David Walker, Nature's Nation, and Early African-American Separatism

By Finseth, Ian | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

David Walker, Nature's Nation, and Early African-American Separatism


Finseth, Ian, The Mississippi Quarterly


SINCE ITS APPEARANCE IN 1829, David Walker's incendiary Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World has often been read as a text sui generis--a document so closely identified with its author's individual mind and unusual circumstances that it stands somehow apart from the main currents of antebellum antislavery discourse. Certainly, as recognized both by Walker's contemporaries and by modern scholars, David Walker's Appeal is an extraordinary piece of work deserving more than ordinary attention. Yet equally certain is the fact that Walker could not have produced his pamphlet outside of the rich social and discursive world in which he lived and moved. Here I hope to elucidate the culturally embedded rhetorical strategies of the Appeal, specifically as they draw upon intertwined vocabularies of natural and national identity, and to locate these strategies within a broader context of Northern African-American intellectual and political ferment. The language of "nature," I believe, deeply informed both early African-American writing and the Appeal; in each case, but in Walker's text most dramatically, it provided powerful rhetorical energy for the articulation of nationalist or separatist ideas, yet it also revealed the practical and theoretical horizons of such ideas.

The Appeal is a scorching denunciation of slavery and hypocrisy; its anger, indeed, is the quality that has always evoked the strongest responses, full across the spectrum of readerly sympathies. In its fiercely elenctic relation to the major texts and personages of white America, the document represents a milestone in African-American literature, a precedent of textual militancy. Refuting Jefferson's comments on race in Notes on the State of Virginia, satirizing the Constitution, invoking the spirit of Thomas Paine, arguing with Henry Clay, and quoting the Declaration of Independence at length, David Walker talks back as few others had done, and none in print. The text itself is a syllogism, born of the propositions of theoretical liberty and actual tyranny. Yet Walker also levels sharp criticisms against what he sees as black weakness in the face of oppression, weakness tantamount to complicity. He therefore calls for blacks to unite and demands that they work for their own liberation; as indicated by the title, Walker takes a global view of the plight of African-descended peoples, a view that positions him as a black nationalist as well as a militant. Walker managed to distribute his document clandestinely, relying on sympathetic or unwitting sailors traveling from Boston to get it into circulation among the Southern black population. (1) Intended as a spark to fire the tinder of black consciousness, the Appeal in more visible fashion ignited white paranoia about servile insurrection and provoked repressive measures across the South.

What many Southerners and Northerners alike saw as the cry of a devil or of a madman in fact represented an expression of deeper trends within antislavery theory and discourse. Most broadly, David Walker's call-to-arms took shape as part of a larger pattern of nationalist and anti-nationalist rhetoric by which antislavery writers positioned their arguments within and against the master narrative of American progress. The characteristic double impulse of this rhetoric involved the simultaneity of oppositional passions and conservative fidelities. Without significant exception, antislavery writers assented, in varying degrees, to the ideals embodied in the nation's founding documents. But the presence of slavery, and more importantly, the problem of what to do if and when slavery was abolished or overthrown, stimulated various kinds of radical thinking about the future of the nation and about the very concept of "nation" itself. (2) At times these writers imagined or advocated the separation of North from South, or of African Americans from European Americans. While undoubtedly sincere, however, antislavery separatism remained, in my view, essentially theoretical.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

David Walker, Nature's Nation, and Early African-American Separatism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?