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David Brion Davis

2015 Lifetime Achievement

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation
David Brion Davis is a leading American intellectual and cultural historian, the author or editor of 16 books. Anisfield-Wolf-winning historian Ira Berlin observed that “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.”  And historian Drew Faust Gilpin, president of Harvard University, wrote in 2014 that Davis’ influence was deep, having changed “traditional approaches to intellectual history by embedding ideas in social and political action and institutions.”

Born in 1927 to a journalist and an artist in Denver, Davis spent much of his childhood on the move – a pattern that heightened his sense of contingency in life and history. Before studying philosophy at Dartmouth College, he was drafted and put on a transport ship to Germany in 1945, which he describes in the preface to The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation:

“I was ordered to take a club, go down to the hold, and keep the ‘jiggaboos’ from gambling. In this highly segregated army, I never dreamed there were any black soldiers on the ship. But after descending a long winding staircase, I came upon what I imagined a slave ship would have looked like. Hundreds and hundreds of near-naked blacks together, many of them shooting craps.”

The teenage soldier disturbed no one below deck, but he was disturbed by the racist fury and speech he witnessed in the Army, and greatly impressed by a new book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, which won the Anisfield-Wolf Book award for Gunnar Myrdal in 1945.

Once stateside, Davis graduated from Dartmouth summa cum laude and earned his doctorate in the history of American civilization at Harvard University. He taught at Cornell for 14 years, earning both an Anisfield-Wolf Book award and a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, the first book in his seminal trilogy. In 1970, he joined the faculty of Yale.

In awarding the National Book Critics Circle prize in 2015 for Davis’ final installment, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, the judges lauded the historian for “undermining mythologies of white superiority, black savagery, and passive black victimhood.” The critics congratulated Davis on the culmination of 50 years of scholarship and connecting “Toussaint L’Overture and Frederick Douglass to the human rights movements burgeoning in American today.”

Davis retired from Yale in 2001.  He lives in Connecticut.

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Blog Posts about David Brion Davis

Meet Our 2015 Winners In And Around Cleveland This September

Anisfield-Wolf award winners are—almost by definition—civic minded. They continue a generous tradition of adding extra public conversations each September in Cleveland. For those readers whose schedules don’t allow them to attend the awards ceremony or who want more than one chance to hear these gifted writers, here are the details: Poet Marilyn Chin, a professor at San Diego State University, will read and discuss her work in Hard Love Province.  She will appear alongside John Carroll University’s Phil Metres, whose recent book... Read More →

Meet Our 2015 Winners

The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of its 80th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2015 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are: • Jericho Brown, The New Testament, Poetry • Marilyn Chin, Hard Love Province, Poetry• David Brion Davis, Lifetime Achievement• Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, Nonfiction• Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, Fiction “The new Anisfield-Wolf... Read More →
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