David Walker (abolitionist) - Walker, The Public Intellectual

Walker, The Public Intellectual

Walker was influenced by the strategies of resistance forged by individual rebels, maroon communities of runaway slaves, independent black church movement leaders, and more.

As a fervent Protestant, he was well-used to ‘making a way out of no-way’. His reading of the Bible led to his judgment that no previous system of slavery in history was as oppressive as that experienced in America.

Walker suggested that blacks had more right to the nation than those who had oppressed them. "America," Walker argued, "is more our country, than it is the whites--we have enriched it with our blood and tears."

In the United States dark skin was deemed by whites a signal of inferiority and non-humanity. He challenged critics to show him “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.”

Walker asserted that whites did not deserve adulation for their willingness to free some slaves. As historian Peter Hinks has explained, Walker argued that “hites gave nothing to blacks upon manumission except the right to exercise the liberty they had immorally prevented them from so doing in the past. They were not giving blacks a gift but rather returning what they had stolen from them and God. To pay respect to whites as the source of freedom was thus to blaspheme God by denying that he was the source of all virtues and the only one with whom one was justified in having a relationship of obligation and debt.”

Although individuals and groups had emerged with differing degrees of commitment to equal rights for black men and women by the 1820s and 30s, no national anti-slavery movement existed when the Appeal was published. As historian Herbert Aptheker writes, “o be an Abolitionist was not for the faint-hearted. The slaveholders represented for the first half of the nineteenth century the most closely knit and most important single economic unit in the nation, their millions of bondsmen and millions of acres of land comprising an investment of billions of dollars. This economic might had its counterpart in political power, given its possessors dominance within the nation and predominance within the South.” Walker’s militancy played a pivotal role in solidifying a white abolitionist movement that, in the main, found Walker too strident in his evangelical approach, yet prescient in his attack on chattel slavery.

The Appeal heightens our understanding of the pernicious effects of both slavery and the subservience of and discrimination against free blacks, who threatened the existing racial order by confounding the notion that to be black was to be enslaved. Those outside of slavery were said to need special regulation “because they could not be relied on to regulate themselves and because they might overstep the boundaries society had placed around them.”

David Walker has often been regarded as an abolitionist with Black Nationalist views, in large measure because Walker envisioned a future for black Americans that included self-rule. As he wrote in the Appeal, “Our sufferings will come to an end, in spite of all the Americans this side of eternity. Then we will want all the learning and talents, and perhaps more, to govern ourselves.”

Scholars have often remarked upon the connection between Walker's Appeal and black nationalism. In his 1972 study of The Ideological Origins of Black Nationalism, historian Sterling Stuckey suggested that Walker's Appeal "would become an ideological foundation…for Black Nationalist theory.” Though some have subsequently suggested that Stuckey overstated the extent to which Walker contributed to the creation of a black nation, Thabiti Asukile, in a 1999 article on "The All-Embracing Black Nationalist Theories of David Walker’s Appeal", defended Stuckey's interpretation. "Though scholars may continue to debate this," Asukile writes, "it would seem hard to disprove that the later advocates of black nationalism in America, who advocated a separate nation-state based on geographical boundaries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, would not have been able to trace certain ideological concepts to Walker's writings. Stuckey's interpretation of the Appeal as a theoretical black nationalist document is a polemical crux for some scholars who aver that David Walker desired to live in a multicultural America. Those who share this view must consider that Stuckey does not limit his discourse on the Appeal to a black nationalism narrowly defined, but rather to a range of sentiments and concerns. Stuckey's concept of a black nationalist theory rooted in African slave folklore in America is an original and pioneering one, and his intellectual insights are valuable to a progressive rewriting of African American history and culture."

“This country is as much ours as it is the whites, whether they will admit it now or not, they will see and believe it by and by.”

Walker, Article IV, p. 58

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