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

Article excerpt

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. …