Walker’s Appeal, 1829 second edition frontispiece
Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, first published in 1829/1830, appeals, as it states, to “the colored citizens of the world,” though its main address, “very expressly,” is to the colored citizens of the United States:
I promise … to demonstrate … that we (coloured people of these United States of America) are the most wretched, degraded and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began, and that the white Americans having reduced us to the wretched state of slavery, treat us in that condition … cruelly.
The Appeal intentionally engages a wide audience, and its aim is to show how the USA, by continuing to countenance slavery, is poisoning human relations worldwide.
…the Americans of the United States … have hitherto passed … for the most enlightened, humane, charitable, and merciful people upon earth, when at the same time they treat us, the (coloured people) secretly more cruel and unmerciful than any other nation upon earth.
African Americans could not fail to adopt such a global perspective, not least because African colonization (that is to say, the idea that free African Americans should ‘return’ to Africa) was gaining prominence at this time. Round about the middle of the 1820s this idea reached maximum prominence. Yet, as the 1820s ended, colonization fell into disrepute, not least because of the racist sentiments voiced by colonization’s white American sponsors, and the way they insisted on controlling the African Colonization Society (the ACS). As a consequence, white supporters of abolition, such as William Lloyd Garrison, the famous campaigner for the abolition of slavery, became anxious about continuing to supporting the ACS: “the more scrupulously I examine its pretensions, the stronger is my conviction of its sinfulness.” Many leaders of African Americans had been for a while drawn to the idea, but most also quickly recoiled.
For Walker, a free black born in the South but moving North in 1825, colonization was anathema, because it would prevent free blacks, who were usually better educated than slaves, helping them (almost all slaves were deliberately kept in ignorance and illiteracy to keep them docile). His desire to defeat it led him to join the first black journal, becoming Boston Agent for John Wusswurm’s and Samuel Cornish’s Freedom’s Journal, in 1827.
Relatedly, Walker also became a leading member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, founded in 1828. The MGCA offered a unique platform for public commitment to slavery’s abolition. An address by Walker to the MGCA in 1828 declared it was African Americans’ “duty” as “to hasten our emancipation,” foreshadowing his Appeal’s radicalism.
Walker’s open advocacy of abolition alarmed Southern white supporters of slavery. The Appeal so disturbed the Mayor of Savannah and the Governors of Virginia and Georgia they wrote to the Mayor of Boston in 1830 seeking to persuade him to suppress the pamphlet. Savannah’s Mayor claimed that Walker’s Appeal held “dangerous consequences to the peace and even the lives of the people of the South.” He could not have been reassured by the mayor of Boston’s reply, which detailed how Walker was intent upon “circulat[ing] his pamphlets by mail at his own expense.” Southern proslavery advocates also viewed Walker’s expectation that his words would be read out loud with consternation. Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina became sufficiently alarmed to pass laws preventing African Americans becoming literate or gaining access to antislavery literature.
Such extreme anxiety stems in part from the fervid legacy of Denmark Vesey’s 1822 conspiracy to rebel. Walker had probably been familiar with and perhaps involved in Vesey’s Charleston plotting before he left the South. His departure just after Vesey’s 1822 trial suggests he was a co-conspirator. Walker’s explanation for his departure suggests he saw himself in considerable danger: “If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long.” Walker’s contemporary statement of militant objectives aligns him with Vesey: “As true as God reigns, I will be avenged for the sorrow which my people have suffered.”
In all this, what stands out is Walker’s radicalism. Symptomatically, the Quaker Benjamin Lundy, even though he was a prominent opponent of slavery, was highly alarmed by Walker’s Appeal: “A more bold, daring, inflammatory publication perhaps never issued from the press, in any country. I can do no less than set the broadest seal of condemnation upon it” wrote Lundy in 1830.
Anti-Slavery Token. “Am I Not A Man And A Brother,” c. 1795. Lettered Edge. Copper. English.
Clearly a reason for this was its instruction that blacks get off their knees. Where the widely-reproduced 1787 seal of the British Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, “Am I Not a Man and Brother” (see illustration above), depicts a chained slave, kneeling, as if begging for his freedom, Walker did not offer such submissiveness: the frontispiece to Walker’s second edition shows a colored person stepping up to a mountain-top, reaching upwards (see illustration at top of page). Walker urged colored people to rise up.
As a consequence of such radicalism, Walker’s Appeal proved inspirational. As one African American, the Reverend Amos Beman observed, he and his companions would gather “to read and re-read until Walker’s words were stamped in letters of fire upon our soul.” Walker wanted these “letters of fire” to be heard widely. A letter Walker wrote in 1829 urges that if people cannot afford his pamphlet it should be given away: “if there are any who, cannot pay … give them Books for nothing” Oral delivery was essential to the Appeal’s dissemination strategy. Walker wanted his pamphlet not only to be read but also to be read out loud, and not just in the United States, but across the globe: “It is expected that all coloured men, women and children, of every nation, language and tongue, will try to procure a copy of this Appeal and read it, or get some one to read it to them, for it is designed more particularly for them”. The pamphlet carefully marks out how it should be read:
“I am awfully afraid that pride, prejudice, avarice and blood, will, before long prove the final ruin of this … land of liberty!!!! … Oh Americans! Americans!! I warn you in the name of the Lord … to repent and reform, or you are ruined!!!”.
Notice how these words are aimed at white Americans (Walker commonly refers to white Americans as “Americans”), creating even more Southern alarm concerning black militancy, already widespread because of recent slave rebellions and conspiracies, like Vesey’s.
Such alarm probably even led pro-slavery whites to plot Walker’s death. Indeed, Walker forecast this: “I do not only expect to be held up to the public as … disturber of the public peace … [but also to be] put in prison or to death”. Soon after he wrote these words he was indeed dead. Whilst he may have died of consumption, assassination cannot be ruled out: supporting this suggestion is the allegation in The Liberator of 22 January 1831 that $3000 had been offered for his death.
Why all this alarm and panic?
The Appeal’s central burden is that “coloured citizens of the world” should rise up and take whatever steps were needed to abolish slavery and oppose white racism. In doing this, it interlaces prophetic warnings of divine apocalypse with militant political calls for direct action. This was the source of Walker’s threat to whites: he was an openly militant abolitionist. He argues that if whites were not prepared to emancipate blacks, then the latter should secure their own release. He urges African Americans to regard liberty as a God-given right to be seized.
He also urges violent resistance to white oppression: “As true as the sun ever shone … my colour will root some of them out of the very face of the earth … one good black man can put to death six white men … kill or be killed” (III:30). Walker’s Appeal, as it calls for such action, is also prophetic to its very core. It stresses God’s call for justice and righteousness and His concern for enslaved blacks and their plight. These running themes are shaped by the rhetorical arguments of the Old Testament prophets. The millenarian tone of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah and Malachi are formative on how Walker pitches his argument.
Amos 4:12-24: “For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins; … they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right … But let judgment run down, as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream”.
Malachi 3: 9-10: “ye have not kept my ways, but been partial in the law./ … hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother …?”
Walker’s debts to such prophetic rhetoric invokes a sense of God’s displeasure with slavery, seen by Walker as an abomination before the Lord. He promises a black resurrection—this being, precisely, the source of white fears. In this way, many passages in the Appeal stand as a prediction of racial violence: “Oh Americans, let me tell you, in the name of the Lord, it will be good for you, if you listen to the voice of the Holy Ghost, but if you do not, you are ruined”.
The Appeal also interlaces such calls with invocations of the natural rights discourse of the western Enlightenment. Walker calls for both people of color and whites to observe key ethical values: justice, righteousness, freedom and dignity. An abysmal failure by whites to observe these human rights legitimizes action by blacks to take control of their lives. Such an argument recurrently occurs. On the frontispiece of second edition, the colored person reaching up stretches for a scroll bearing the words LIBERTAS and JUSTITIA (see illustration). Walker’s appeal to human rights alongside assertions of divine will seeks to counter proslavery whites’ blend of distorted biblical readings (specifically Genesis’ account of the sons of Ham) and quasi-scientific allegations that blacks were “descending originally from the tribes of Monkeys or Orang-Outangs”: “O! My God! I appeal to every man of feeling—is this not insupportable?” exclaims Walker (III:12). Walker’s mention of “Orang-Outangs” is a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s 1782 Notes on the State of Virginia, which infamously suggests that the “Oranootan” possesses a “preference” – and by this Jefferson intimates, obscenely, a sexual preference – for “the black woman over his own species.” Walker’s refutations of Jefferson’s racism constitute the key example of his Appeal’s concern to develop intellectual counter-arguments to slippery white racist arguments. So Walker first identifies Jefferson’s writings as those of a hugely influential opponent, whose words legitimated contemporary white attacks on colored people’s capacities, by endorsing the idea that “Nature” is a root cause of black enslavement: “Nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head.” Wal
Next, and with growing resolve in successive editions, Walker’s Appeal increasingly concentrated on countering Jefferson’s and others’ fast-developing “scientific” racism (racism drawing on a quasi-scientific discourse to support its bigotry). So Walker attacks Jefferson’s offensive suggestion that “different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.” Relatedly, Walker exposes how whites read the Declaration of Independence selectively, ignoring its calls for people to be free and its assertion they have human rights: “Compare your own language … extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murder”
As such, Walker’s Appeal is part of, but also a crucial landmark in, a long tradition of African and colored intellectuals’ challenges to white authority. Necessarily, colored people’s writing is frequently forced on the defensive by pre-emptive white attacks and is compelled to respond to their misrepresentations. From the first, black history has had to be at its very core an attempt to correct the white record.
What is impressive about Walker is his intellectual rigor: he recognizes the risk of race apocalypse. To seek to resist this, Walker constantly stresses common humanity (“man” or “men” occurs over 200 times in his Appeal): “Are we Men!!—I ask you, O my brethren! Are we MEN?” The whole pamphlet on one level stands as a demonstration of African Americans’ humanity, by offering emotions (anger, hate, love) alongside argument and reason. By demonstrating that a colored person both experiences human emotions and exercises reason, Walker establishes that African Americans self-evidently possess them, despitethe rise of scientific racism’s propaganda.
This is one way of accounting for why Walker keeps on anxiously swerving off from his direct calls for revolt: the words “Oh Americans! Americans!! I warn you in the name of the Lord … to repent and reform, or you are ruined!!!” are also a transnational warning, displaying a globalized consciousness, noting how the dire American situation impacts on global relations.
Such a repositioning is strategic: Walker wants to highlight the geo-political dimensions of slavery and racism, and the rise of worldwide resistance, as opponents of slavery increasingly came to believe that only total emancipation would suffice.
Walker clearly envisions global consequences if emancipation does not come about:
The whites … will curse the day they ever saw us. As true as the sun ever shone in its meridian splendor, my colour will root some of them out of the very face of the earth. They shall have enough of making slaves of, and butchering, and murdering us in the manner which they have …though I should like to see the whites repent.
Such white repentance has very far from fully happened, and, globally, we are still faced with racism’s persistence and slavery’s legacies. What seems odd to me is how rarely he is now mentioned. Let us turn back to David Walker, and learn from his still relevant insights and warnings.
Dick Ellis, Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Birmingham, UK