Remembering one of the most aggressive, impassioned, and eloquent—if tragically short-lived—voices for social equality in our nation’s history.
When it comes to social progress and change, as I wrote most explicitly in this post on the Civil Rights movement, I think our national narratives tend to emphasize peaceful mechanisms like passive resistance (which is not, as I also argued in this Occupy Davis post, necessarily peaceful nor passive) more than they do aggressive protests or challenges to the established order or society. That’s a perfectly understandable perspective, since it allows us to recognize the need for change while likewise celebrating peace, love, and other importantly unifying ideas. But just as Martin Luther King pushed back on such perspectives by arguing for Why We Can’t Wait, and just as Frederick Douglass illustrated by challenging his audience directly in his seminal “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech, significant social change depends as well, if not indeed centrally, on aggressive voices and protests.
When it comes to abolitionism, there are certainly no shortage of aggressive voices to include in our national narratives: Douglass himself, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, even (if exemplifying the conflicts that such aggression can produce) John Brown. But perhaps the most aggressive and angry, yet also eloquent and powerful, such abolitionist voice belongs to an almost entirely forgotten early 19th century American: David Walker. Walker’s life, and even more so his public prominence, were tragically short-lived—he burst onto the scene as one of Boston’s and the nation’s most vocal abolitionists in 1827/1828, published his seminal Walker’s Appeal in 1829, and died (probably of tuberculosis) at the age of 33 in 1830—which might explain in part his disappearance from our collective memories. But I would argue that Walker’s profoundly radical text and ideas likewise contributed to that elision—and are precisely why we should instead remember and engage with him today.
The most overtly, and not at all unimportantly, radical aspect of Walker’s Appeal is its typography: as scholar Marcy Dinius has recently analyzed at length, Walker utilized capitalization, exclamation points, enlarged typefaces, bold and italics, and many other typographical elements to create a text that quite literally yells (screams, even) at its audiences. Yet those typographical extremes parallel the book’s many equally aggressive and challenging ideas and elements: Walker’s use of the Constitution as a frame, in order to force the nation’s hypocrisies to the fore throughout; his arguments for immediate and absolute emancipation by any and every means, including violent slave revolts; and, perhaps most strikingly for the era, his titular and continued address not to fellow abolitionists, nor to slaveholders, or even to white Americans at all, but “to the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America.” That address, like Walker’s book and voice overall, refuses to accept any of the conditions of slavery, including its forced illiteracy and powerlessness, making a case instead for the shared anger, challenge, passion, and eloquence of all African Americans.
Please share Walker’s book and voice, and his lasting significance, this February! One more in the series this weekend,
PS. Any African American texts, voices, or figures that you think we should better remember? Highlight ‘em here!
2/10 Memory Day nominee: John Franklin Enders, the Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist whose pioneering work with viruses greatly influenced Jonas Salk’s development of a polio vaccine, led Enders to be known as “The Father of Modern Vaccines,” and reflected, as does his co-authored Nobel lecture, a communal understanding of scientific work and progress.