The Problem of Slavery
12 Years a Slave and the history of David Brion Davis
By Scott Spillman
The 2013 best picture 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who was kidnapped in 1841, sold to Louisiana, held for twelve years as a slave, and finally freed in 1853. The film succeeds for many reasons, not the least of which is its uncompromising take on the slave South. It also helps, I think, that Northup’s story neatly encapsulates the whole history of New World slavery: the initial capture and sale; the anger and despair of losing freedom and family; the dehumanizing effects of slave society; the accommodations and adjustments necessary for survival; and the return to a problematic freedom. We see it all unfold through one man’s eyeshis pain, his compromises, and, finally, his relief upon returning home to his family.
It’s important that Northup starts and ends the movie as a free man. Logically, this shouldn’t make much of a difference in how we perceive the horrors of slavery. If slavery is truly evil, it shouldn’t matter whether a person is born into slavery or enslaved later in life; in either case, a free and equal human being has been reduced to a piece of property, like an ox. This is precisely why the sight of a free black man living happily with his family served as the strongest possible rebuke to any racial justification of slavery. In the film, the early scenes of Northup working and taking care of his family in the North exacerbate the viewer’s sense of the injustice and brutality of what follows. Though compelled to work as a slave, he never becomes a slave to his desires, challenging by his restraint and silence the dehumanizing gaze of his successive masters.
As 12 Years a Slave repeatedly shows, the idea that black slaves were something less than humanalthough appealing for obvious reasons to masterswas subject to an inevitable tension, first at the abstract level of argument and then, more fatally, at the concrete level of daily life. Indeed the movie’s signal achievement is to bring out the various consequences of this tension, perhaps most powerfully in the relationship between the white master Edwin Epps and his slave girl Patsey. Epps, who repeatedly refers to his slaves as his “property” and compares them to baboons, nevertheless warns his jealous wife that he would sooner send her home than lose Patsey. Later, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Epps is himself driven into a jealous rage by his suspicion that Patsey has escaped his control and cheated on him with a neighbor. Unable to whip Patsey himself, he compels Northup to do it. As Northup draws blood, Epps looks on with a blend of satisfaction, hatred and horror utterly belying his claim that Patsey means no more to him than a ball of yarn or a beast of prey.
For the historian David Brion Davis, this dynamic describes the basic “problem” of slavery. Ideally, as Aristotle noted long ago, a slave is like a tool or a domestic animalsomething the master owns and over which he has complete control. Yet such a “natural slave” has never existed; and no system of slavery has ever successfully dehumanized its slaves to the point where they are indistinguishable from mere property. This inherent contradiction led, according to Davis, not only to complicated relationships between masters and their slaves, but to organized opposition, for which “the essential issue was how to recognize and establish the full and complete humanity of a ‘dehumanized people.’ ”
When and how the contradiction of treating a person as property became enough of a moral issue that people would demand an end to slavery is the question that has occupied the bulk of Davis’s career, especially in the three long works culminating with The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, completed this year at the age of 86. Reviewing that final volume for the Nation, the historian Eric Foner described the Problem of Slavery trilogy as one of the “towering achievements of historical scholarship of the past half-century,” while in the New York Review of Books Drew Gilpin Faust credited Davis’s practice of “embedding ideas in social and political action” with “shap[ing] scholars and scholarship for decades to come.” Yet it is possible that even this high praise undervalues the scope and power of Davis’s contribution. Although the latest volume is belated and in many ways inferior to the previous two, it demonstrates, particularly in its focus on “dehumanization,” what distinguishes Davis not just as a historian but as a thinker with relevance far beyond his field. Is slavery a sin? What exactly constitutes our “full and complete humanity”? Because he considers such questions not just historically but also philosophically, Davis’s research opens out, like 12 Years a Slave, into broader topics such as freedom, forgiveness, the possibility of transcendence. Slavery, Davis saw, was a profoundly human problem, and therefore to reckon with slavery would mean to reckon with human naturethat is, to reckon with the kind of being that was simultaneously capable of perpetrating such a system and also of coming to see the need to dismantle it.
The NOMA Cookbook (excerpt)
By Jacob Mikanowski
It’s difficult and perhaps irresponsible to critique the food of a restaurant where I have never eaten, and the recipes in a cookbook I can’t cook from (in the interest of service journalism I was going to try to make something from Noma Recipes, but without access to Mahogany clams, desiccated scallops or Reindeer blood, I had to give up). But I do think it’s possible to ask some questions about the meaning of Redzepi’s food, especially since his Journal goes so far into illuminating the thought processes behind his creativity.
The Journal chronicles a year in the life of Noma. It’s a constant struggle to make new dishes, hemmed in by two constraints each has to be both Nordic and seasonal. These constraints impose a series of daunting challenges for the chefs, chief among them fact that not much really grows in Denmark in winter, and what does hasn’t typically been considered fit material for fine dining. In response, Redzepi’s team devises a series of inspired workarounds. They find ways to maximize the flavor and longevity of their produce through drying and pickling, discovering such unexpected ingredients as juniper-beech powder and picked gooseberries. They also begin a whole program of “trash cooking” in which they devise dishes out of fish scales and potato peels.
Redzepi presents cooking at Noma as a process of continual innovation and collaboration. Actually, it’s sort of intoxicating the thought of showing up every day to think about the weather and the seasons, looking for inspiration in the crates of forest mushrooms and live shrimp gathered that morning by bearded fishermen. On Saturday nights, they have jam sessions where the whole staff gets to come up with dishes of their own, like kale ice cream or cucumber dessert (which Redzepi immediately puts on the menu). Not to mention the fact that he almost bankrupts the restaurant, spending all his profits on remodeling the staff kitchen. All in all, Noma seems like a dream place to work open, interesting, progressive with the kind of internal culture many tech companies dream of fostering..
As much as Redzepi and his staff look for inspiration in the world of local wild produce and seasonal agriculture, what Noma doesn’t feature much of is actual Scandinavian cooking. Redzepi twice tries to make versions of dishes he remembers from childhood his Macedonian grandmother’s stuffed grape leaves and classic Danish dish of game with cream sauce and both times faces deep skepticism from his staff, who warn him: “Are you sure you want to work on this, chef? It will never be as good as you remember.”
In its refusal of culture in preference to nature, Redzepi’s cooking reminds me not so much of anything Nordic, but of Teutonic philosophy. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger describes a pair of old peasant shoes vibrating with “the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field.” What Redzepi is creating at Noma is an ontological cuisine, made with the promise of a direct communion with the world of plants and trees. One of the most famous dishes at Noma is called Fjord Shrimp with Brown Butter. In it, several live shrimp are served live in glass jars full of ice. The diners pluck them out, dip them in butter and eat them alive. Heidegger wrote that “the essence of life is observable only through destructive observation.” This resonates. Eating Redzepi’s shrimp (or his citrusy live ants) offers more than a flavor or an experience: it offers contact with animality itself. Redzepi admits as much, writing that the butter is “really just for the timid, who want to cover the insect-like eyes and head with a quick nervous dunk” the real point is the encounter, “predator against prey.”