In Appreciation of David Brion Davis

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David Brion Davis has passed away. I first encountered his books some ten years ago, well before I decided to become a historian. When I read Inhuman Bondage, I was mesmerized. It wasn’t just his command of facts or the clarity of his interpretations. It was the sense that he wrote with a nuance and understanding of humanity that was as much philosophical and theological as historical. I’m sure it was because of books like this that I began to contemplate the possibilities of history as a profession.

Read the first chapter of Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s a discussion of the meaning of dehumanization and animalization in American slavery that ranges across history, psychology, and theology to draw a portrait not merely of a particular moment in time, but of the human condition we all share. Davis was interested in whether humans who were treated and spoken of as animals “were ever literally seen as ‘only animals.'” He joins Kwame Anthony Appiah in arguing that the answer is no, that indeed, the excesses of cruelty humans inflict on each other while calling them lice or cockroaches and the like suggests a recognition of their humanity. You don’t bother trying to humiliate a cockroach. Thus we have the invention of “animalized humans” as seen in the Americas, in Germany, in Rwanda. Davis writes,

Given the Nazi example, it is worth noting that the antipode of this animalizing can be seen in a universal tendency to project our potentiality for self-transcendence, freedom, and striving for perfection onto images of kings, dictators, demagogues, and cultural heroes of various kinds. This form of idolatry, which ancient Judaism fortunately singled out as the most dangerous sin facing humanity, can also appear in various kinds of narcissism and egocentrism, as when an individual imagines that he is godlike and free from all taint of finitude and corruption…

This is a history book? Yes! And it’s great.

In any event, the creation of “animalized humans” can produce a mental state in the victimizers and spectators that disconnects the neural sources of human identification, empathy, and compassion, the very basis for the Golden Rule and all human ethics. In extreme cases, this means the ability to engage in torture or extermination without a qualm. But the focus on extreme cases can obscure the fact, emphasized by David Livingstone Smith, that “we are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are potential objects of dehumanization.” No doubt many situations arise, especially in war, where people kill or inflict pain without misgivings and without any explicit animalization. But the victims must still be dehumanized in similar ways. And animalization, which also appears in such group differentiations as class, caste, and ethnicity, as well as race, clearly makes the process easier for large collective groups.

Davis was always interested in the universal human condition. But he gave no reprieve to the specific pathologies of America:

The psychological mechanism of animalization has been so deeply implanted in white culture, with respect to African Americans, that most white Americans have been unaware of their usually unconscious complicity as well as the significant benefits they have reaped from their ‘transcendent whiteness.’

I don’t want to derail an appreciation of a great historian, but I will note at this point that understanding Davis helps us to see more clearly how the current administration is not merely misguided or incompetent, but is in fact a profoundly evil enterprise playing with the worst of our human impulses.

Davis lived an extraordinary life. He was a World War Two veteran! He has written humbly about his awakening to racism through his own very uncomfortable experiences with black troops as a young soldier. His life bridged very different social and historiographical eras, from Jim Crow and a history of slavery encrusted in myth and racism, to a flourishing post-civil rights era historiography bursting with new insights and anti-racist perspectives. He did more than his share in bringing about this momentous change.

It is fitting that the great historian of abolition, Manisha Sinha, just published a long and respectful reappraisal of Davis’s career in the February issue of the American Historical Review. In the conclusion of that piece Sinha wrote, “nearly all historians of abolition must still begin with Davis’s initial attempt to delineate it.” Not a bad legacy.

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