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This essay recovers how David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829–30) likely played a significant role in Frederick Douglass’s frustrated introduction to literacy in Baltimore. By recognizing this important but overlooked intersection of two generations of Black antislavery activists at a turning point in the movement, the essay complicates our thinking about both the effects of Walker’s fiery Appeal and Douglass’s relationship to violent self-defense and resistance. More broadly, it examines the frequent linkage of print to violence and the politicization of print as a powerful and contested form of activism in the histories of US antislavery and antiracism.
This essay sketches the field of African American literary history from the nineteenth century through two concepts I take from Henry Highland Garnet and David Walker: “faithful reflection” and the “spirit of inquiry.” It asks: What would it mean for American literature and American democracy to represent black citizens faithfully? What would faithful representation mean for racism as structure and ideology? How have black writers theorized, invoked, and used the literary as a form of critical inquiry? Garnet and others ground faithful reflection in a democratic ethos antithetical to the racial capitalism animating U.S. citizenship. The spirit of inquiry assumes the power to ask questions and seek answers, a power often denied the black citizens that literary history often treats as objects of study. It invokes the epistemological and methodological challenges black subjects and Black Studies have historically foregrounded. The history I offer here does not flow chronologically. Instead, I follow concepts that develop asynchronously across time as much as they were revised and revived over time. After grounding the essay’s framework through Garnet and Walker, I trace these complementary practices through Phillis Wheatley’s poetic imagination and literary critical responses that draw on her to visualize black literary history’s generative work.
The American Revolution, and the principles of liberty and equality which it was believed to have embodied, precipitated a wave of revolutions in France, Haiti, and Spanish America which occurred over the roughly fifty-year period between 1775 and 1825. In each of those revolutions, slaves pushed for freedom and equality, and they often rebelled, the clearest indication of their refusal to accept the inhumanity of chattel slavery. Enslavers feared slave insurrection, and they worked diligently to tighten control over slaves. Although large-scale rebellions became less likely to succeed during the Age of Revolutions, slaves throughout the Atlantic World continued to resist their oppressors. Slaves relied on an extensive communication network, and they were well aware of the revolutions and independence movements transpiring in the Atlantic World.
Returning to David Walker’s Appeal, with an exclusive focus on its 1848 publication, this chapter traces the connections between the 1848 anti-monarchical revolutions in Europe, the Mexican American War, and an emerging vision of Black resistance to American Empire. This chapter reads Walker together with the works of Henry Highland Garnet and decisively demonstrates how African American literature articulated the principles and priorities of a transnational 1848.
This chapter reveals the key theoretical intervention made by David Walker in his Appeal. Examining the work in its 1830 and 1848 iterations, this chapter unpacks the theory of cosmopolitanism developed by Walker and traces its effects.
This chapter is about the religious sensibilities preached from pulpits and printed in black periodicals that shaped the philosophical and political aims of early African American writing. It examines the preaching and writing lives of eminent black clergy active between 1800 and 1830 and highlights their organizational networks within the Free African Society, the American Colonization Society, Prince Hall Freemasonry and a number of mutual aid societies. This chapter sets out to understand how, out of an inchoate black liberation theology, a black Protestant inheritance came to incorporate early African American literature, speech and non-fiction prose. The transitions under exploration include the coalescence of a liberating theology in early nineteenth century black religion.
Antislavery writers experimented with the idea that slaves and masters might address each other through direct and formalized literary dialogues. To do so, these activists used pamphlets, a genre that had already enabled differing religious, political, and intellectual points of view to engage each other in eighteenth-century North America. In the deliberately double meaning of “salvation,” both political and religious, for both this world and the next, David Walker’s Appeal brings to bold fruition an idea only incipient in the dialogic experiments of Benjamin Banneker and Daniel Coker, that recognizing and following Black, not white, moral and spiritual leadership was the only hope for a slavery-corrupted America.
This chapter argues the writings published by Blacks in the early national US must be understood in relation to the history of slavery in the British Empire. The author examines diverse forms of African American literature, which were focused on transatlantic concerns, such as “Orations on the Abolition of the Slave Trade” (1808–1823), given annually on January 1. These texts tell powerful stories of the history of the slave trade, and particularly its violence to familial ties, from the trade’s inception in the fifteenth century until its abolition in 1808. Written by free Black churchmen and intellectuals in New York and Philadelphia, including Absalom Jones, Peter Williams, Jr., Russell Parrot, and William Hamilton, these orations demonstrate a deep interest in the actions of the British Parliament and the state of slavery in the West Indies. This chapter also considers direct allusions to British and Afro-British abolitionists and their writings, from Clarkson and Wilberforce to Equiano, in the work of William Miller, Russell Parrot, William Whipper, David Walker, Maria Stewart, and others. The chapter concludes with a discussion of The History of Mary Prince (1831), the most important slave narrative to emerge from the British colonies and questions the inclusion of Prince’s narrative in a history of African American literature.
Chapter Four shows how slaveholding elites across jurisdictions responded to the growth of the free population of color during the Age of Revolution with fear and repression. They feared large-scale slave revolts, the rise of abolitionism, and the assertiveness of free people of color. Beginning in the 1830s, and with increasing fervor in the 1840s and 1850s, white slaveholding elites across the Americas sought to crack down on free people of color and manumission. They also looked for ways to remove free people of color from their midst through various “colonization” schemes, to realize the old dream of a perfect, and perfectly dichotomous, social order of blacks and whites, enslaved and free. This chapter explores the growing restrictions on manumission and free people of color in Louisiana and Virginia during the antebellum era, which stand in contrast to the significant but less successful efforts of Cuban slaveholders to limit the rights of free people of color. By 1860, these jurisdictions were on truly divergent paths concerning race and freedom. Black freedom was described as an anomaly or a legal absurdity in Virginia and Louisiana, but not in Cuba.
Between 1822 and 1857, eight Southern states barred the ingress of all free black maritime workers. According to lawmakers, they carried a 'moral contagion' of abolitionism and black autonomy that could be transmitted to local slaves. Those seamen who arrived in Southern ports in violation of the laws faced incarceration, corporal punishment, an incipient form of convict leasing, and even punitive enslavement. The sailors, their captains, abolitionists, and British diplomatic agents protested this treatment. They wrote letters, published tracts, cajoled elected officials, pleaded with Southern officials, and litigated in state and federal courts. By deploying a progressive and sweeping notion of national citizenship - one that guaranteed a number of rights against state regulation - they exposed the ambiguity and potential power of national citizenship as a legal category. Ultimately, the Fourteenth Amendment recognized the robust understanding of citizenship championed by Antebellum free people of color, by people afflicted with 'moral contagion'.
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