Were the citizens properly virtuous?

In the United States, one of the functions of antislavery ideas was to allow Americans to show that they were virtuous republicans whose revolution had not been about their own self-interest. More generally, abolitionism posited a hard distinction between slavery and other forms of labor. Entrepreneurial Quakers and others like them needed an outlet for the expression of Christian humanitarian ideals that would not also undercut their own business; the antislavery movement provided that, giving a “certain moral insulation to economic activities less visibly dependent on human suffering and injustice.” This was not only a question of “economic interest,” according to Davis, but also one of ideological function. Antislavery ideology supplied a simplified definition of freedom as the freedom to receive wages for one’s labor. Monetary compensation, not physical coercion, became the acceptable means of labor discipline. Though this view of freedom was narrow, it was uncomplicated and made sense to the men who were developing the new economic order of industrial capitalism. “They unwittingly drew distinctions and boundaries which opened the way,” Davis wrote, “under a guise of moral rectitude, for unprecedented forms of oppression.”

As a result of the eighteenth-century shift in moral perception regarding slavery as well as the new thoughts and experiences that emerged from the American, French, Haitian and Industrial revolutions, the Age of Revolution served as “a major turning point in the history of New World slavery.” The disruptiveness of war and the ideals of revolutionaries meant that slavery had been disavowed in principle and in practice in much of the West. Blacks as well as whites had gained a new consciousness of their own rights; and in England especially, a line had been drawn: slavery was bad, wage labor was good. But the revolutions that gave birth to these changes also increased the relative political power of the few remaining slaveholding regions, such as the American South and Brazil, whose defenses of slavery hardened in reaction to revolutionaryera antislavery agitation. By the 1820s, the two sides of the slavery question were headed down separate paths—paths that would, in the case of the United States, rip the country apart.

The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture was published in 1966. It won the Pulitzer Prize. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution was published in 1975. It won the National Book Award. Davis planned a third volume to cover a nearly seventy-year period beginning with the push for abolition in Britain, and ending when Brazil became the final country in the New World to abolish slavery. “From the very start,” he has noted, “I realized that this final volume of the project, on the ‘Age of Emancipation,’ would present the most formidable problems of coverage, selectivity, organization, and method.” The slave emancipations of the nineteenth century involved, after all, an international movement whose success was bound up with the social, economic and cultural changes that we think of as making the modern world. To write a book about this process in the same capacious style Davis used in the earlier volumes would seem to require decades of research and thousands of pages.

It took him almost forty years but Davis finally completed The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation earlier this year. [1] Although the book does not satisfy all of the expectations raised by his earlier volumes, it nevertheless offers us insight into the fundamental ideas that have animated his work from the beginning. The first volume in the trilogy explored how it became possible for a large number of people “to perceive—in a moral sense—the inherent contradictions” of a system of slavery based on the principle that a person could be property. The second volume examined how the antislavery movement emerged in a world that was being transformed by the rise of republicanism and industrial capitalism. The final volume hovers over the period from the 1790s to the 1860s; it is a “highly selective study” covering the Haitian Revolution, African colonization, black abolitionists and British and American emancipation. Because of this, it feels more like a collection of essays than its two prequels; however, the chapters are tied together by a common theme.

Kara Walker, buoy, 2010

Although the concept of dehumanization—of treating people as animals or things—had been crucial to the arguments in the first two books of the trilogy, Davis rarely used the term or explored its meaning in detail. In Age of Emancipation, however, he focuses squarely on “dehumanization and its implications— the treatment of slaves as if they were domesticated animals and the continuing need of African Americans to confront and counteract the kind of white psychological exploitation that deprived them of the respect and dignity needed for acceptance as equals in a white society.” It is this focus on dehumanization that leads Davis to place attitudes about free blacks at the center of his study of slave emancipation. He repeats several times a quote by Frederick Douglass, himself a free black man who had escaped slavery. “The most telling, the most killing refutation of slavery,” Douglass told Harriet Beecher Stowe, “is the presentation of an industrious, enterprising, thrifty and intelligent free black population.”

Yet many whites considered the prospect of free blacks living alongside them as perhaps the strongest argument against emancipation. In fact it was this prospect that made abolition in America much more difficult than in Britain, where slavery was confined to Caribbean islands with relatively few permanent white residents. Proposals for ending slavery in America always raised the question of what to do with the freed slaves. Simply to accept them as fellow citizens did not seem to be an option: some thought blacks really were racially inferior and incapable of governing themselves; others (including even some blacks) believed they had been so degraded by slavery and racial prejudice that they could never survive peacefully as free people in America. Either way, the effects of dehumanization pointed to the impossibility of incorporating blacks into free society.

Acts of abolition such as the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s and British emancipation in the 1830s always carried competing lessons regarding the capabilities of free blacks. As the first nationwide emancipation in the New World, Haiti loomed in the background of all later debates. It resulted in the world’s first example of a free black republic made up of former slaves, an example that gave hope to free blacks and slaves around the Atlantic. But its violence also provided whites with plenty of evidence that blacks were too dangerous and dehumanized to be set free. The planter Bryan Edwards described the fate of one pregnant white woman: “The monsters, whose prisoner she was, having first murdered her husband in her presence, ripped her up alive, and threw the infant to the hogs.—They then (how shall I relate it) sewed up the head of her murdered husband in———!!!” This was a none-too-subtle lesson in what could happen if bestial blacks were not kept under tight control.

These and other perceived horrors influenced the development of the colonization movement, institutionalized in 1817 with the founding of the American Colonization Society, which attracted support from the likes of Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. Although Davis doesn’t endorse the colonizationist solution of deporting free blacks to Africa, he is sympathetic to the way its advocates wrestled with the problem of dehumanization, which abolitionists (not to mention many of the initial historians of slavery) tended to gloss over in a way that now seems naïve. “The simple dichotomy between the ACS Antichrist and the abolitionist Redeemers … can only obscure our understanding of both movements,” he writes, continuing:

Although colonizationists have conventionally been dismissed as hopelessly impractical visionaries, for example, they were clearly more realistic than the abolitionists when they argued that white racial prejudice would remain intractable for generations to come, that the achievements of a few individual blacks would not benefit the masses, that progress would depend on black solidarity and collective effort, and that the formal act of emancipating slaves could not be divorced from the need for an economic and social environment in which freedmen could exercise their full capacities for human development.

Each of these points about the effects of black dehumanization was correct, and yet colonization was the wrong conclusion to draw from them. By emphasizing the problems facing blacks in America and the better lives they could make in some foreign land, colonizationists implied that blacks had been so dehumanized by slavery that they could not survive in an American society that was defined as white. This strategy, Davis writes, continued in new forms into the twentieth century and has proved “deceptive precisely because it is seldom cynical and has often been combined with genuine goodwill.”

But blacks were not like a tumor, an alien growth in the American organism that could be easily isolated and removed. They formed a crucial strand of its DNA. “The glaring defect in the colonizationist ideology,” Davis notes, “was the refusal to recognize the vital contributions that blacks had made and would continue to make to American civilization.” Their reaction against the white colonization movement spurred free blacks to assert their own humanity and fitness for free society against the dehumanizing impulses of slavery and racism. This proves to be the development on which Age of Emancipation hinges. Some free blacks supported colonization when the movement first started in the 1810s, but most had turned against it by the 1820s. Free blacks like Northup, who had built lives and families in the only country they had ever called home, argued that colonization was a ploy to strengthen slavery by removing only blacks who weren’t slaves, thereby removing any reminders that they might be well suited for freedom. When a man like Northup could make a living from his talent as a musician, the theory that blacks formed an inferior caste of natural slaves seemed questionable.

It was largely due to the efforts of free blacks that whites, such as William Lloyd Garrison, began to argue against colonization as a racist ruse engineered to distract attention from the issue of emancipation. This opened the way, intellectually, to a push for the unconditional end of slavery: no period of preparation or apprenticeship before emancipation, and no forced emigration for freed slaves. “Treat us like men,” the early black abolitionist David Walker wrote, “and there is no danger but we will all live in peace and happiness together.”

American slavery was not headed toward extinction; it was a profitable enterprise that would not have died of natural causes. Davis thinks that if the South had somehow won or avoided the Civil War, slavery would have survived “well into the twentieth century.” Most of the wealthiest Americans lived in the South in 1860, and as Walter Johnson has shown in his recent book River of Dark Dreams (2013), Southerners planned to expand their slaveholding empire into the Caribbean and Central America. If slavery was going to end, it had to be killed. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments represent for Davis “the climax and turning point of the Age of Emancipation.” By not only liberating but also granting citizenship and suffrage to some four million slaves, the amendments recognized the essential humanity of a previously dehumanized group. There were plenty of later steps backward, but this was still progress. “If my friends and I were suddenly stripped of our twentieth-century conditioning and plummeted back to Mississippi in 1860,” he writes, “we would doubtless take for granted our rule over slaves. So an astonishing historical achievement really matters. The outlawing of chattel slavery in the New World, and then globally, represents a crucial landmark of moral progress that we should never forget.”

Kara Walker, dread, 2010

Like much of Davis’s later work, Age of Emancipation is hampered by an unevenness caused by lengthy digressions whose placement and purpose are clear only, perhaps, to their author. Yet the book’s focus on dehumanization helps bring into sharp relief the centrality of that theme to the rest of Davis’s career. The “psychological process” of dehumanization, he writes,

deprives the dehumanized of those redeeming rational and spiritual qualities that give humans a sense of pride, of dignity, of being made in the image of God. At the same time, the projection enables the victimizers to become almost psychological parasites, whose self-image is immeasurably enhanced by the dramatic contrast with the degraded and dehumanized “Other.” But why have we humans been so concerned with our “animality,” and what is the ultimate source of this desire to animalize other humans— apart from the quite diverse motives of slaveholders, white supremacists, and Nazis? Here I would turn to Reinhold Niebuhr’s view of the core of human “distinctiveness,” as opposed to other animals, in the fear, selfdoubt, anxiety, and even pride and confidence generated by the dilemma of finitude and freedom. … If one samples some typical quotations on the human condition, we see a single answer in the tension between our sense of our existential animal finitude (evoked by our discovery in childhood that we are certain to die) and our capacity for self-reflection, for making ourselves our own object.

These are odd words for a historian, and it is easy to consider them extraneous to Davis’s historical project. But in addition to reflecting the philosophical spirit that ensures Davis’s work will continue to resonate with an audience far beyond his field, such passages describe both the depth and the ambition of that project. Informed by his experiences in the army and his intellectual encounter with Niebuhr, Davis grew attuned to the ways people try to become more than human by treating others as less than human. Niebuhr believed this to be a sin; and Davis has examined how modern society came to reject different sinful acts—homicide, enslavement—as possible paths to transcendence.

He sees his work as a historian as paving the way for another option. Ultimately, Davis comes back to the point he made in the letter he wrote to his parents from Germany, informing them that he would become a historian in order to “remember everything”: that the real path to transcendence lies not in dehumanizing others but in understanding the past. “A consciousness of history,” he has written, “is one of the key factors that distinguishes us from all other animals—I mean the ability to transcend an illusory sense of NOW, of an eternal present, and to strive for an understanding of the forces and events that made us what we are.” The present, in other words, is a locked room to which history holds the key. To refuse to turn that key is to participate in our own dehumanization.

Art credit: Kara Walker, no world, 2010, from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins, & Co., New York

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Not that Davis was idle during this period. In 1986 he published “an exploratory pilot study,” Slavery and Human Progress, which examined what Davis called the “momentous shift” from an older view of slavery as an agent of social and economic progress to a newer idea that modern, progressive societies were defined in large part by the absence of slavery. Following that, he published several collections of old articles and reviews, anthologies of historical documents and short books based on lectures, including the excellent but often overlooked Revolutions: Reflections on American Equality and Foreign Liberations (1990). He also became involved in an effort to improve history education in America, primarily through a series of summer seminars for high school teachers, and worked with the philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman to establish the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale in 1998.
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