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Curator: Bruce Duncan
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Mexican Immigrants Encounter Racism

(For more information goto:

For Mexican immigrants coming to California in the early twentieth century, the encounter with Anglo culture was often harsh and hurtful. A Mexican corrido (folk song), titled “El Deportado,” expresses the initial shock of border crossing at a time (c. 1930) when immigrants were especially vulnerable to immediate deportation in hard economic times. From George J. Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 14:

 It must have been about ten at night,

the train began to whistle,

I heard my mother say, “There comes that ungrateful train

that is going to take my son.”

“Goodbye my beloved mother, give me your blessings.

I am going to a foreign land, where there is no revolution.”

Run, run little train, let’s leave the station.

I don’t want to see my mother cry for her beloved son,

for the son of her heart.”

Finally the bell rang, the train whistled twice.

“Don’t cry my buddies, for you’ll make me cry as well.”

Right away we passed Jalisco, my, how fast the train rap. La Picdad, then Irapuato, Silado, then La Chona, and Aguas Calientes as well.

We arrived at Juarez at last, there I ran into trouble. “Where are you going, where do you come from? How much money do you have to enter this nation?”

“Gentlemen, I have money so that I can emigrate.” “Your money isn’t worth anything, we have to bathe you.”

Oh, my beloved countrymen, I am just telling you this, That I was tempted to go right back across.

At last I crossed the border, and left with a labor agent. And there, dear countrymen, was much that I endured.


For Mexican immigrants who raised families in Southern California, the clash between traditional-minded parents and “Americanized” children could be both comic and tragic. A father lamenting his daughter’s insistence on bobbing her hair—“flapper” style—during the 1920’s, from Douglas Monroy, Rebirth: Mexican Los Angeles: From the Great Migration to the Great Depression (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 177:

My Lupe says she will bob her beautiful hair, if I say,  “yes,”  or if I say,
“no.” What makes her like that? She knows that her father will beat her if
she does not mind us. Since we have been in the United States she has always
been a good girl, until now when, she says that she will do  what she wants.
She says that we are funny and that we want her to be funny and like the
old people, too. Do you  think that the girls will laugh at her in the school
if she has long hair? The nurse says  for us to let her cut her hair, that it will
be good for  the hair. Lupe: says it is her hair, and she will cut it if she wants
to. She is young and she will not listen to the  ones who know more than
she does.

Sexism in White and Black

The following two selections, written almost a century apart, capture similarities and differences between white women’s and black women’s encounter with sexism in the United States:

1. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a major figure in the nineteenth century women’s rights movement in the U.S., explains how educational discrimination shaped the sense of grievance that fueled her career as a pioneering feminist in her Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897 (New York: Shocken Books, 1973 [1898]), p. 23:

[Most of the boys who were my schoolmates] were much older than I. For three years one boy kept his place at the head of the class, and I always stood next. Two prizes were offered in Greek. I strove for one and took the second. How well I re­member my joy in receiving that prize. There was no sentiment of ambition, rivalry, or triumph over my com­panions, nor feeling of satisfaction in receiving this honor in the presence of those assembled on the day of the exhibition. One thought alone filled my mind. “Now,” said I, “my father will be satisfied with me.” So, as soon as we were dismissed, I ran down the hill, rushed breathless into his office, laid the new Greek Testament, which was my prize, on his table and ex­claimed: “There, I got it!” He took up the book, asked me some questions about the class, the teachers, the spectators, and, evidently pleased, handed it back to me. Then, while I stood looking and waiting for him to say something which would show that he rec­ognized the equality of the daughter with the son, he kissed me on the forehead and exclaimed, with a sigh, “Ah, you should have been a boy!”

2. Margaret Wright, a founder of Women Against Oppression, a black women’s liberation group, expressed her views on the unique situation of black women struggling against sexism in “West Magazine,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1970:

Black women have been doubly oppressed. On the job, we’re low women on the totem pole. White women have their problems. They’re interviewed for secretarial instead of the executive thing. But we’re interviewed for mopping floors and stuff like that. Sometimes we have to take what’s left over in Miss Ann’s refrigerator. This is all exploitation. And when we get home from work, the old man is wondering why his greens aren’t cooked on time.                                

We’re also exploited in the Movement. We run errands, lick stamps, mail letters and do the door-to-door. But when it comes to the speaker’s platform, it’s all men up there blow-in  from their souls, you dig?

Some white man wrote this book about the black matriarchy, saying that black women ran the community. Which is bull. We don’t run no community. We went out and worked because they wouldn’t give our men jobs. This is where some of us are different from the white women’s liberation movement. We don’t think work liberates you. We’ve been doing it so damned long.

Deborah Dash Moore discusses their experiences with anti-Semitism:

Contrary to stereotypes that Jews wouldn’t fight, More than 550,000 Jews served in the U.S. military during World War II; about 11,000 were killed and more than 40,000 were wounded. In GI Jews: How World War II Changed A Generation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 68, Deborah Dash Moore discusses their experiences with anti-Semitism:

Antisemitism further complicated matters. Jews knew the anti-Jewish stereotypes: they were not reputed to make good soldiers; they were accused of being cowardly and manipulative; they had a nasty reputation for slyness; they supposedly lacked leadership skills. Stereotypes were layered in complex combinations. Rural Protestants tended to locate their opinions about Irish and Italian Catholics as well as Jews along common urban aids. But many Jews had a separate history with Irish guys. In Jerome Minkow’s previous experience, antisemitism “mostly came from one group and that was the Irish kids.” No matter the neighborhood, “there always seemed to be one or two blocks of Irish kids.” Conflict between Jews and Catholics erupted on the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx in the 1930s. But this basic “part of growing up” mattered less on an individual than a collective level. The Jews were “us” and the others were “them.” Now military service was reconfiguring “us.” Jews had to live with Catholics around the clock, not to mention southern Protestants. Many Jews held their own unpleasant stereotypes about Catholics and rural southerners and would have to learn to suppress or change their attitudes. Jewish recruits would have to posit a sufficient difference between themselves and African Americans to allow them to identify with their barracks mates, finding in a shared white American identity a basis of kinship and friendship with Catholics and southerners.

Facing Racism: Reminiscence of Chinese American Immigrant

Between the 1850s and the 1870s, tens of thousands of Chinese immigrated to the West Coast of the United States in search of opportunity.  They worked in the gold mines and on the transcontinental railroad, but were subjected to violence and discrimination, ultimately leading to their segregation in “Chinatowns”  and exclusion from further immigration under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

In the following reminiscence, Huie Kin, who worked on a farm near Oakland, describes the impact of the “Chinese Must Go!” movement led by racist demagogue Dennis Kearney—himself an Irish immigrant.  From Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, The Chinese American Family Album (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 64:  

The sudden change of public sentiment towards our people in those days was an interesting illustration of mob psychology…. The useful and steady Chinese worker became overnight the mysterious Chinaman, an object of unknown dread. When I landed [in 1868], the trouble was already brewing, but the climax did not come until 1876-1877. I understand that several causes contributed to the anti-Chinese riots. It was a period of general economic depression in the Western States, brought about by drought, crop failures, and reduced output of the gold mines, and on the top of it came a presidential campaign…. There were long processions at night, with big torchlights and lanterns, carrying the slogan “The Chinese Must Go,” and mass meetings where fiery-tongues flayed the Chinese bogey. Those were the days of Denis Kearney and his fellow agitators, known as sandlot orators, on account of their vehement denouncements in open-air meet­ings. To Kearney was attributed the statement which showed to what extremes political demagogues could go: “There is no means left to clear the Chinamen but to swing them into eter­nity by their own queues, for there is no rope long enough in all America wherewith to strangle four hundred millions of Chinamen.” The Chinese were in a pitiable condition in those days. We were simply terrified; we kept indoors after dark for fear of being shot in the back. Children spit upon us as we passed by and called us rats. However, there was one consolation: the people who employed us never turned against us, and we went on quietly with our work until the public frenzy subsided.

Facing Racism: Reminiscence of Japanese American Immigrant

The Japanese began immigrating to Hawaii (incorporated as a U.S. territorial possession in 1900) and the West Coast in significant numbers starting in the 1890s. Chinzen Kinjo, who arrived in Hawaii soon after 1900, described how Japanese plantation workers reacted to the despotic rule of the “lunas” or overseers—reminiscent of the racist abuses of Old South slave plantations. From Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, The Japanese American Family Album (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p.  50:

The life on Ewa Plantation was very hard; getting up at 4 A.M., breakfast at 5, starting to work at 6, and work­ing all day under the blazing sun. We worked like horses, moving mechanically under the whipping hands of the luna. There was no such thing as human sentiment. At night, instead of a sweet dream of my wife and child left in Okinawa, I was wakened up frightened by the nightmare of being whipped by the luna. Because of the perpetual fear of this un­bearable whipping, some other workers committed suicide by hanging or jumping in front of the on-coming train….

There was no one who wasn’t whipped. Once when the luna whipped me by taking me for someone else, I was really mad and all the anger which had hitherto been suppressed in me exploded and I challenged him with Karate (Okinawan art of self-defense). Since the luna was a big man, a six-footer, it wasn’t easy for me. But finally, I threw him to the ground. I could have kicked him to unconsciousness. There was a crowd surrounding us. Some cheered me, waving cane knives, shout­ing, “Kinjo, go ahead, go ahead!” The others shouted, “Beat him up; finish him!” I was at the point of jumping at him, risk­ing my whole life in that one blow. Right at that moment, a Big Luna (superior overseer) came and calmed me down, saying, “Wait, wait; I will fix everything all right.” Thus, the incident ended short of serious consequences. We wanted revenge even to the point of committing murder. You can understand how brutally the laborers of early years were treated.

Virtual “Body Swapping” Affects Gender Identity

The World Against Racism Foundation ( studies the destructive consequences when gender identity is treated as a biological given rather than what it really is:  a developmental process shaped by interacting social and psychological factors. See our web site at

“I feel like a woman in a man’s body”—or visa versa—is a compelling complaint by people who undergo sex reassignment surgery. A new study using virtual  reality (VR) technology asks a different question: how much are gender identities shaped by an interactive loop between a person’s self-image, how a person is perceived and treated by others, ands how a person reacts to that social interaction.

In a “body swapping” study by researchers at the Barcelona University’s Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies and University College London, male subjects were equipped with virtual reality headsets enabling them to see the world through the eyes of a life-size female character who reacted to  virtual female characters in  the experimental interaction. Prior studies showed how VR technology could alter an experimental subject’s sense of place. The powerful effect of this new study altered the sense of self of the men who took on the identity of a virtual woman and reacted reflexively to the new VR reality.

The men reported feeling as though they were in a female’s body—flinching and gasping as  she  was slapped by another  character in the virtual world. “If you can temporarily give people the illusion that their bodies are different, then the evidence suggests it also affects their behavior and the way they think. They can have new experiences: a person who is thin can know what it’s like to be fat. A man can have an experience of what it’s like to be a woman.”

In the study, 24 men took turns wearing a VR headset that immersed them in a virtual room with a fireplace. Some men saw the virtual environment through the eyes of a female character who was sitting down, while others had a viewpoint that was just to the side of her. The study showed how VR technology can blur  the line between illusion and reality with regard to gender identity. In one experiment a second virtual female appears to approach the primary virtual female to stroke that person’s shoulders and arms. To reinforce the effect, a researcher in the lab applied the same massage to the experimental subject. In a follow-up experiment,  the second character slapped the face of the female experimental subject. In the experiment involving slapping, the men’s heart rate first decelerated and then reaccelerated—which is the way humans  usually react to a perceived attack. The more intensely male subjects  saw their virtual world through the female character’s eyes, the stronger their reactions.

The researchers concluded that VR technology “can temporarily override top down knowledge resulting in a radical illusion of transfer of body ownership,” while also illustrating that “immersive virtual reality as a powerful tool in the study of body representation and experience, . . . .”

They emphasized the implications for using VR technology to speed the rehabilitation of injured patients who can reconnect with and restore through virtual experience how they use their bodies. However, the implications for understanding the formation of gender identity are also compelling: How we identify as men or women is very much affected by how others perceive and treat us—and how we react to their perceptions and behavior. This is one reason why sex reassignment therapies change not merely the how the  body looks, but how  the person’s self-image is shaped by social interaction. In other words, gender identity is determined in significant measure, not just by hormones, but by how  others perceive and treat us.  

For the full study see: Slater M, Spanlang B, Sanchez-Vives MV, Blanke O, 2010,  “First Person Experience of Body Transfer in Virtual Reality,” PLoS ONE 5(5): e10564. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010564, .

Gays and Lesbians in the American Military During World War II

An estimated 650,000 gay men and women served in the Armed Forces during World War II, despite the official ban on gay military service. Among these: Air Medal recipient Robert Ricks, a WWII B-24 bomber navigator whose plane was shot down in August 1943 and who spent the rest of the war behind German lines, including three months in Dachau; and Bronze winner Robert Fleisher who helped liberate camp inmates who, like him, were Jewish, from Dachau.
Though some won medals for their service, many more were hounded out of the service because of their sexual orientation. Consult for why we classify homophobia as a form of racism.
The following is an account of how the anti-gay witch hunt operated from Allan Berube’s Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: The Free Press, 1990), pp. 204-08:
Sexual humiliation was one of the interrogators’ most powerful weapons for getting at the “naked truth” beneath the suspects’ denials. “They do make it horribly embarrassing,” wrote a gay infantryman to a buddy after his interrogation by a disposition board at Camp Livingston, an infantry replacement center in Alexandria, Louisiana. “There’s one board, for instance, where the victim is placed on a block, quite nude, in front of a table full of assorted colonels and majors, and made to answer the most intimate questions. We call it the ‘slave mart.’ Then there are the interviews, and questionnaires, and consultations, and accusing looks.” Such humiliations could make gay suspects feel as if they were the enemy or were pieces of garbage to be thrown away. “How do you recommend I be disposed of?” the infantryman at Camp Livingston wrote to his friend. “Gas? Firing squad? Weighting with chains and casting into the sewage canal? I’m bucking for cremation. I’ve been burned up so many times in the past two years that it would be a pleasure to be burned up once and feel it.”
The systematic violation of their dignity and trust made many GIs talk, but at a terrible cost to their self-respect. Dave Barrett, who in 1943 was held with dozens of other suspected homosexuals in a Navy “queer brig” in Noumea, New Caledonia  described how Interrogators used the good cop/bad cop technique to break him down.   Taking him from the brig to an office, both the judge advocate and a lieutenant worked on Barrett while a yeoman took notes. They began the interrogation by telling him about his family and his former employers. “ ‘My God,’ ‘ Barrett wondered to himself, “ ‘how did they learn all this?’ They scared the hell out of me.’’ Then the judge advocate threatened him with criminal prosecution. During a break in the interrogation, the lieutenant took Barrett “out to a station wagon and we sat out there. He put his arm around my shoulder and he said, ‘For the good of the service, you should go.’ And I said, ‘Well, if you feel that way, and if I’ve done something wrong and it hinders the service, I suppose I’ll go.’ He said, ‘You go in and tell them that.’ So he softened me up.” Back inside the office Barrett agreed to talk once he got assurance that nothing would happen to anyone he named. He named two men. On his confession Barrett had to sign that he was “ ‘not under duress’ or ‘I was not coerced.’ Then the judge advocate looked at his yeoman and said, ‘For Christ’s sake, I didn’t think he’d break.’ And that hurt terribly. I was heartbroken.” The men he named were rounded up for interrogation and discharged.
The interrogation of a twenty-four-year-old corporal at Fort Oglethorpe demonstrates how officers could barrage a suspect with sexual questions in a kind of psychological rape until they broke her unwillingness to expose herself, her partner, and her friends. When the line of questioning approached the corporal’s sexual pleasures and orgasms, the interrogation was turned over to a female officer. “Are you and Lt. Foster closer than just friends?” the officer asked the corporal. “No ma’am,” she replied, “I think a lot of her but we are just close friends.”
Q. Are you in love with her?
A. No ma’am.
Q. Is she with you?
A. I don’t think so. . . .
Q. Which one of you first made love to the other one?
A. We don’t make love to each other ma’am. . . .
[Interrogator] informs witness of allegations against her and explains to witness that she understands people like her.
Q    Now do we understand each other better.   .   .  ?
A        Yes, ma’am.
Q       Has Lt. Foster ever made love to you?
A      Yes ma’am.   .   .   .
Q        What do you do when you and Lt. Foster get together and make love?
A      We just love each other.
Q       How? Describe it to me.
A       We put our arms around each other and love each other.
Q       Do you feel various parts of one another’s bodies?
A        Yes ma’am, I have.   .   .  .
Q       Have you ever touched her sexual organs?
A.       No ma’am.
Q     What physical reaction do you get from kissing Lt. Foster and petting her?
A       I would say I would get the same reaction that I would get
from  kissing a man. .  .  .
Q    Does making love with Lt. Foster make you nervous?
A     No ma’am, it doesn’t make me nervous. . . .
Q       Is it a pleasure?
A.     Yes ma’am. We always get such funny feelings.
Q      Do you continue until you get relief in the form of an orgasm?
A       Yes ma’am. . . .
Q    Do you kiss long clinging kisses?
A       An average one I would say. . . .
Q     Have you ever heard the term “to come” expressed—meaning someone has been relieved physically, that one has had a physical reaction as a result of being made love to?
A      Yes ma’am.
Q       How do you love one another to get this reaction?
A     We are very close to each other.
Q      With your clothes on?
A.     In bed with our pajamas on.
Q       Did you learn it from her?
A.    I think we learned it together. . .
Q       Besides being the finest person you have ever known, is she sexually gratifying?
Yes ma’am. . . .
[Here the male interrogator takes over and threatens to tell the WAC’s brothers, sisters, parents, and Baptist minister about what she has just admitted.] …
Signed confessions were the suspect’s ultimate act of surrender and the prize of the interrogation. A typical signed confession was composed by the interrogator after the questioning ended. “It’s not even my own words,” explained Fred Thayer, who signed one in New Caledonia. “It’s words dictated to me.” The confession verified consent to the confession even when the signer was coerced, and described his or her sex acts and relationships in the awkward language of military regulations. The confession of a sailor interrogated at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, began:
“I have since March 15, 1943 attended six ‘gay parties’ at Jim BELL’s home. Jim BELL was at that time a civilian and is at present a private first class in the U.S. Army. I have also attended two parties at Doris’s, a “dike” living in Jacksonville. Florida, and on several occasions I have been present at ‘gay parties’ which were held at the Mayflower Hotel, Jacksonville, Florida. By ‘gay parties’ I mean those parties were attended by sexually perverted individuals and were usually held on Saturday nights with practically the same crowd present. I have seen Bob SMITH, Bob KNOWLES, Stan CASELLI, Doug MARKS, Lt. N. R. BURKE USNR, Richard GIANNINI, ‘Buddy’ WILSON, Steve DUNN, and Manuel MIRANDA. All but the last three are serving in the U.S. Navy, the others are serving in the U.S. Army. Drinking, singing, dancing and the playing of suggestive records occurred at these parties with the exchange of kisses upon greeting each other.”
The threat that such confessions would be used to charge suspects with criminal offenses was present during most interrogations, investigations, and psychiatric interviews. Gay male and lesbian suspects often disclaimed their sexuality during the interrogations not because they believed what they said but to avoid criminal prosecution. Many who broke down under questioning did not know that they were not on trial.

“Cuddle Hormone” Experiments Challenge Gender Stereotypes

In My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Higgins—after linguistically reprogramming Cockney-speaking flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass as “a great lady”—exasperatingly asks: “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man”? When he doesn’t get the answer he’s looking for and loses Eliza, he laments: “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

It’s too late for Prof. Higgins, but the rest of us can learn from a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience, April 7, 2010, 30(14):4999-5007, that his mistake may have been to try to bridge the gender gap from the wrong direction and with the wrong assumptions. A joint British-German research team has found that the naturally produced hormone, oxytocin—when  inhaled as  a nasal spray—makes  men more empathetic and sensitive to “social cues” from other people. A neurotransmitter in the brain, the so-called “cuddle hormone” has long been known for triggering labor pains and mother-baby bonding, and to facilitate breast feeding. It may also be involved in sexual arousal.  Recently, it’s been shown to increase facial recognition  among experimental subjects. The  first polypeptide hormone to be sequenced and synthesized biochemically by Vincent du Vigneaud in 1953, oxytocin may prove beneficial in the treatment of schizophrenia and autism.

Gender differences, once thought to be both “natural” and immutable, appear in quite a different light—the more we learn about the subtle and manipulable keys to “gender chemistry.” For more on this, see Martine Rothblatt’s bestselling book, The Apartheid of Sex, and the extended discussion on the web site at .

Seba’s Story (for more information, visit museum at

It is the story of Seba, a young African woman, now free, who spent much of her childhood in captivity in Paris where there are an estimated 3,000 people held as “household slaves.” Elsewhere in developed as well as developing countries, millions of people—usually from ethnic or racial or immigrant minorities—are still treated as chattels and exploited in capacities ranging from agricultural laborer to apparel worker to “sex slave.”

From Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 1-2:

I was raised by my grandmother in Mali, and when I was still a little girl a woman my family knew came and asked her if she could take me to Paris to care for her children. She told my grandmother that she would put me in school and that I would learn French. But when I came to Paris, I was not sent to school, I had to work every day. In their house I did all the work; I cleaned the house, cooked the meals, cared for the children, and washed and fed the baby. Every day I started work before 7 A.M. and finished around 11 P.M.; I never had a day off. My mistress did nothing; .she slept late and then watched television or went out.

One day I told her that I wanted to go to school. She replied that she had not brought me to France to go to school but to take care of her children. I was so tired and run down. I had problems with my teeth; sometimes my cheek would swell and the pain would be terrible. Sometimes I had bad stomachaches, but when I was ill I still had to work.

Sometimes when I was in pain I would cry, but my mistress would shout at me. I slept on the floor in one of the children’s bedrooms; my food was their leftovers. I was not allowed to take food from the refrigerator like the children. If I took food she would beat me. She often beat me. She would slap me all the time. She beat me with the broom, with kitchen tools, or whipped me with electric cable. Sometimes I would bleed; I still have marks on my body.

Once in 1992 I was late going to get the children from school; my mistress and her husband were furious with me and beat and then threw me out on the street. I had nowhere to go; I didn’t understand anything, and I wandered on the streets. After some time her husband found me and took me back to their house. There they stripped me naked, tied my hands behind my back, and began to whip me with a wire attached to a broomstick. Both of them were beating me at the same time. I was bleeding a lot and screaming, but they continued to beat me. Then she rubbed chili pepper into my wounds and stuck it in my vagina. I lost consciousness.

Sometime later one of the children came and untied me. I lay on the floor where they had left me for several days. The pain was terrible but no one treated my wounds. When I was able to stand I had to start work again, but after this I was always locked in the apartment. They continued to beat me. . . .

David Brion Davis (visit museum at

Intellectual Trajectories: How I became a historian of slavery* by David Brion Davis**

. . . I was drafted into the army, and in the late spring and summer of 1945, I went through rigorous combat training in armored infantry for the planned invasion of Japan in the fall.  In the early weeks, the ongoing battle in Okinawa gave us a rather frightening foretaste of what to expect when we hit the beaches of Japan.  Being trained in Georgia, I got a view of the appalling racism of the Jim Crow South in 1945.  Then, very suddenly and unexpectedly, the war was over.

In the fall I found myself on a large troop ship bound for Le Havre, and though seasick, an officer gave me a club, and ordered me to go down a circular ladder-like stairway to the lowest hold where I was told that I had to prevent the “jiggaboos”—that is the African Americans—from gambling!

Until then I had had no idea there were any black soldiers on board.  When I got to the bottom, the scene looked like what I now would think of as a slave ship.  When some nearly naked blacks asked me what I was doing down there, I said I was merely following orders and then I found a shadow in which to hide for four hours or so on so-called duty.

Then a few weeks later, for five days, I was jammed into a railroad boxcar that seemed identical to the one my Dad had described in France in World War I.  We moved through France very slowly and finally got to the American zone of occupied Germany.  And because I had taken two years of high school German, I soon became a policeman in what was called the Sicherheitspolizei, or the American Security Police in Mannheim.  And eventually I moved to the headquarters of the U.S. Constabulary in Stuttgart.

In Mannheim I was actually speaking more German than English.  I had to learn a lot quickly.  But I was deeply shocked by the bitter conflict between black and white troops in Germany.  And I was especially outraged by the racist speeches we heard repeatedly from Major General Ernest Harmon—an officer who actually helped to lose the Battle of Kasserine Pass in North Africa.  But he used the “N” word repeatedly and declared to us that the “Ns” were far worse a problem than the Germans.  He attacked the U.S. government for having ever sent blacks to Europe in the war.  The tension was increased greatly because many German girls seemed to have no Nazi prejudices against dating black American soldiers.

On one occasion we were called out in battle gear in the middle of the night, rushing in armored half-tracks to the site of a bloody racial shootout.  This was probably the scariest event in my life.  We arrived at a dancing club where some white and black American soldiers had fought over the issue of blacks dating Germany girls. Blood spattered the sidewalk and dance floor.  Our commander was a West Point second lieutenant, that is, the lowest real officer you can be, who was a virulent racist.  He got in a face-to-face shouting match with a superior black first lieutenant, who said, “Don’t you call me nigger!”  He was in command, I think, of at least a dozen or more black troops.  And as far as I remember, they were not armed.  But our lieutenant ordered us to pull back the bolts of our submachine guns, so we were ready to fire into this crowd of blacks.  At the last minute, a tasseled white major, who had been pulled out of bed somewhere, came stalking in and there was, a call of “A-tten-tion!” and he diffused the situation.  But this was a very, very close call.

Since at ages 18 and then 19, I was also exposed to concentration camp survivors, Displaced Person camps, and cities reduced to piles of rubble with even smells of death—in  Mannheim, most Germans were still living in underground bunkers—this year’s experience in 1945 and 1946 exerted a profound impression on my views of humanity and history, and thus on my choice of a career.  On October 9, 1946 I wrote my parents from Stuttgart, and I’m going to read part of the letter:

Dear Mother, Daddy, and Gam [Gam was my grandmother who lived with us and who was old enough to remember Lincoln’s assassination], 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, and that’s where history comes in.  Now, there’s been a lot of hokum concerning psychoanalysis, but I think the basic principles 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, and the bad usually losing.  Modern history especially should be shown from every angle.  The entire atmosphere in 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, democrats, or Mississippians.

During the 1930s, there were many advances in methods of teaching history.  The effect cannot be overemphasized.  After talking with many GIs, young GIs who mostly all had been in the Battle of the Bulge and many in Normandy, I’m convinced that the recent course in modern European history that they had did more good than any other single high school subject.  And that’s just the beginning.

There are many other angles, of course, but I’m pretty well sold on the history idea at present.  It is certainly not a subject, as some think, which is dead and useless.”

Then in February 1947, two months out of the army, I began my three and a half years of GI Bill-funded college education at Dartmouth, a school my non-college-educated parents had selected for me after they encountered Hanover’s isolated beauty on a lovely summer day.

Though revolted by the dominant fraternity culture, which involved heavy drinking and a blasé attitude towards study, and thus made it much easier for me to graduate in the class of 1950 Summa Cum Laude, I soon made contact with knowledgeable non-fraternity seniors who recommended the outstanding courses in philosophy, on Dante, political theory, and comparative literature.  Though I had originally intended to major in history, I found that Dartmouth’s history department was surprisingly weak and old-fashioned.  So I chose a philosophy major.

The single professor who did the most to shape the foundation of my entire future career was the philosophy professor, Francis Gramlich.  The  capstone of the course—as in the great Perry Miller’s year-long course on the history of religion in America, which I took a few years later as a graduate student at Harvard—was Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man, later supplemented by Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History.  Now, I was by no means alone in being intellectually and spiritually transformed by Niebuhr, who also gave spellbinding lectures at Dartmouth.  His influence extended from Martin Luther King  Jr. and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to Felix Frankfurter, Lionel Trilling, W. H. Auden, Hubert Humphrey, and Perry Miller, and to some of the brain trust that later surrounded President John F. Kennedy. . . .

I still think that Niebuhr’s insights and arguments point to the heart of our problem as human beings.  As evolved animals, he argued, we are above all finite. . . . Yet we are, as Niebuhr put it, self-transcendent even in our finiteness.  He succeeds, I think, in distinguishing this existential human dilemma from the many dualisms of the past.  He would grant that all our capacities are rooted in cellular matter.  He does contend, however, that the tension between our self-transcendence and finite reality creates an inevitable “anxiety,” to use his word, an anxiety that is the source of all human sin.  Thus, to escape such anxiety, many humans deny, at least temporarily, their capacity of self-transcendence and become immersed in the sin of sensuality.  This sensuality is much intensified by our repeated yearnings for infinitude and immortality.  Much worse, other humans, one thinks especially of Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, deny their human limits, their finitude, and carry the sin of pride to the point of self-deification.  Accordingly, their own ends come to justify the most ghastly means.  And ironically, Niebuhr points out, the attempt to maintain one’s own pride and self-respect by holding others in contempt leads to an uneasy conscience, to the general insecurity which the attitude of contempt is meant to alleviate.

Various religions have nourished this idolatry by feeding delusions of divine sanction, holy alliances, or the arrogance symbolized by the “Gott mit Uns” logo on the belt buckles of German soldiers in World War I.  The archetype of this sin of pride and contempt for others, I later concluded, was human slavery, especially racial slavery.  If Niebuhr has remained a major influence on my own historical work, and one could say that my studies of homicide, slavery, and major historical shifts in “moral perception” have been ways of examining Niebuhr’s “rediscovery of sin” . . . .

Perhaps as a result of this background, I became increasingly dissatisfied as a student in Harvard’s History of American Civilization Program, . . . . Especially as I became more aware of the leading anthropologists and other social scientists of the 1950s, particularly Talcott Parsons, Clyde and Florence Kluckhohn, John Dollard, Eric Fromm, and David Riesman, I became taken by the notion of studying concrete human problems as a way of tracing, within social and cultural frameworks, broad shifts in beliefs, moral values, assumptions, and ideology.  I turned first to homicide as a universal human problem. . . .

In the spring term of 1955, while completing my dissertation, and before taking a full-time assistant professorship in history at Cornell in the fall, I had the immense good fortune to become acquainted with Kenneth Stampp—who was then a visiting professor at Harvard on leave from Berkeley.  Stampp was finishing his groundbreaking book, The Peculiar Institution, which was the first full-scale challenge to Ulrich B. Phillips’s  openly racist, but deeply researched American Negro Slavery, published in 1918.

In the early to mid-1950s, Phillips’s book was still the standard work on the subject of slavery, and appeared on the course syllabi at Harvard and other leading universities (from 1929 to his death in 1934 Phillips was a professor at Yale).  Though his book still contains useful information gathered from a wide range of plantation records, Phillips frankly affirmed that blacks were inferior to whites, and that Southern slavery had been a benign civilizing force for “easy going, amiable sturdy light-hearted savages from Africa.”  This had been the message conveyed by popular films like Gone With the Wind (1939), as well as by popular books like W. E. Woodward’s New American History (1936), which was considered a “liberal” work (this Woodward was no relation of C. Vann Woodward’s).  W.E. Woodward also affirmed that slavery served as a vast training school for African savages.  Though the regime of the slave plantation was strict, according to Woodward, it was, on the whole, a kindly one by comparison with what the imported slave had experienced in his own land:  “It taught him discipline, cleanliness, and a conception of moral standards.”

Only after long talks with Kenneth Stampp, . . . did I begin to realize how the crucial subject of racial slavery had been repressed and marginalized in my courses both at Dartmouth and at Harvard.  Indeed, in 1953-1954, I had taken a year’s leave from Harvard Graduate School in order to accept a Ford Foundation teaching internship, as it was called, at Dartmouth.  This proved to be an invaluable experience in helping me to learn how to teach, but one of my mentors, a seasoned professor of American history, saw the Civil War as a needless tragedy, maligned Radical Reconstruction, and presented the Ku Klux Klan as a harmless group that used humorous tricks and devices to “put the Negro in his proper place.”

Like most college teachers in the 1950s and early 1960s, I was required in an American history survey course to use the most highly respected textbook, Henry Steele Commager and Samuel Eliot Morrison’s, The Growth of the American Republic. While in most respects an excellent work, it declared that the  American slave, or “Sambo,” as Morrison called him, “was adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy.”  In the early twenty-first century it is so very difficult to recapture the consensual white views on slavery and race, in the 1940s and 1950s, that I’ve begun several public lectures in recent times with the startling and I think defensible affirmation that in terms of ideology regarding race, the South won the Civil War.

But by 1955-1956, I could not have been more excited by the importance of Kenneth Stampp’s work on slavery, based on the bedrock assumption that blacks were inherently equal to whites.  By then, I was already familiar with Gunnar Myrdal’s great volume, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem in Modern Democracy (1944), as well as the shocking report published by President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, called To Secure these Rights (1947).  Those were, I think, real landmarks for students in those times. . . .

Having had my first book and various articles published by 1957, I discovered that Cornell’s library contained an immense collection of American and especially British antislavery writings.  This elicited the dream of doing for antislavery what Kenneth Stampp had done for American slavery.  But as matters developed, I found that to understand antislavery, I needed to learn a great deal more about related reform movements and about slavery itself.  I’ve long been firmly convinced that any serious student of the abolitionist movements must learn as much as possible about the diversities of human bondage itself.

The central question, the absolutely central question that fascinated me was, given the fact that slavery evoked virtually no moral protest in a wide range of societies and cultures for literally thousands of years, how could we explain the emergence of a new moral perception by the mid-to-late eighteenth century? Suddenly, by the late 1780s, New World slavery was not only widely condemned in Britain, America, and France, but hundreds of thousands of ordinary Britons signed petitions against the Atlantic slave trade. This central question acquired more importance in view of the new broad consensus among historians that New World slavery was not declining economically, that its abolition was a version of what the historian Seymour Drescher has later termed “econocide,” the destruction of a highly profitable and economically successful system.  Abraham Lincoln was probably not exaggerating when he predicted in 1858 that the peaceful abolition of U.S. slavery would take at least one hundred years.

The word slavery can mean many things.  For example, we can be “enslaved” to love, or alcohol, or drugs, or our own work.  But despite the amazingly late appearance of the first attacks on the institution, the term “slavery” has almost always had negative connotations even when the institution was not being attacked.  Thus, in the King James Bible you have the repeated use of “servant” or “maid servant,” even though the Hebrew and Greek words clearly meant “slave.” Many Southerners used the words “servant” or “maid servant,” and some came up with politically-correct euphemisms like “warranteeism” to replace the negative term slavery.  “Slave,” unlike “servant,” has almost always referred to the most degrading, humiliating, dehumanizing condition a human being can suffer.  In the 1770s the American colonial rebels repeatedly explained that they were fighting a war for independence because the English were determined to “enslave” them.  And when a typical Englishman of 1600 or even 1700 thought of “slavery,” he or she pictured the thousands of English sailors and even people living in the coastal west country of England whom the Barbary corsairs had captured from ships or raids on the coast and had converted into galley slaves or construction workers of various kinds in North Africa.  And, as Frederick Douglass summed up the actual experience of being what he called “broken in body, soul and spirit,” by the “Negro breaker,” Edwin Covey: “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died, the dark night of slavery closed in upon me, and behold a man transformed into a brute!”

Now, Douglass’ testimony shows how enslavers have sought above all to extinguish or deny a person’s capacity for self-transcendence, which Niebuhr identified as the essence of being human.  In other words, the ideal slave, as both Aristotle and Frederick Douglass affirmed, would be a wholly finite person, incapable of rational reflection, a mere “instrument” of his or her master’s will. From Dio Chrysostom to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, philosophers perceived enslavement as a substitute for killing prisoners of war.  Instead of executing prisoners, a common practice from the Bible to Homer, it was more humane and useful to enslave them, especially as people moved from a life as pastoral shepherds to labor-intensive agricultural societies. The killer literally reduces a human into a non-being, removed from the flow of time.  The enslaver reduces a human being to a state of “social death, to use Orlando Patterson’s phrase, in which the captive is defined as an object, a thing, without history.  And if enslavement was originally modeled on the domestication of beasts of burden, as I suggest in a widely reprinted essay, and if humans had really been “domesticated” and genetically transformed into the kind of “natural slaves” Aristotle envisioned, they would have been incapable not only of reflection and analytical thought, but also of Niebuhrian sin.

Ironically, the Hebrew word ‘ebd, the Greek word doulos, and the Latin servus, carried no ethnic connotations and were sometimes used for “servant,” as well as slave.  Yet the West European words, slave, esclave (French), sklave (German), esclavo (Spanish) all derive from the Latin term for “Slav” (esclavus), that is, a Slavic person.  Beginning in the tenth century, a disproportionate number of slaves were taken from the Balkans, and then from the thirteenth to the late fifteenth centuries tens of thousands of so-called Slavic slaves from the Cuacasus and Black Sea regions were shipped to markets throughout the Mediterranean. Ironically, I have found that in Sicily notaries making records in Latin referred to the “sclavi negri,” literally “black Slavs,” from Africa, who by the 1490s outnumbered white slaves on the island.

I was extremely fortunate to publish the first edition of my book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, in 1966, a time when the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to stimulate a re-examination of the very foundations upon which New World societies and economies were built.  Still, most teachers of American History continued to regard “Negro Slavery” as a branch of local U.S. Southern history.  It was only in 1969 when Phillip Curtin’s first serious effort to compile an accurate census of the entire Atlantic slave trade that an increasing number of historians began to grasp the intercontinental breadth and importance of the subject.

In the 1960s, however, I really had no intention of devoting my entire scholarly career to the history of slavery.  I was employed at Cornell in 1955 to teach what was called “American Intellectual History” (along with the traditional American History Survey Course).  And in 1969 Yale also hired me as an American Intellectual Historian, who happened to write about slavery and antislavery as examples of largely intellectual and cultural change. . . .

As my own published collections of essays indicate, I’ve tried to maintain a variety of interests even as my own teaching and writing became increasingly devoted to the problem of slavery.  I have tried to do a great deal to reach a wider public in my attempt to convey some sense of the big picture regarding the place of New World slavery in creating not just America but the entire modern world.  Thanks to the aid of two very wealthy Yale alumni, Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, both of whom love history, I taught from 1994 to 2000 an intensive course for New York City high school and middle school teachers on the origins and significance of New World slavery.  Then in 1998 I founded and served as director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.  I stepped down from that position at the end of June 2004, but happily Gilder and Lehrman seem committed to the Center’s continuation.

My experience teaching the Gilder Lehrman seminars led me to create a new lecture course on slavery and abolition, for Yale undergraduates.  And that extremely rewarding experience then led me to convert the lectures into a new book. This was no easy task, as I have discovered over the past seven years.  But on April 1, 2006, Oxford University Press published this work, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, which received extremely laudatory reviews in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The London Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, and even a small paper for the homeless in Washington, D.C. Some knowledgeable readers have told me that Inhuman Bondage is better than my earlier books that won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, a National Book Award, a Bancroft Prize and other honors.  It is my first effort to reach a truly broad general audience, and I can only hope it will help disseminate more important knowledge about a somewhat repressed part of our heritage, the darker underside of the American dream.

*Excerpted from a talk originally given at Yale’s Koerner Center, October 13, 2004, also appearing in Reviews in American History, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March, 2009).

**David Brion Davis is a Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and 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.