David Brion Davis

David Brion Davis

I am devoting my first blog entry to an interview with my mentor and friend, David Brion Davis.

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a special medal from President Obama for his lifework, including the just-completed third volume of his history of The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, David Brion Davis was the founding director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He converted to Judaism some three decades ago.

I think this interview will be of special interest to Jewish and Israeli readers for reasons that will become clear to readers. Please indulge me for the unusual length of this post.

QUESTION: Your scholarship addresses the dilemmas of slavery and racism at the heart of the western tradition, including that of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Please tell us how you came to study and teach history—especially the history of slavery and racism—and how that choice was influenced by your service at the end of World War II.
ANSWER: Nowadays, too many educators believe 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.

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. I literally attended ten different schools from kindergarten to the twelfth grade, schools in such places as Denver, Carmel, Beverly Hills, and Manhattan, benefiting from some great teachers. In terms of diversity, I had Jewish classmates and friends—but never African Americans.

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. Then, Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed everything. 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. 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.

I was also exposed to concentration camp survivors, Displaced Person camps, and cities reduced to piles of rubble with even smells of death, but as an American I was particularly struck by the treatment of African American GIs at a time when the U.S. army was still segregated. Of course, Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics had been no fan of African American track star Jesse Owens, and the Nuremberg Laws had even been extended to “mixed race” children of African and European descent, yet what existed among my fellow GIs was an overseas export of American Jim Crow, enforced from top-to-bottom to humiliate black soldiers. I was shocked.

Nevertheless, African American soldiers actually felt quite liberated in Germany, in part because they discovered that German girls, despite their Nazi upbringing, were eager to date them. This infuriated many white troops and led to bloody encounters. Nothing influenced me as much concerning white racism as the need to arm and rush out in the middle of the night to a dance club where we faced unarmed black troops across a bloody floor following a bloody conflict. Our southern west point lieutenant yelled “nigger” at the black lieutenant who outranked him and who replied, “don’t you call me nigger!”

Because of what I saw in the Army, I read and was especially impressed by the Nobel Lauriat Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy (1944), and by President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights’ report, To Secure These Rights (1947). I also became deeply shocked by the discovery that slavery and racism had been largely ignored in my undergraduate and graduate courses. I began to think about studying history, but my road to become an historian, particularly of slavery, was not direct.

QUESTION: While the so-called “Progressive historians” of the first half of the twentieth century like Charles Beard emphasized economic factors, you were a leader among the historians in the 1960s who put moral questions back at the center of historical enquiry. In your case, it seems to me, the study of morality and of religion have always been twinned. Would it be fair to say that, just a few centuries ago, religion made a rather abrupt transition from being part of the problem to part of the solution regarding slavery? Anyway, what do you think of this formulation?

ANSWER: Before abolition, slavery remained a pervasive—and profitable—institution: the Detroit assembly line if not Silicon Valley of its day. Abolition required not only the Civil War in the U.S., but a broader intellectual and moral revolution that came remarkably late in history. Though the Hebrew children’s liberation from Egyptian bondage was a powerful paradigm, it took millennia before it sparked a general crusade against slavery. The philosophers, before the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, also lagged. Just as Christian theologians regarded slavery as a mark of fallen human nature, whose disappearance awaited the end times, Roman Stoics regarded it as emblematic of the “outer” human condition that was a matter of indifference to the philosophically-liberated “inner man.” None of the three major western religions really began to call for universal emancipation until the Protestant Reformation and emergence of “radical” sects like the Quakers.

QUESTION: When you were still in high school, Gunnar Myrdal wrote about The American Dilemma. Was there something distinctively American about our grappling with questions of slavery and race?

ANSWER: Certainly slavery and even racism were far from U.S. inventions. Yet U.S. slavery had a particularly ugly core—not economic exploitation, typical of all slave systems—but the nexus with racism. For complicated reasons, European Americans became obsessed with applying either/or or black/white categories to the races and especially enslaved Africans. Elsewhere in the new world, slave societies had a more nuanced view, emphasizing the prevalence of “intermediate shades” of color. Yet even in Brazil, “pigmentocratic” racism was widespread. In another sense, “the American Dilemma” was the product of the contradiction between the Declaration of Independence’s embrace of liberty and the reality of slavery. It took the antislavery movement in the nineteenth century and the civil rights movement in the twentieth to revolutionize the American conscience.

QUESTION: You and I have made common cause debunking the preposterous thesis of The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews (1991), authored by the anonymous “Historical Research Department” of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, that Jewish merchants “dominated” the slave trade to the new world. The recently-published second volume of The Secret Relationship extends this historical libel to the post-Civil War period by claiming that Jews were disproportionately responsible for sharecropping, segregation, and lynching! I suppose cynics might suggest that your decision to set the historical record straight somehow reflects your conversion to Judaism (discussed below). What’s the truth?

ANSWER: The argument that “Jewish Talmudic scholars” invented anti-black racism does not appear in The Secret Relationship. It was advanced by Farrakhan ally, Wellesley Professor Tony Martin, in his The Jewish Onslaught (1993), which sought to open up a second “anti-Jewish front” by selectively quoting American historians including your 1977 dissertation! I first learned in the 1970s (before I converted to Judaism) from the scholarship of Ethiopian Jewish scholar Ephraim Isaac, a cofounder of Harvard’s African-American Studies

Department, that Martin’s libel misreads both biblical and rabbinic texts and the history of racism. Other scholars with the requisite expertise in the ancient languages (which I lack), including David Aaron, Benjamin Braude, and David Goldenberg, have added to Isaac’s insights.

In the Bible, Noah’s son, Ham, after the Ark lands, looks on the nakedness of his inebriated father, causing Noah to curse the descendants of Ham’s son, Canaan, with the fate of being “slaves of slaves”; there is no mention of race or color. Though there are much later enigmatic Talmudic and Midrashic glosses suggesting that Ham was “smitten in his skin” as punishment for unexplained sexual misbehavior on the Ark, the rabbinic sources never linked slavery with dark complexion as part of a divine malediction. Noah’s Curse of perpetual servitude was strictly limited in Talmudic lore to Canaan and the Canaanites, ultimately displaced by the Israelite descendants of Ham’s brother, Shem. Indeed, rabbinic sources distinguished the cursed, descendants of Canaan from the black descendants of his brother Cush, who had supposedly established prosperous kingdoms south of Egypt. Ephraim Isaac demonstrated that the “children of Ham” (notably the Cushites) were sometimes both described as “black” and “black and beautiful.” Rabbis also spoke of the beauties of Moses’s Cushite (or Ethiopian) wife, of the black Queen of Sheba, and of Solomon’s Cushite scribes. The famous passage in the Song of Songs, “I am black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,” appears to have been read in Hebrew and Greek versions as “I am black and beautiful.”

Jewish legends, contrary to historian Tony Martin, were not the crucial source of the destructive, so-called “Hamitic myth” justifying slavery in terms of skin color. To understand the evolution of racism in the centuries leading up to the Atlantic slave trade and the founding of new world societies based on racial slavery, we need to look elsewhere—to medieval Christian Europe but also to the Islamic world from which Martin and Farrakhan avert their eyes rather than criticize.

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), A Muslim and one of the most influential thinkers of the Middle Ages, drew a significant line between white slaves and black slaves, and concluded that “the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.”

Though racism did not develop in an inevitable progression, one can trace a continuity of negative and dehumanizing images of black Africans from medieval Muslims to fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Christian Iberians, and on to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century northern Europeans and Euro-Americans, and then to the nineteenth-century Slave South, and, after the Civil War, to modern American racism. In this historical process, anti-black prejudice and emerging racial anti-Semitism often reinforced each other.

QUESTION: Allow me to return to the question of your personal odyssey. So far as I know, Marxism never appealed to you as a historical master framework—though you were profoundly influenced by the philosophy of Marx’s master Hegel. More to the point in the context of this interview, would you discuss your ultimate decision to convert to Judaism, the reasons for it, and what the faith means to you?

ANSWER: My parents both rebelled against their Christian upbringing, and I thus had no religious heritage. When I became a soldier in 1945, my dogtag identified me as “N” for “nothing” (not Christian, Hebrew, or Muslim). For a long time, I was not bothered with this. But deeply influenced by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s views on the nature and destiny of man, I later felt need for some way to reconcile my capacity for self-transcendence with my materiality. As it happened, in 1971, I married a much younger Jewish woman, Toni Hahn Davis, now an Associate Dean at Yale Law School, and I happily agreed that our children would be raised as Jews. I then became increasingly impressed by Alvin Wainhaus, the brilliant rabbi at our Conservative synagogue, Or Shalom. By the time our older son had had his Bar Mitzvah, I became immensely attracted to Judaism, and began at age 60 to work with Alvin toward conversion (Toni was astonished when I first told her). At age 80, I again worked with him for about a year planning my own Bar Mitzvah. Judaism resonates with my Niebuhrian view of history and human nature. I also was deeply influenced by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I believe in God and pray almost daily and could not be more grateful for my total acceptance as a Jew by many friends, including members of our bible-study weekly Shabbos group, who are mostly modern Orthodox.

QUESTION: The Civil War ended with the First Reconstruction—which registered major accomplished such as the passage of the post-slavery Fourteenth and Fifteenth “freedom amendments,” but could not prevent segregation from replacing slavery and racism’s continued hold, North as well as South. You and I are both old enough to have been profoundly shaped by the so-called Second Reconstruction of the 1960s. Some would argue that, in the era of the Obama presidency and multicultural trends such as increasing racial intermarriage, we are now experiencing a “Third Reconstruction.” What do you think?

ANSWER: Well, given the profitability and deep entrenchment of slavery and racism in antebellum America, I think that slavery would have persisted far into the twentieth century if there had been no Civil War. I think that anti-black racism has declined to a spectacular degree since I was in the Army in 1945-1946. Now, there is indeed a “Third Reconstruction.” As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, the Exodus “is far from being completed.” Perhaps also America’s Reconstructions!