Inconvenient American History

I often hear conservative (politically and ostensibly religious) voices in our society call us to return to the way our society “used to be,” an idyllic state of bliss, it seems, when one listens to them.  Yet voices like David Walker echo in my head, reminding me that America has always been a mixture of greatness and disgusting wickedness; a nation consigned to live underneath the powerful aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that should never, never allow us to feel comfortable in having “arrived” as a society.

Here is the voice of David Walker in 1829;

I declare it does appear to me as though some nations think God is asleep, or that he made the Africans for nothing else but to dig their mines and work their farms, or they cannot believe history, sacred, or profane.  I ask every man who has a heart, and is blessed with the privilege of believing- Is not God a God of justice to all his creatures?   Do you say he is?

Then if he gives peace and tranquility to tyrants and permits them to keep our fathers, our mothers, ourselves and our children in eternal ignorace and wretchedness to support them and their families, would he be to us a God of Justice?  I ask, O, ye Christians, who hold us and our children in the most abject ignorance and degradation that ever a people were afflicted with since the world began- I say if God gives you peace and tranquility, and suffers you thus to go on afflicting us, and our children, who have never given you the least provocation- would he be to us a God of Justice?

If you will allow that we are men, who feel for each other, does not the blood of our fathers and of us, their children, cry aloud to the Lord of Sabaoth against you for the cruelties and murders with which you have and do continue to afflict us?

David Walker, from “The Appeal” 1829

David Walker’s bio on Wikipedia
Full text of the Appeal online

The effect of “The Appeal”
Three editions of the pamphlet were published within a year. Walker distributed his pamphlet through various Black communication networks along the Atlantic coast. These included free and enslaved Black sailors, other mobile laborers, Black church and revivalist networks, contacts with free Black benevolent societies, and maroon communities. Walker even sewed some pamphlets into the clothes that he sold at his store.

By 1830, white authorities suppressed the circulation of the pamphlet whenever they could. In New Orleans, authorities arrested four Black men for owning copies. In North Carolina, vigilantes attacked free Blacks assuming they had copies. Savannah, Georgia, instituted a ban on Black seamen coming ashore because of white fears that they were distributing the incendiary pamphlet. Some Blacks were lynched, others whipped. Yet the document continued to circulate. Plantation owners offered a bounty for Walker’s death. Anyone who captured Walker and brought him alive to the South would receive $10,000.

Friends concerned about his safety implored him to flee to Canada. Walker responded that he would stand his ground. “Somebody must die in this cause,” he added. “I may be doomed to the stake and the fire, or to the scaffold tree, but it is not in me to falter if I can promote the work of emancipation.” A devout Christian, he believed that abolition was a “glorious and heavenly cause.”

Herbert Aptheker writing on Walker’s legacy in 1965,

“Walker’s Appeal is the first sustained written assault upon slavery and racism to come from a black man in the United States. This was the main source of its overwhelming power in its own time; this is the source of the great relevance and enormous impact that remain in it, deep as we are in the twentieth century.

Never before or since was there a more passionate denunciation of the hypocrisy of the nation as a whole – democratic and fraternal and equalitarian and all the other words. And Walker does this not as one who hates the country but rather as one who hates the institutions which disfigure it and make it a hissing in the world.


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