What They’re Famous For
David Brion Davis is the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale university and taught there from 1970 to 2001. He is currently Director Emeritus of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, which he founded in 1998 and directed until 2004. Davis received his PhD from Harvard University in 1956. His books include Homicide in American Fiction (1957); The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966); The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975); Slavery and Human Progress (1984); Revolutions: American Equality and Foreign Liberations (1990); In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery (2001), and Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery (2003).
Davis’s latest book InHuman Bondage: Slavery in the New World was just released in April. He is currently returning to complete a major work he has been doing for many years, a two-volume The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. Earlier volumes in this series The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture won a Pulitzer Prize, and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution won National Book Award for History and Biography, the AHA’s Albert Beveridge Award, and the Bancroft Prize.
Professor Davis has received numerous awards during his distinguished career. Most recently, in 2004 he was awarded by the Society of American Historians the Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement. Also in 2004 he was awarded the New England History Teachers’ Association’s Kidger Award in recognition for his nine years of summer seminars for teachers on the origins and nature of New World slavery.
Davis is considered the most pre-eminent historian of slavery as Ira Berlin claimed “No scholar has played a larger role in expanding contemporary understanding of how slavery shaped the history of the United States, the Americas and the world than David Brion Davis.” Davis has stated in a an interview the greater purpose in his study of the slavery; “I hope that my writings on slavery and abolitionism will continue to help people–especially non-academics–understand the roots and foundations of the great racial dilemma that America and other countries still face.”
I would like to say a few words in opposition to the view, expressed nowadays by far too many educators, that history is a boring and antiquarian diversion, that we should “let bygones be bygones,” “free” ourselves from a dismal and oppressive past, and concentrate on a fresh and better future. I have long and fervently believed that a consciousness of history 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. Such an understanding is the prerequisite, I believe, for all human freedom. Obviously history can be used in ideological ways to justify the worst forms of aggression and oppression. But that fact underscores the supreme importance of freeing ourselves from such distortions and searching, as far as possible, for a true and balanced picture of the past. I hope I can illustrate this point by briefly describing the personal path I took in becoming a historian of slavery and antislavery.
Because my parents were journalists for a time and then became productive writers of excellent fiction and non-fiction, despite their lack of a college education, I spent many hours of my childhood traveling from coast to coast in the back seats of cars made in the 1930s, mostly Plymouths with a sleek Mayflower on the front of the hood. This meant that I experienced considerable diversity with respect to teachers and fellow students as I literally attended ten different schools from kindergarten to the twelfth grade, schools in such places as Denver, Beverly Hills, Manhattan, Carmel, California, and Hamburg, New York. In fact, I attended five high schools in the four years from the ninth to the twelfth grade. And whatever achievements I’ve had in the subsequent 61 years are in large part dependent on my luck in having truly extraordinary teachers in the third, fifth, and sixth grades (in three different schools in three different states), in addition to an inspired teacher of general science in the eighth and ninth grades, and a phenomenal teacher of English literature and writing in my senior year of high school.
When I graduated from high school in early June 1945, there were no thoughts about college or a future career. I was immediately drafted and plunged into combat training as an infantryman for the planned invasion of Japan in the fall. The appalling casualty figures from the ongoing battle for Okinawa, coupled with our officers’ accounts of their own combat experiences, gave a sobering perspective to our accuracy at the firing range and to our desired skill in throwing hand grenades, shooting flame throwers, and attacking mock Japanese villages defended by booby traps and dummy Japanese snipers hidden in the trees. But then as a direct result of the Hirosh’ima and Nagasaki bombings, I found myself on a troopship headed for a fascinating and highly influential year in what had very recently been Nazi Germany. Thanks to some high-school German, I soon became a member of the American Security Police, arresting black marketers, escaped SS officers, and on one occasion, a Polish soldier who had raped and given gonorrhea to a six-year-old German girl (who, in a painful interview, gave me the information I needed).
Clearly I was untrained and was far too immature for such awesome responsibilities. But living in the shadow of the Holocaust and amid the rubble and ruins of the world’s greatest war did have a maturing effect and prompted serious thought on what to do with my life.
In a long letter to my parents and 85 year-old grandmother, written on February 17, 1946, I described the appalling racism that many white American soldiers displayed when they encountered black soldiers in the segregated army, and then turned to some thoughts about college in the years ahead. Though expressing my desire to take courses in English, history, French, anthropology, and astronomy, I finally emphasized that “I quite definitely want to go into this physics business as well as the necessary accompanying mathematics. I think I could get quite interested in physics” [which I had taken in high school; and upon first hearing the news of Hirosh'ima, I thought of the drastic implications of e=mc square].
But by October 9th, 1946 I had completely changed my mind. I will quote the new thoughts, clearly influenced by nearly a year’s exposure to the war’s devastation, in some detail: “I’ve been thinking over the idea of majoring in history, continuing into post-graduate research, and finally teaching, in college, of course, and have come to some conclusions which may not be original, but are new as far as I’m concerned. It strikes me that history, and proper methods of teaching it, are even more important at present than endocrinology and nuclear fission. I believe that the problems that surround us today are not to be blamed on individuals or even groups of individuals, but on the human race as a whole, its collective lack of perspective and knowledge of itself. That is where history comes in.”
Actually, at age 19 I knew very little about history and had not been blessed with especially good history teachers in high school. But I went on: “There has been a lot of hokum concerning psychoanalysis, but I think the basic principle of probing into the past, especially the hidden and subconscious past, for truths which govern and influence present actions, is fairly sound. Teaching history, I think, should be a similar process. An unearthing of truths long buried beneath superficial facts and propaganda; a presentation of perspective and an overall, comprehensive view of what people did and thought and why they did it. 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. In the same way it doesn’t help much to teach history as a series of wars and dates and figures, the good always fighting the bad, the bad usually losing. Modern history especially, should be shown from every angle. The entire atmosphere and color should be shown, as well as how public opinion stood, and what influenced it.”
“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. During the 1930s there were many advances in the methods of teaching history. The effect cannot be overemphasized. After talking with many GIs of the 18-19 year old age group, I’m convinced that the recent course in modern European history did more good than any other single high school subject. And that is just a beginning.”
“There are many other angles, of course, but I am pretty well sold on the history idea at present. It is certainly not a subject, as some think, which is dead and useless. You know the line, ‘why should I be interested in history? That’s all past. We should concern ourselves with the present and future — cars, vacuum cleaners, steel mills, helicopters, atom bombs, juke boxes, movies — and on into [Aldous] Huxley’s [Brave New] world of soma, baby hatcheries, feelies (instead of movies).’”
“It is extremely difficult to tell whether an interest like this is temporary or permanent. It does fit into my other plans very nicely. After I once get into school and out of this vacuum, I’ll be able to narrow my sights and bring things into focus. At least I’ve got something to talk about.”
As it happened, my road to becoming a historian was not quite as direct as this letter of 1946 might suggest. At Dartmouth I majored in philosophy, in part because the History Department was then so weak. But I focused on the history of philosophy and the history of evolving conceptions of human nature. And beginning in 1953, I did end up teaching American history for 47 years: a year at Dartmouth, 14 years at Cornell, and 32 years at Yale (2 years of which were actually at Oxford and the French Ecole des Hautes Etudes, in Paris).
By David Brion Davis
In a third sense slavery stood as the starting point for a divine quest. It was from slavery that hebrews were delivered and from which they aquired their unique mission. It was slavery to desire and social convention that Cynics and Stoics sought to overcome by self-discipline and indifference to the world. And it was from slavery to the corrupted flesh of Adam that Christ redeemed mankind.
For some two thousand years men thought of sin as a kind of slavery. One day they would come to think of slavery as sin. — David Brion Davis in “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture”
The crucial and final point I want to make is that a frank and honest effort to face up to the darkest side of our past, to understand the ways in which social evils evolve, should in no way lead to cynicism and despair, or to a repudiation of our heritage. The development of maturity means a capacity to deal with truth. And the more we recognize the limitations and failings of human beings, the more remarkable and even encouraging history can be.
Acceptance of the institution of slavery, of trying to reduce humans to something approaching beasts of burden, can be found not only in the Bible but in the earliest recorded documents in the Mesopotamian Near East. Slavery was accepted for millennia, virtually without question, in almost every region of the globe. And even in the nineteenth century there was nothing inevitable or even probable about the emancipation of black slaves throughout the Western Hemisphere. This point is underscored by the appalling use of coerced labor even in the twentieth century, especially in various forms of gulags or concentration camps, the outcome of which I saw as a young American soldier. Above all, I conclude, we should consider the meaning, in the early twenty-first century, of the historically unique antislavery movements which succeeded in overthrowing, within the space of a century, systems of inhuman bondage that extended throughout the Hemisphere — systems that were still highly profitable as well as productive. — David Brion Davis discussing his new book “Inhuman Bondage” in a recent speaking engagement.
About Davis Brion Davis
Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, instructor in history and Ford Fund for the Advancement of Education intern, 1953-54;
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, assistant professor, 1955-58, associate professor, 1958-63, Ernest I. White Professor of History, 1963-69;
Yale University, New Haven, CT, professor of history, 1969-72, Farnham Professor of History, 1972-78, Sterling Professor of History, 1978–, currently emeritus, director of Gilder Lehrman Center for the study of slavery, resistance, and abolition.
Fulbright lecturer in India, 1967, and at universities in Guyana and the West Indies, 1974. Lecturer at colleges and universities in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, 1969–.
Area of Research:
Slavery in the Western World and America, Antebellum America, Intellectual history
Dartmouth College, A.B. (summa cum laude), 1950;
Harvard University, A.M., 1953, Ph.D., 1956;
Oxford University, M.A., 1969;
Yale University, M.A., 1970.
Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:
Contributor to books, including: The Stature of Theodore Dreiser, edited by Alfred Kazin and Charles Shapiro, (Indiana University Press, 1955); Twelve Original Essays on Great American Novels, edited by Shapiro, (Wayne State University Press, 1958); Perspectives and Irony in American Slavery, edited by Harry Owens, (University of Mississippi Press, 1976); Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, edited by Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman, (University of Virginia Press, 1983); and British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery, edited by Barbara Solow and Stanley L. Engerman, (Cambridge University Press, 1987).
Pulitzer Prize, 1967, for The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture.
National Book Award for history, and Bancroft Prize, both 1976, both for The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823.
2004 Bruce Catton Prize of the Society of American Historians for lifetime achievement;
2004 Kidger Award from the New England History Teachers Association given to honor his devotion to teaching;
Corresponding fellow, British Academy, 1992; Litt.D. from Columbia University, 1999;
Presidential Medal for Outstanding Leadership and Achievement, Dartmouth College, 1991;
Corresponding fellow, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1989;
L.H.D., University of New Haven, 1986;
Fulbright traveling fellow, 1980-81;
National Endowment for the Humanities, research grants, 1979-80 and 1980-81, and fellowship for independent study and research, 1983-84;
Litt.D., Dartmouth College, 1977;
Henry E. Huntington Library fellow, 1976;
Albert J. Beveridge Award, American Historical Association, 1975;
Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences fellow, 1972-73;
National Mass Media Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews, 1967;
Anisfield-Wolf Award, 1967;
Guggenheim fellow, 1958-59.
Davis served as President of the Organization of American Historians for the 1988-1989 term.
Commissioner, Orange, CT, Public Library Commission, 1974-75;
Associate director, National Humanities Institute, Yale University, 1975.
Contributor to professional journals and other periodicals, including New York Times Book Review, Times Literary Supplement, New York Review of Books, Washington Post Book World, New Republic, and Yale Review.
Military service: U.S. Army, 1945-46.
Posted on Sunday, May 28, 2006 at 7:12 PM