Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

Black and White Voices in an Early African-American Colonization Narrative: Problems of Genre and Emergence

One of the more remarkable documents from the early national period of American history was an 1826 "Memorial of the Free People of Colour to the Citizens of Baltimore," presenting the hope of a group of African Americans from that city to emigrate from the United States to Liberia, on the west coast of Africa. The memorial was not so remarkable because of the desire it expressed; it was one of many emigrationist documents dating as far back as 1773, when a group of Massachusetts slaves petitioned the colonial legislature for funds to resettle in Africa. Similar interests had received significant expression in New England during the 1780s and in the second decade of the nineteenth century, when African-American sea captain Paul Cuffe took a party of settlers to Sierra Leone, hoping to create trade relations involving African-American businessmen and African Americans on the African coast.1

What made the 1826 memorial remarkable was its peculiar provenance under the auspices of the "American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour of the United States," a group founded in 1816 and led by influential white Americans, rather than by African Americans themselves. Including heavy repre­ sentation from the slaveholding states of the South, these white champions of African-American emigration acted primarily on the view that there was an essential incompatibility between white people and black and, thus, that the removal of black people--especially free black people--was imperative for the well-being of American society, and, in the view of more than a few, the security of slavery, as well.2

As a product of the American Colonization Society's efforts, the memorial occupied a complex place within the discussion of colonization. Among African Americans, the founding of the Society gave colonization new meaning. Prior to 1816, when colonizationist leadership was provided by African Americans themselves, the colonizationist enterprise, though showing meager results, evoked widespread interest and gained support from some of the most influential African- American leaders. Given the motivations behind the Colonization Society, how­ ever, many African Americans, including previous supporters, reacted with an opposition to colonization that continued to build through the decade of the 1820s. The memorial was intended to counter that opposition by providing a demonstration of African-American support. It was also intended to encourage increased white financial assistance, and to gain recruits for Liberia.

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