David Walker’s Appeal and a Call for Unity
David Walker’s Appeal was published in 1829. This fiery pamphlet violently and explicitly condemned whites for the institution of chattel slavery. Walker’s appeal, which called for slaves to rebel against their masters on the basis of reclaiming their humanity and on the principles of Christianity, resonated strongly with free and enslaved blacksthroughout the country. The Appeal dispersed terror throughout the white community as it inspired enslaved blacks to fight for their freedom—regardless of the consequences. Armed with the raw emotion and call for unity from the Appeal, enslaved blacks were willing to put their lives on the line to fight for their freedom. Walker’s central theme was a call for unity amongst slaves and the immediate need to rebel against their masters. In order to communicate his central theme, Walker boldly attacked the fundamental values of the United States society by revealing the hypocrisy of having the institution of Chattel Slavery in a self-proclaimed republic and “Land Of The Free.” Furthermore, Walker challenged developing views mostly associated with Scientific Racism and the idea that religion justified slavery.
David Walker was born on September 27, 1785 in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina to a free mother and enslaved father. As a young adult he moved to Charleston, a mecca for upwardly mobile free Blacks, where he was affiliated with a strong African Methodist Episcopal Church community of activists. Walker settled in Boston in the 1820s and became active in civic associations such as Prince Hall Freemasonry, the Massachusetts General Colored Association, and Rev. Samuel Snowden’s Methodist church. Walker’s community activist involvements fostered within him the radical politics of abolitionism.
Discussion of abolition was always a radical, dangerous, and illegal conversation during the time of chattel slavery. Chattel slavery was the economic system that allowed the United States to rapidly accumulate wealth and positioned whites in positions of immense power and privilege. When David Walker published his Appeal in 1829 his document entered a political landscape that was controlled by legal anti-black racist documents such as The Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. All of these documents systematically deemed blacks as un-human, excluded blacks from blacks from political protection, and condoned chattel slavery.
The Declaration of Independence historical opening lines read “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This opening statement did not include black people however it excluded them under the reasoning that all “men” were not human. As the three-fifths compromise of the United States Constitution eventually clarified, black people were not recognized as human beings and therefore were not entitled to the rights, privileges, and protection of the law. Furthermore, chattel slavery was a legal institution under these sets of beliefs.
Another one of the most influential documents of the time was Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia of 1781. Although Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, he considered himself to be an opponent of slavery. Within the Notes document Thomas Jefferson compared blacks to whites and concluded that black people were inferior to whites on multiple levels. Jefferson believed that emancipation for blacks would entail the removal of blacks from the United States based on the hostility that blacks would harbor for whites. By stating that blacks were inferior to whites, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia ultimately further entrenched the practice of the dehumanization of black people.
It is critical to understand the aforementioned documents when considering the impact of David Walker’s Appeal. Walker’s Appeal boldly challenged these documents and directly addressed the writers of these documents. While the specific challenges that Walker used to deconstruct the predominant ideas surrounding black people and slavery were not new, it was the cohesive manner in which he brought them together and his radical call for revolt against the white community that made the Appeal important. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia drew on the ideas of liberty and justifications for chattel slavery. Walker challenges each of these ideas in order to further his call for immediate uprising against the slave holding white community.
In order to support his call for slaves to unify and revolt against their masters Walker challenged the ideas of these political documents. One of the main arguments that Walker challenged was the religious rhetoric found in both the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Walker asserted that God and religion actually discouraged all forms of slavery. Walker states, “Are we MEN!! — I ask you, my brethren I are we MEN? Did our Creator make us to be slaves to dust and ashes like ourselves? Are they not dying worms as well as we? Have they not to make their appearance before the tribunal of Heaven, to answer for the deeds done in the body, as well as we? Have we any other Master but Jesus Christ alone? Is he not their Master as well as ours? — What right then, have we to obey and call any other Master, but Himself?” In this excerpt Walker asserts that God is the lone master to which all humankind must submit. On these grounds Walker rejects the idea that black people must obey a white human master. Walker proclaims that the only master black people have are God himself and not the white society. Furthermore, he brings light to the fact that the white community will also have to answer to God for their acts of violence.
Another major claim in the founding documents that Walker disputes is the assertion that black people are not human. Walker disputes this idea directly by stating “I call upon the very tyrant himself, to show me a page of history, either sacred or profane, on which a verse can be found, which maintains, that the Egyptians heaped the insupportable insult upon the children of Israel, by telling them that they were not of the human family. Can the whites deny this charge? Have they not, after having reduced us to the deplorable condition of slaves under their feet, held us up as descending originally from the tribes of Monkeys or Orang-Outangs?” In this passage Walkers appeals to religion and history by challenging the white society to prove in history where man or God has found another person to not be a member of the human family. Furthermore, Walker reveals that the idea that black people were from a different biological origin (i.e. descendants of “monkeys” or “orangutans”) were ill-founded and absurd by juxtaposing them next to a biblical history where all people, free and enslaved, were recognized as humans.
Not only did Walker challenge scientific racism and the appropriation of religion to justify slavery, he also confronted Thomas Jefferson by name. Walker asserts that “Mr. Jefferson said, ‘when a master was murdered, all his slaves in the same house, or within hearing, were condemned to death.’ — Here let me ask Mr. Jefferson, (but he is gone to answer at the bar of God, for the deeds done in his body while living,) I therefore ask the whole American people, had I not rather die, or be put to death, than to be a slave to any tyrant, who takes not only my own, but my wife and children’s lives by the inches? Yea, would I meet death with avidity far! far!! in preference to such servile submission to the murderous hands of tyrants.” In this passage Walker challenges the reasoning of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia to reinforce his overarching theme of a call to action. He uses contrite language to reveal the grotesque acts of violence that the white society had inflicted on the black body and states that he would rather die fighting for freedom than acquiesce to chattel slavery. Walker’s statements ignited fear throughout the white community and unified blacks throughout the country.
Watch from beginning until 0:50
As the film discusses, the effects of the Appeal were seen right away. On August 21, 1831—just 2 years after Walker’s Appeal was put into circulation, slave Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in Virginia. Turner stated that he had received that he had received a message from God that told him to kill his masters as a form of revolt. In February 1831, Turner told 4 slaves who he trusted about this prophesy and asked them to join with him in the rebellion.
The rebellion began on the night of August 21, 1981 with 6 men. These men broke into Turner’s master’s house and killed the entire family as they slept. Turner’s force eventually consisted of about 40 slaves. The rebellion resulted in the death of 56 whites. Turner was eventually captured and sentenced to execution; he was hanged and skinned on November 11, 1831.
Walker’s appeal laid the foundation for Turner’s rebellion and created a culture of resistance in an unprecedented way amongst slaves. Walker’s appeal was cited as a main reason for Turner’s rebellion; this correlation created many laws to prevent blacks from spreading the message of revolt and rebellion. Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina passed legislation that made it illegal to teach enslaved and free blacks from learning to read and write. Furthermore, the south limited civil liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of speech as a result of David Walker’s Appeal. It was the goal of the government to prevent future rebellions, such as Nat Turner’s rebellion, from being created out of Walker’s appeal. After seeing the power of David Walker’s appeal, these laws were created to prevent future radical statements of abolition and insurrection from reaching enslaved blacks.
David Walker’s Appeal was a radical and powerful document because he was able to summarize the antebellum culture into one work as a condemnation of chattel slavery and call for slaves to unite and revolt against their white masters. Although the black resistant spirit was present before the Appeal, the publication and dispersal of the document functioned as a mass rallying point for resistance amongst the enslaved and free blacks. Walker uses real emotion in his writing to show that slavery is not merely conceptual institution however it was a brutal construct that was physically and psychologically fatal. His use of direct language made the document accessible to a mass audience; the document spoke to blacks of all education levels. Furthermore, unlike other activist before him, he was not afraid to claim ownership of his writing; many whites had never heard a black man speak as he spoke. This fearlessness terrified the white society and put Walker’s life in danger.
While Walker’s fearlessness made him a wanted man, it inspired Nat Turner and other enslaved blacks to also risk their lives by revolting against their masters and fighting for their freedom. David Walker’s Appeal was a call for unity and a declaration of war against the slaveholding white nation. In addition, he supported his declaration of war against the enslavement of blacks by deconstructing the documents that were woven into the foundation of society. David Walker’s Appeal fostered an unprecedented unity among slaves and free blacks. Although slaves had little resources they were willing to take up whatever arms they could to fight for their freedom. Walker’s words were the fuel that allowed blacks to understand that complacency was not an option; there had to be a collective, immediate, and direct rebellion. Walker sent the resounding message that the only option was freedom. Although Walker’s words of freedom led to his demise they created a movement that lasted long after he passed. It is clear that Walker understood the sacrifice that would come with a call for unity and collective rebellion when he stated these words: “I count my life not dear unto me, but I am ready to be offered at any moment, For what is the use of living, when in fact I am dead.”
SOS by Amiri Baraka
Calling black people
Calling all black people, man woman child
Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in
Black People, come in, wherever you are, urgent, calling
You, calling all black people
Calling all black people, come in, black people, come
The above poem by Amiri Baraka is a direct and explicit call to action amongst the black community. Like David Walker’s Appeal, this poem acts as a rallying point for black people. As a poem, Baraka’s statement easily reaches many people. It is important to understand the power in David Walker’s Appeal being a written document. As a written document The Appeal was sewn into the inner jackets of blacks and secretly transported throughout the black community; The Appeal was essentially a type of “redemption song” during the time of chattel slavery. The Appeal was powerful because of its inspiring language, call to action, and ability to be dispersed throughout the slave community.
Final Except from David Walker’s Appeal
“See your Declaration Americans! ! ! Do you understand your own language? Hear your languages, proclaimed to the world, July 4th, 1776 — “We hold these truths to be self evident — that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL! ! that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! !” Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us — men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation! ! ! ! ! !” pg. 6
Works Cited & Further Readings
Africans In America: America’s Journey Through Slavery. DVD.
“Africans in America.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/home.html>.
“Africans in America/Part 4/David Walker’s Appeal.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2931t.html>.
“The Declaration of Independence.” Ushistory.org. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/>.
“On “SOS”” Welcome to English « Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/baraka/sos.htm>.
Hinks, Peter P. To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1997. Print.