The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, written by David Brion Davis

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. xvii + 422 pp. (Cloth US$30.00)

This volume concludes David Brion Davis’s decades-long investigation of “dehumanization and its implications” in slave societies (p. 304). In earlier volumes, he considered why slavery persisted for millennia before organized opposition to “inhuman bondage” appeared in the 1780s. Now, with his characteristic erudition and interest in comparative history, he considers why, once the Age of Emancipation began, it took another century to abolish New World slavery, and even longer to redress its implications.

Davis’s answer continues to center on the “problem of slavery,” which he defines as the paradoxical attempt to treat human beings as if they were animals, Aristotle’s “natural slaves.” He sees efforts to “animalize” people as the quintessential feature of slavery, one that manifested itself—in the case of New World slavery—as racism. While desiring to treat slaves as inhuman, however, white slaveholders always knew they were quite human—human enough to resist enslavement in ways that domesticated livestock never could.

This ongoing “problem” became particularly acute for slaveholders after the Haitian Revolution, which Davis emphasizes as the big bang that birthed the Age of Emancipation. The success of enslaved revolutionaries in Saint Domingue demonstrated their capacity for “self-liberation” (p. 4). Yet the Revolution’s violence, imagined in grotesque detail by white writers, also reaffirmed, for many contemporaries, that slaves were inhuman, bestial savages, whether by nature or as a result of their long enslavement.

Instead of resolving the “problem of slavery,” Haiti thus amplified Whites’ pathological projections of animal characteristics onto enslaved people. “The new possibility of eradicating slavery … greatly magnified the importance of race” (p. 7). The “horrors of Santo Domingo” hovered as objections over all future discussions of abolition, as did white perceptions of free black communities in the American North, where early emancipations occurred more gradually and peacefully. As Davis reminds readers, early emancipations in the American North and the Caribbean resulted in the “spectacular growth of freedman populations” whose “ongoing status … had a crucial bearing on debates over the immediate or gradual liberation” of the still-enslaved (pp. 61, 193). Growing black urban communities confronted hostile Whites whose discriminatory policies kept them mired in poverty. That poverty, together with the troubled early history of independent Haiti, completed a perverse circle in which Whites pointed to free Blacks’ degradation as an obstacle to freeing slaves.

In the United States, those white perceptions about free Blacks’ degradation explain, for Davis, the appeal of Liberian colonization as a potentially more convincing proof than Haiti of freed people’s capacities. Davis takes seriously the antislavery convictions of many white colonizationists, describing them as, at the very least, “better prognosticators than the abolitionists” about the “intractability of prejudice and racial conflict” in postemancipation societies (p. 141). Racism’s intractability also motivated early black colonizationists, according to Davis. Pessimistic about free Blacks’ prospects in the United States, some African Americans hoped successful black colonies would definitively refute Whites’ dehumanizing claims.

Ultimately, black opposition to colonizationism spelled its practical demise. But Davis uses its early appeal to some black leaders to highlight another of the book’s themes: the implications of dehumanization for black people’s own self-image—“the need of African Americans to confront and counteract … white psychological exploitation” (p. 304). Though careful not to exaggerate the psychological damage inflicted on slaves, Davis echoes Stanley Elkins and Orlando Patterson in contending that some people of color internalized slavery’s attempts to dehumanize. He points to black abolitionists’ insistence on a difference between British “wage slavery” and chattel slavery as evidence of how deeply they felt the implications of brutalization. And he cites writers as various as David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, and Barack Obama, to suggest that white pathologies “intent on animalization” (which outlived slavery) sowed doubts in the minds of many African Americans about their place in white society, long after emancipation (p. 42).

Indeed, for Davis, Haiti’s example was important partly because it encouraged “self-doubting blacks” elsewhere (p. 52). Likewise, when African Americans like Douglass toured Britain after West Indian emancipation, they “found new self-esteem and acceptance as full humans” in a seemingly less prejudiced society (p. 305). The accomplishments of figures like Douglass in turn encouraged abolitionists and refuted images of free people of color as irremediably degraded. Davis stresses that “free blacks … provided the key to slave emancipation,” not just as founders and sustainers of anticolonization abolitionism, but as living rebuttals to Whites’ denigration of their humanity (p. xiv).

Still, across his oeuvre, Davis’s most lasting emphasis may be on the intractability of human depravity. African American abolitionists and their allies were significantly aided by British emancipation, but American emancipation still required war. Davis remains impressed by the “extraordinary fortuity & contingency” even of this outcome (p. xvi), and reminds readers throughout of slavery’s later, twentieth-century revivals and the continued oppression of African Americans. The final lesson of the problem of slavery, for Davis, is the “contingency” of moral progress. At no point did emancipation become inevitable, even if it became “foreseeable,” which makes slavery’s nineteenth-century abolitions all the more “astonishing” (p. 336).


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