An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of 2016: About David Walker…

At the 2012 A2MEND: African-American Male Education Network and Development conference in Los Angeles, I gave a speech to an audience of about one hundred young black men from California’s community colleges on David Walker as a figure of inspiration and enlightenment. I started by asking those who already knew of Walker to please raise their hands. Only one hand rose. I was startled at this. Having long been immersed in my doctoral research on Walker and other Black American literary figures, I’d figured that the Humanities majors would’ve probably come across Walker in their required readings. But that was not the case.

I looked across that crowd of curious bronze faces and knew I could only start where all stories start, at the beginning, with Walker’s free-born entry into the world of Wilmington, North Carolina, circa 1795 or 1796, according to Walker’s principal biographer, Peter Hinks. I would need to tell them that the child who would one day help to re-make America was son to an enslaved father and a free mother [1], and that no amount of research will reveal where or from whom Walker acquired his impressive education, though his hometown black church is the most likely culprit. As a young adult, he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, which boasted a sizable free black community. There, he became active in the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston[2], which was the locus of Denmark Vesey’s sabotaged slave insurrection of 1822.

Scholars think it likely that Walker was active in the insurrection attempt. Likely a fugitive revolutionary post-1822, Walker roamed the country widely, seeing South and North and human oppression in its many ghastly forms. That he ended up in Boston by 1825 would need special attention, for Boston was the abolitionist movement’s smoldering hot bed. In Boston, he went to work, setting up a used clothing store on Brattle Street, a major thoroughfare near Boston’s wharves. He married Eliza Butler, a daughter of well-to-do black Bostonians, and through her entered the circles of socially conscious blacks in the city.

Walker counted as his best friend Boston’s only licensed black ship outfitter, James Stewart. He became Boston correspondent for Freedom’s Journal, America’s first black-owned newspaper. Along the way, he faced criminal charges of selling stolen clothes as part of a theft ring and beat the case by jury verdict. And he fascinated a penniless idealistic Quaker, William Lloyd Garrison, who was inspired, as were many, by Walker’s abolition work.

That much, I figured, would be a good start.

“That he ended up in Boston by 1825 would need special attention, for Boston was the abolitionist movement’s smoldering hot bed.”

The struggle to publish was, in that time, the struggle to speak. Literary progress and political progress were deeply wedded. Judith Stein has noted the basis of black politics was Radical ideology, founded in abolitionist ferment and allied to capital “to produce material progress and enlightenment”[3]. For Walker, this meant turning over product and putting his money back into the streets on behalf of abolition and aid to the poor. Walker took advantage of his shop’s prime location near Boston’s wharf, a place which attracted disembarking seamen. These men would sell their “slop” (used work gear) to Walker, who would then re-sell it to seamen on outgoing voyages for consignment store prices. Walker promptly re-purposed his profits, putting everything he earned into the engines of abolition[4].

By the late 1820s, Walker came to live in a home near Boston’s African Meeting House, “a refuge for those in need.” Despite his business success, he was known to live with startling frugality, apparently bent on giving nearly all he earned in charity to the less fortunate[5], a quality that drew the admiration of many. In a December 1828 speech to the Massachusetts General Colored Association, he used his status to call for greater unity among the coloured people of Massachusetts. Walker is historically significant as one of our earliest Pan-Africanist thinkers, his speeches and writings consistently calling blacks to a much greater degree of solidarity in personal affairs, in business, in politics, and internationally.

Walker and his abolitionist associates were among the first to valorize the Haitian freedom struggle, marking Haitian independence by openly parading through the streets of Boston in celebration and solidarity with the slave rebels of that Caribbean nation. And in the Appeal, Walker repeatedly points to the freedom of Haiti as evidence of what subjugated peoples can actualize the world over. Importantly, Walker is a key figure in the study of revolution, for he was among the first to intellectually link the concept to race, calling for global black liberation, and to connect it across time and place: Colonized Africa. Haiti. The American South. Boston. From time immemorial to the present; the struggle, Walker proclaimed, was one.

Critically, the anti-slavery movement was passing out of what Hasan Crockett has called the “school” of pre-1830s reformers, “mostly men of means like John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, who viewed slaveholders as brethren in a sordid business,”[6] and toward red-blooded revolution, with Walker at the forefront.

Ironically, it was Walker supporter William Lloyd Garrison, now founder of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator who took exception to Walker’s increasing radicalism: where Walker advocated violent overthrow of slavery, Garrison preferred non-violence. Garrison declined to publish the incendiary pamphlet, David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. So Walker went underground, enshrining the objectives of the black liberation struggle through guerilla distribution.

David Walker could not be silenced any more from within the movement than from without. He wanted immediate freedom, education, and equality for all blacks held in bondage. One crucial aspect of this freedom call, which has largely and unfortunately gone ignored by Black Americans in the current day, is Walker’s entrepreneurship. Walker, instead of depending on the publishing industry apparatus, used his own money earned in business for the printing, binding and self-publishing of the Appeal. The pamphlet made the Boston abolition circuit, as would be expected. But when shipments of the manifesto were confiscated as far off as Savannah, Georgia, Wilmington, North Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina, it was clear that Walker had much deeper designs.

Walker smuggled insurrection through his shop, which, remember, was near Boston’s waterfront. Many black men worked on ships at the time and Walker’s best friend happened to be a successful independent ship outfitter of whaling and fishing vessels. His friend directed seamen to Walker’s shop, where Walker sewed the Appeal into the thick lining of their gear. And down the Atlantic seaboard the Appeal then spread. Each pamphlet placed in the hand of a bookish Negro dock-worker or read aloud to an illiterate congregation served to penetrate the slaveocracy.

“David Walker could not be silenced any more from within the movement than from without. He wanted immediate freedom, education, and equality for all blacks held in bondage.”

As 1829 passed into 1830, slaveholders and political forces throughout the South awakened to the fact of a black entrepreneur so skilled at the dispersal of his work as to disseminate it across the whole of the nation without license or corporate sponsorship or any formal system of transportation. Walker’s strategies simply bewildered a slave society that had dismissed blacks as hewers of wood and drawers of water. “His explicit display,” Elizabeth McHenry explains in Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies, “of the ability of a black man to read widely, reason lucidly, and write authoritatively defied claims of black intellectual inferiority and delivered a crippling blow to the prime justification for black enslavement and oppression”[7]. That Walker so deftly and covertly outsmarted Southern authorities put the lie to racism itself.

The local improvisations by which the Appeal circulated were independent of Walker or any other central coordinating figure. A few boxes would be packed in with other boxes in a shopkeeper’s den, a freedman taking the long way to work, a church service that lasts ten minutes more, or lets out earlier than usual, proliferated the manifesto’s presence throughout all reaches of the South.

Walker’s understanding of literacy as a collective endeavor was taken on not simply by individuals, but by a society that subverted the aims of slaveholders and brought blacks into united collective action. Walker was able to look beyond the individualism that property acquisition and capitalism typically promote and instead imagined a system of information-sharing, wherein individuals did not simply acquire knowledge for personal use and private gain.

He attacked avarice itself, finding this urge at the root of all predatory ideology, undergirding all systems of slavery, serfdom, and oppression: “…[T]hose who are actuated by sordid avarice only, overlook the evils, which will as sure as the Lord lives, follow after the good. In fact, they are so happy to keep in ignorance and degradation, and to receive the homage and the labour of the slaves, they forget that God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth… [and] will at one day appear fully in behalf of the oppressed”[8]. Walker argues that human exploitation cannot exist in the market or in human consciousness without a foundation of pure greed.

Walker re-imagined capitalism outside of individualism and wed entrepreneurship to intellectual socialism: He socialized his intellectual property, freely redistributing his pamphlet to those without the capital to acquire it, encouraging a system by which those without the money or literacy to read it themselves might still come upon the knowledge through a black collective.

The socialized text could not be contained. By late autumn of 1829 the dangerous pamphlet was found circulating among blacks in Savannah, Georgia. In North Carolina, the state’s Governor was informed by a magistrate of a seditious document “treating in most inflammatory terms of the condition of the slaves in the Southern states, exaggerating their sufferings, magnifying their physical strength and underrating the power of the whites…”[9]. Virginia Governor James Floyd intercepted an anonymous letter that asked a shopkeeper to distribute thirty copies and to await more still. Edward Smith, a supplier, was arrested, charged and convicted in Charleston for distributing it. But despite all efforts to stop its spread, the Appeal was in black and white hands all across the South by summertime.

Georgia and Louisiana lawmakers banned distribution of all anti-slavery literature and enacted laws against black literacy. By fall, North Carolina, Walker’s home state, where he had been educated and where the great Negro scholar John Chavis, likely the most learned black man of the early nineteenth century, had taught white and black alike, would follow suit outlawing black literacy. Georgia put a $10,000 bounty on Walker captured alive, a $1,000 bounty if dead. Back in Boston, Walker’s associates urged him to flee to Canada, but Walker had anticipated and answered not only their pleas but the panicked and punitive backlash against his manifesto in its very pages: “I write without the fear of man. I am writing for my God, and fear none but himself; they may put me to death if they choose.”

Just as Walker had argued in the Appeal that America was Black Americans’ country and they need not relinquish it to escape to Africa, Walker himself stood his ground in Boston. “This country is more ours than it is the whites—we have enriched it with our blood and tears. The greatest riches in all America have arisen from our blood and tears:—and will they drive us from our property and homes, which we have earned with our blood?”[10].

“This country is more ours than it is the whites—we have enriched it with our blood and tears. The greatest riches in all America have arisen from our blood and tears:—and will they drive us from our property and homes, which we have earned with our blood?”

On June 28th, 1830, David Walker died suddenly[11]. Swiftly thereafter, legislation came down in one Southern state, then the next, to ban in law what was supposed to have been banned in custom all along. It remained a mystery how a Negro such as Walker, born in the South, son to a slave, had gained such an education as to be conversant in the scriptures, world history and the nation’s founding documents. He was an anomaly of a Negro who had made all of America tremble and quake. None like him would ever exist again. Negroes would forever be banned from the book. They would not be taught to read or to write. Those found teaching Negroes these skills would be punished under the law.

While widely known amongst Black Studies and African-American literature scholars, David Walker’s life and work is virtually unknown amongst the wider public, including most Black Americans. And yet Walker is, with Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and John Brown, one of the four foremost figures in the abolition movement that eventually overthrew America’s slaveocracy. That history should not be dead and buried. Saidiya Hartmann, in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, asks “To what end does one conjure the ghost of slavery, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present?” Walker’s life, equal parts political thriller, entrepreneur’s guidebook, Black Power primer and prophetic fire, remains relevant to this day.

I teach David Walker’s work to my students every semester and it surprises them as much as my lecture in Los Angeles surprised the crowd there, as much as my mind was so naturally blown when I first encountered Walker. The Appeal speaks to us from under the shadow of a slave society, but it is no slave narrative. It is the liberation manifesto of a free man amidst a world enchained. The simple boldness of this fact, the singularity of the Appeal’s place in the history of black literature is enough to inspire many who have no idea that the ideals of Malcolm and the Panthers found first voice in an era infinitely more treacherous than our own.

David Walker was the most highly regarded abolitionist of his day. In his brief stay on Earth, he managed to master an array of skills relevant to abolition and uplift. Walker scholar Darryl Scriven reflects that “[he] was a stalwart man, a loyal American, a venture capitalist…a passionate evangelist, an aggressive intellectual, a sought-after journalist, a subversive theologian, an insightful cultural critic, a free-born black, a dedicated activist, [and] a formidable philosopher”[12].

Students often comment to me just how remarkably versatile Walker’s mind must have been. Walker was a self-made renaissance man. And, frankly, there is no reason, given the world that is at our technological fingertips today, that black men can’t achieve mastery across an equally wide range of pursuits. After all, David Walker did not spring full-grown from the hate-drenched American soil; he mastered himself first, through candlelit study and deep faith, and then he took on the worlds of business and journalism and abolition with increasing power at each stage of his development.

David Walker’s Appeal calls for an end to slavery, but it also calls us to a much greater self-mastery and self-development. Where the government and white liberals are found wanting, Walker demands black solidarity and power through collective action. Where America consigns black men to the “low employments”, Walker demands that black men employ themselves day and night in the pursuit of something greater than a simple salary.

Of education, Walker offers that “I would crawl on my hands and knees through muck and mire, to the feet of a learned man, where I would sit and humbly supplicate him to instill into me, that which neither devils nor tyrants could remove” because “for coloured people to acquire learning in this country, make[s] tyrants quake and tremble on their sandy foundation.”

Now, in this historical moment, of American upheaval, of real unrelenting protest and renewed black fire, we should remember Walker. We should read the totality of his message, take his testament to heart, and tell his story to the world.

[1] The free or enslaved status of the child came from the mother.
[2] This is the same church at which white supremacist Dylan Roof slaughtered nine people last year.
[3] Stein, Judith. “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought. Eds. Adolph Reed and Kenneth Warren. Paradigm Publishers. Boulder, CO. 2009.
[4] Davis, Taiyo W. “Early 19th Century Marginalization of David Walker and Nat Turner.” A Thesis Presented to the Graduate School of Clemson University. August 2010.
[5] Richardson, Marilyn. Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, IN. 1987.
[6] Crockett, Hasan. “The Incendiary Pamphlet: David Walker’s Appeal in Georgia.” Journal of Negro History 86, no. 3 (2001): 305-318.
[7] McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History pf African American Literary Societies. Duke University Press. Durham and London: 2002.
[8] Walker, David. David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Third and final edition, first published in 1830. Black Classic Press. Baltimore, MD. 1993.
[9] Letter Book of the Governors of North Carolina, 1829-1830. James F. McRae to Governor John Owen, August 7, 1830.
[10] Walker, David. David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Third and final edition, first published in 1830. Black Classic Press. Baltimore, MD. 1993.
[11] Walker’s abolitionist associates believed he’d been poisoned by pro-slavery enemies. Walker biographer Hinks, however, argues from extensive research that the opinion of most historians is that Walker fell victim to the cholera epidemic that swept through Boston in the summer of 1830 and that had claimed the life of Walker’s young daughter a week before his death (Hinks, 269-273).
[12] Scriven, Darryl. A Dealer of Old Clothes: Philosophical Conversations With David Walker. iUniverse, Inc. Lincoln, NE. 2004.

By Keenan Norris, Ph.D

Keenan Norris’s novel Brother and the Dancer is the winner of the 2012 James D. Houston Award and was nominated for the John Leonard Prize. Keenan serves as a guest editor for the Oxford African American Studies Center and is tenured faculty at Evergreen Valley College. He is also a lecturer at California State University, East Bay. He is also the editor of Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape.