David Walker’s Appeal

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on reddit
Share on whatsapp


David Walker (1796?-1830), a free black man, parented by a slave father and a freedwoman, was born, and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, although he left there as an adult to travel in various states. He did not leave out of boredom or simple restlessness, but because of disgust.

If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long.. . I cannot remain where I must hear slaves’ chains continually and where I must encounter the insults of their hypocritical enslavers.[1] (“David Walker” 2020)

Eventually, he ended up in Boston. There, he settled down, married, and had two children.

Although what we know of Walker biographically is far from complete, we at least know the following about him with certainty.

By the time he arrived in Boston, he was a knowledgeable abolitionist. But he was not merely one among many abolitionists. He was on the verge of becoming the author of David Walker’s Appeal[2]. Published in 1829, it was the most ferocious and multipronged analysis of white supremacy and slavery to date.

In it, he not only laid out a justification for, and a call for, a slave uprising, but also paved the way for future thinker-activists who explored the nature of racial and colonial oppression from what came to be called a psycho-historical standpoint. Such persons included W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon.

If anyone is relevant to our era regarding US racism, its history, white supremacy, and insight into, and rage against, the persistence of these things, it is David Walker.

He has something informative to say to everyone recently in the streets following George Floyd’s murder.

He also has something darker to say to those who occupy our nation’s seats of power.


Despite this legacy, Walker remains one of the least known of the early 19th century’s black liberationists. This is in spite of the fact that it reasonably can be argued that no student can grasp the Declaration of Independence’s (US 1776) status as a historical document without also reading Walker’s Appeal[3], which critiques both Thomas Jefferson’s vision of race and the Declaration’s role in a racialized America as a white privilege document—one, however, which Walker believed was subvertable by blacks if they employed, in an act of transgressive chutzpah, the Declaration’s own words to assault US racism. Which is exactly what Walker did.

In doing so, he instantly turned the Appeal into one-half of a Siamese-twins relationship with the Declaration, tying the black freedom-fighter’s vision and the white oppressor’s vision together forever in all their historical complexity. Consequently, it is impossible for US citizens or anyone else to grasp the Declaration’s significance without also reading Walker’s deconstruction of it in the Appeal.

That the Appeal possessed visceral power was clear from the moment it was published. Instantly, southern officials and other whites responded to it with alarm. As the Appeal’s circulation in the South began, a bounty was placed on Walker’s head— $3,000 for simply killing him and $10,000 for capturing him alive, then returning him to the south for (it seems clear) torture and execution.[4] (“David Walker” 2020)

But the money on Walker’s head was only one part of the South’s enraged response. To reduce the possibility of slave rebellion, new anti-black laws were passed throughout the region while old ones were toughened. Georgia, as an example, passed legislation that made the circulation of antislavery manifestos punishable by death. During the same period, in other states from Virginia to Louisiana, laws against teaching slaves to read and write were made harsher, prohibitions against slaves gathering in groups without white oversight were passed, and it was made illegal for freedmen and freedwomen to interact with slaves. Even the Columbian Centinel, a Boston publication, editorialized that these measures were justified to guarantee “T[5]

The panic that precipitated these responses to the Appeal was triggered by Walker’s call to arms in a society already riven by fear of what blacks would do to whites if slaves united and revolted. That there were slaves willing to take great risks and even die in their fight for freedom was something whites knew well, since examples of such incidents were preserved in folklore and historical memory.

One such incident occurred in late 1600s Virginia when four blacks were hanged after slaves and white indentured servants joined forces to attack their Virginia owners and abusers. Another was the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina during which slaves killed and beheaded whites, then marched toward Spanish controlled Florida in the hope of finding freedom. And only twenty years prior to Walker’s treatise, an 1811 uprising in Louisiana, numbering approximately five hundred slaves at its maximum strength, burned plantations and killed slave-owners, then later, using guns, hoes, axes, clubs and anything else they could lay their hands on, battled two better-armed white militias until the uprising was crushed en route to New Orleans, which they’d planned to conquer.

Closer in time to the Appeal’s publication, the 1820s also provided fodder for white worries, particularly with regard to fugitive slaves who, hiding in out-of-the-way places in the southern states, adopted arson as a kind of guerrilla weapon, setting fire to key locations in certain cities, then fleeing[6] and thus, stoking white paranoia about the ever-present potential of black retaliation.

‌Another source of white uneasiness during this period was the 1822 slave conspiracy led by Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina.

Vesey, a skilled carpenter and freedman, initiated the conspiracy out of a long-lasting hatred of slavery which was further aggravated by the fact that his wife and children were still enslaved. His family’s plight was compounded by a recent change in local laws which made the process by which slaves could be freed more difficult.

Working from these motives, Vesey recruited an initial group of Charleston slaves (domestics, general laborers, blacksmiths, and other skilled workers) to become part of the planned uprising. Once this cadre was pulled together, the group further expanded its numbers via secret meetings through which it brought in new members from unrepresented parts of the city as well as from the countryside. The intended insurgency to which these people pledged their support was a three-part revolt designed to be both an uprising against and an escape from slavery.

The plan’s three phases consisted of the following.

First, on the designated date, July 14,1822, slaves were to arise in the middle of the night, then slay their white masters and families. Second, those from the countryside were to combine with those from Charleston to take over the city, torch its buildings, kill any whites who interfered, and steal the city’s weapons supplies. Third, they were to march as a united force to the city’s docks, requisition ships for their use, then sail to Haiti where blacks had overthrown white French colonists two decades earlier.

As reported in the official summary of events, Negro Plot. An Account of the Late Intended Insurrection, the rebellion was quelled a month and a half prior to its scheduled onset. This happened when a Charleston “gentlemen of great respectability” heard of the plot from “a favourite and confidential slave of his” who learned about it from another slave.[7] (James Hamilton, Negro Plot, 2020) When the slave-owner relayed what he’d discovered to the authorities, it set off a chain of events which in a matter of days ended badly for the conspirators. Of the 131 arrested in raids, 35, including Vesey, were hanged as the prime instigators. Others received lesser sentences, and some were acquitted.[8] Also, untold numbers of other committed participants retreated, unnamed and unrevealed, into the silence of their previous lives.

As the court-imposed death sentences given to Vesey and the thirty-four others who were hanged showed, they were sentenced not only for the conspiracy per se, but for their supposed strangeness as Africans, a strangeness perceived by whites as a kind of precivilized spiritual disfigurement which reduced blacks to less-than-human creatures controlled by brutish instincts and prone to crude forms of occultism.

Typical of how this attitude manifested itself in the court’s proceedings is the wording of the court’s findings regarding each individual found guilty. A case in point is one Jack Pritchard, aka Gullah Jack, whom the court accused of rejecting “natural and ordinary means” in helping to develop the plot and instead employing “the most disgusting mummery and superstition” to achieve the conspirators’ ends. Furthermore, the court found that such behavior could “excite no other emotion in the mind of the intelligent and enlightened, but contempt and disgust” and therefore Gullah Jack should know that no matter what kind of conjuring he practiced or barbaric beliefs he held, “all the powers of darkness cannot rescue you from your approaching fate!”[9]

(It is appropriate to take note here of how distinct types of othering employ similar forms of demonization. The phrases “disgusting mummery” and “all the powers of darkness” could just as easily be quotes from the Salem witch trial judges in 1692-93 as from racist whites rabid to punish the Vesey conspirators one-hundred-thirty years later.)

Although by the time the Appeal reached the south, the failed 1822 conspiracy, and even more so the earlier rebellions, might seem from our perspective today to have been sufficiently in the past to no longer affect whites, this was not the case.

Living in a world in which acts of slave insolence and stories of old slave revolts regularly stirred white society’s fears of what black revenge might look like if it succeeded, such incidents, present or past, were not soon forgotten. Regarding the Vesey conspiracy, the memory of its apparently large size (it was rumored to include thousands of co-conspirators)[10] and massive ambition (its aim was to flee the country for Haiti)[11] still reminded whites in 1829 of their need to actively oppress and, when necessary, to violently crush black anger the moment it appeared.

This was the context in which the Appeal’s appearance in the south triggered white rage, bolstered antiblack laws, and increased vigilantism. What made matters even more enraging for the slave-owning hierarchy was Walker’s distribution network, which initially baffled them because of the author’s sly use of commercial sailors from the waterfront near his Boston shop to smuggle copies into the south on their cargo trips, then deliver them into the hands of slaves, manumitted slaves, and white abolitionists.

What grabbed readers’ attention — including white supremacists who invariably got hold of copies — about the Appeal was Walker’s writing style, a combination of pulpit-pounding oratory, knife blade-sharp analysis, and a self-confident tone which ranged from insurrectionary to mockery.

Not surprisingly, many slaves and abolitionists were moved and/or inspired by the author’s rhetoric, while bigots and go-alongs loathed it. Even some abolitionists regarded it suspiciously. Many of these believed, as did William Lloyd Garrison, the famous white abolitionist, that the pamphlet’s tone was aggressive and promoted violence.

We deprecate the spirit and tendency of this Appeal . . . We do not preach rebellion — no, but submission and peace . . . We say, that the possibility of a bloody insurrection at the south fills us with dismay.[12]

So, even here, among Walker’s supposed allies, there were those offended by the Appeal’s fiery style and its call for a so-called “bloody insurrection.” What those like Garrison who were offended by this aspect of Walker’s argument failed to grasp (or did grasp but refused to support) was that Walker’s demand for full equality resembled nothing so much as the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive” of people’s right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . . it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

Unlike Garrison, Walker understood that he had framed his Appeal in the only way it could successfully be framed in the US—by using the young nation’s own words against it. The Declaration consisted of nothing more than one part of the British population (the colonies) proclaiming war against another part (those living in Britain— the exploiters). That war, which was precisely the type of “bloody insurrection” which Garrison wanted to deny to blacks, ended with the colonies’ secession from Britain and their formation into the United States. Although Walker did not want secession for slaves and free blacks, he did employ the Declaration’s formula—i.e., of one part of a population declaring war against another part in the name of freedom—for the purpose of agitating for black liberation from white rule.

In this regard, Walker’s assertion in the Appeal that it was better to “kill or be killed . . . rather . . . than to be a slave to a tyrant”[13] perfectly echoed the Declaration. For him, the July 4th document wasn’t a fantasy about freedom, it was a text which validated precisely what Garrison denounced in the Appeal: the right to “preach rebellion” in order to stir the oppressed (in this case, not the colonies but slaves) to rise up against their tormenters, just as the colonies had done against Britain.

Between Garrison and Walker, Walker’s read of the Declaration’s implications was clearly deeper and more exploratory.

Another white abolitionist who rejected the Appeal was Benjamin Lundy whose critique, although similar to Garrison’s at a certain level, contained a more noticeable paternalism in the way he expressed his need to “set the broadest seal of condemnation upon” Walker’s manifesto and its (according to Lundy) vile tone.

Such things can have no other earthly effect than to injure our cause. The writer indulges himself in the wildest strain of reckless fanaticism . . . It is a labored attempt to rouse the worst passions of human nature and inflame the minds of those to whom it is addressed.[14]

Lundy goes on to warn all abolitionists against stooping to the arousal of what he labels “malignant passions,” then warns antislavery proponents, particularly blacks, against speaking or writing with a lack of decorum.

There can be no impropriety in an expression of sentiment, on the part of the colored people, relative to their wrongs . . . acrimonious language should not be indulged, and even revengeful feeling should be repressed, as much as possible. A disposition to promote turbulent and violent commotion, will only tend to procrastinate the march of justice.[15] (Ibid.)

Although Lundy was a “sincere” abolitionist, he was also a contradictory one. In reading his comments above it is difficult not to spot the archetype of the White Master transformed into the archetype of the White Liberator instructing blacks about how to speak and write correctly. It is an interesting thought: a white member of the language police deciding what defiant slaves and freedmen were and were not permitted to say as they strove to topple slavery.

Walker refused to bow down to such paternalism. Quite to the contrary, he realized the challenge he faced in authoring the Appeal was to name and explicate the reasons behind the black right to revolt against and abolish the slave system, and in doing so to create a language of black insurrection more comprehensive than any so far heard.

To say the least, this was a daring endeavor in 1829 in a country built on racial bigotry where any effort to discuss black rights was experienced by whites (as it often is today) as insulting and belligerent—in Lundy’s term, an “impropriety.” Hence, Walker’s condemnation by even many antislavers. In the always ongoing language disputes which throughout history inevitably insinuate themselves into politics, to tell the truth about slavery during Walker’s time, and well beyond, was, to again quote Lundy, for Walker allegedly to indulge “himself in the wildest strain of reckless fanaticism.”

But Walker’s real “crime” is that he did his job so well, by writing the most thorough and inspiring antislavery manifesto up until that time. One example of this was the way he anchored his statements about the need for black resistance to slavery with an often-folksy simplicity which nonetheless did not prevent his words from possessing a hard-hitting truthfulness —

it is no more harm for you to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.[16]

The simplicity of these words is incontestable. Also incontestable is how brazen they are. They announce, in a society in which whites are in all matters privileged over blacks, the slave’s right to kill whites, since whites possess the right to kill blacks on a whim or to kill them slowly by starving them of all the nourishments that only equality can provide. This power of the individual of European stock over anyone of African heritage means that a white person is always potentially only one step away from becoming a black’s executioner. Knowing this, Walker views a black’s murder of a white supremacist as simultaneously a simple act of self-defense and a freedom proclamation.

To understand how explosive Walker’s “to kill a man” statement was, we must recognize that it was an announcement of the black freedom struggle’s presence amid an array of forces, each of which wanted to crush it. Consequently, it was an announcement of its own survivor status, of its refusal to play dead and pray that one day whites would gift slaves freedom because slaves and free blacks had chosen to abide by Lundy’s directive to be polite and therefore should be rewarded. But instead of passivity, what Walker gives his readers in the above statement are thirty words organized into a blunt and simple foundational thought which speaks to the principle of self-determination in a self-determined way.

The Black Body, Thomas Jefferson, White Christianity

As previously mentioned, Walker referenced the Declaration of Independence in his Appeal on several occasions. He did so sometimes in order to make points about the righteousness of slaves’ struggle for freedom and at other times as an example of the degree to which most U.S. whites were either too hypocritical or disinterested to acknowledge the contradiction in lauding the Declaration as the nation’s founding document while simultaneously denying that slavery revealed a gaping hole in the country’s notion of freedom.

Realizing this state of affairs demanded demythization, Walker chose to expose how behind America’s swagger and braggadocio, and undergirding its supposed high ideals, was hidden the nation’s true source of strength, the foundation upon which it was built: not the Declaration’s soaring language, but the black body, available for anything whites demanded of it.

This, Walker understood, was what the American Dream was built on. Following from this, he believed, was that continued subjugation of the black body was whites’ raison d’être, which was why they persisted—through either active support (political formations, lynch mobs, etc.) or simple indifference to blacks’ plight—in conceptualizing freedom as by definition pertaining only to themselves and therefore not relevant to slaves, Native Americans and others of non-European background.

Regarding this situation, Walker’s writing bellowed off the page with sarcasm and exasperation in the Appeal when he castigated whites for their self-serving ignorance—

See your declaration, Americans!! Do you understand your own language?[17] (David Walker 1965)

Even here, though, with his tone so caustic, Walker didn’t surrender to blind emotion but methodically constructed a well-planned critique, not merely of U.S. racial hypocrisy in general, but against the Declaration of Independence’s primary author himself, Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and a man renowned for supposedly being more sensitive than many whites to slaves’ plight.

Saying about Jefferson that he “was one of as great characters as ever lived among the whites,” Walker proceeds to eviscerate him for his shallow racial views.

In analyzing Jefferson’s racial stereotyping, Walker quotes part of a passage from Jefferson’s book, Notes on the State of Virginia, in which the Declaration’s author stresses that whites haven’t yet found a good reason to consider “the races of black and of red men” worthy “subjects of natural history”[18] (Avalon Project, Notes on . . . Virginia, 2020). To further elaborate this point, the third president admits to having a suspicion that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.[19] (David Walker 1965)

‌In another area of Notes which Walker also quotes, Jefferson adds to this argument by insisting that when considered historically, the idea of black backwardness was not the product of systemic racism but of blacks’ biological predisposition—i.e., blacks’ “nature.” To buttress this perspective, Jefferson compares Africans enslaved in the US (who were not allowed to read and write) with Rome’s’ slaves (who were allowed to read and write), proclaiming that Roman slaves were often that nation’s rarest artists. They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master’s children; Epictetus, Terence and Phadrus, were slaves, –but they were of the race of whites. It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction.”[20] (Walker, Appeal, 15)

Walker lambasts this analysis by identifying the structural weakness at its core: the inherent imbalance of equating educated white slaves with uneducated black slaves. How, he contends, can you compare people living under incommensurate conditions as if their situations were the same and therefore their responses to particular stimuli equivalent?

Mr. Jefferson declared to the world, that we are inferior to the whites . . . It is indeed surprising, that a man of such great learning . . . should speak so of a set of men in chains. I do not know what to compare it to, unless, like putting one wild deer in an iron cage, where it will be secured, and hold another by the side of the same, then let it go, and expect the one in the cage to run as fast as the one at liberty.[21] (Walker, Appeal, 10)

Walker had no tolerance for white supremacist thinking’s convoluted nature, no matter how allegedly important the spouter.

But as deeply incensed as he was about this aspect of the race issue, he also was filled with disdain for the young country’s sense of white entitlement and what it fed: the nation’s duplicity in refusing to apply the Declaration’s egalitarian philosophy to blacks. He considered it abhorrent that whites (and too many slaves) did not comprehend how relevant the Declaration’s section on a government’s “ends” (i.e., the freedoms and rights it supplies to its population) was to blacks, with its guarantee that:

whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

Although Walker understood that the vast majority of whites would never agree with this statement applying to US blacks, he was defiant in his persistence in trying to make the case. He knew and refused to let go of this knowledge, that if this statement was philosophically sound enough to justify the colonists’ war against Britain, it also was sound enough to justify a black war of freedom against the current (white) government and economic system. Walker not only understood this but launching such a war is precisely what he proposed that blacks do. He also argued it was the only Christian route to follow since from his revolutionary perspective the majority of those whom he labeled “American Christians” risked their souls by living lives which were the antithesis of Christianity because of how they sowed antiblack loathing everywhere while refusing to listen to blacks’ outcries, including his own—

It is a notorious fact that the major part of the white Americans have, ever since we have been among them, tried to keep us ignorant and make us believe that God made us and our children to be slaves to them and theirs. Oh! my God, have mercy on Christian Americans!![22]

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?[23]

With white Christianity long ago having spiritually disfigured itself, turning itself into a continent-conquering mass of Bible-quoting marauders who viewed blacks and the indigenous as fair game for every kind of white supremacist lunacy, Walker relished the Declaration’s insistence on people’s right, if a government oppresses them, to rise up and “alter or . . . abolish it.”

In only a few words, penned in a moment of historical irony by a slave-owner, the Declaration’s announcement that people possessed the right to abolish a government that did not adequately represent them, Walker discovered a rationale for black upheaval against slavery. Yet finding this rationale was no easy matter, he had to first do what whites had failed to do: think more deeply about the Declaration’s words. After all, what was inferred by terms like “people” and “mankind” in the document was people=white people and mankind=white humans. In such instances Walker replaced such connotations by employing each word’s universalist definition—i.e., human beings—and thereby removing reference to skin color. Doing so not only enabled him to use the Declaration’s phraseology to include blacks, but also to remind white supremacist Christians of how, once blacks felt sufficiently empowered by this new inclusion, they will retaliate, and woe will be to them.[24]

The alternative to such conflict, Walker insisted, was for white Christianity’s adherents to reinvent their dead spirituality by turning it into something resembling what it was supposed to resemble: an aspiration toward brotherhood, toward a willingness to accept human beings other than themselves as their equals.

But since no evidence existed that whites, in general, would make this effort on their own, Walker saw blacks as ironically positioned to potentially be whites’ saviors by launching an insurrection that would destroy white supremacy’s institutional structures and, in the process, cleanse white Christianity’s hatred-fueled underpinnings while simultaneously transforming the Declaration and other national founding documents into something substantively different than what they currently were — i.e., white-settler power treatises.

This vision, coupled with the vividness, cutting eloquence and range of topics that fueled Walker’s totalistic critique, makes Walker a groundbreaker in the black liberation struggle’s history. As Herbert Aptheker wrote in “One Continual Cry,” his introduction to one of the Appeal’s editions, Walker’s book 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 . . . Never before or since was there a more uncompromising and devastating attack upon the hypocrisy of a Jim-Crow Christianity . . . 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.[25]

Walker clearly was not a cavalier writer, no dilettante with only a casual relationship to the ideas his Appeal expressed. Deadly earnest and devoted to the goal of transforming the U.S. from a nation racialized by white bigotry into one with a political culture that better incarnated the Declaration’s ideas about equality than the existing one, he was an activist whose words were intended as a prompt for a specific action—i.e., a revolution against slavery and for equality. That this war was inevitable was a fact of which he was certain.

Although correct in his certainty this war would happen, he didn’t know it would take thirty years to arrive, nor did he realize that after the Civil War’s conclusion in April 1865,  the battle against racism would still be far from over, in spite of the 13th Amendment, which finally freed the slaves in December 1865. Instead, the struggle would be transformed. First, it transitioned into a failed resistance to the massive dismantling of black freedoms following Reconstruction, then it evolved into a battle against de facto bigotry in the north and Jim Crow racism in the south. And now today, in the midst of the nation’s “post-racist” racism, our streets teem with Black Lives Matter demonstrators demanding an end to continued attacks on black bodies.

It is true, of course, that in terms of racism things are better than during slavery. But they are also not. If white America fails to grasp this paradox at this moment of public outrage against police brutality and other forms of institutional racism, it will guarantee whites’ irrelevance to the future.

Epilogue: Consciousness & revolution

David Walker never flinched from the fight against racism nor from the challenge of connecting issues in ways which shed light on problems other than racism—for instance, how an economy and value system that privileged profits above everything else fueled a white racism that transformed black humans into commodities for the purpose of enriching those in power. Walker identified avarice as such a system’s primary motivator, writing that because of avarice and the self-importance which accompanies it, such profiteers “murder all before them, in order to subject men to wretchedness and degradation under them.”[26]

This was Walker’s take on an emerging free-market system.

Walker also grasped how a belief system like Christianity, considered sacred by Europeans and their descendants could be deployed against blacks as a method of psychological disempowerment. This disempowerment took the form of a generation-to-generation miseducation which bombarded slaves with the “knowledge” that according to God’s plan their conquerors were superior, they themselves were less than human, and obedience to their masters was the sole course of action available to them.  According to Walker, this constant white nullification of the value of black life left slaves mired in “abject ignorance,” convinced by their masters and overseers “that Heaven has designed us and our children to be slaves and beasts of burden to them and their children.”[27]

Walker’s insights into the commodification of the African body and the use of Christianity as a psychology-based mind-control tool showed how diverse forces interacted within the institution of slavery to keep blacks oppressed.

The difficulty of penetrating the slave fatalism perpetuated by these realities was Walker’s greatest frustration. Making the situation even worse was that no matter where one turned at the time, other forces made the project of turning slave despair into slave rebelliousness even more difficult.

Take popular culture as an example. During Walker’s adulthood, one aspect of popular culture was the same as it is today, taking bits and pieces of daily life and turning them into easily graspable entertainments.

A subgenre of this process during the period 1800-1830 was the production of amusing (to whites) black characters who wore the signs of their alleged inferiority (a “childish” pidgin English, cartoonishly “thick” lips, etc.) as badges of honor. In this regard, one famous image of blacks at the time was a character created by Thomas D. Rice, a white actor who kicked off the minstrelsy trend in 1828.[28] (“Thomas Dartmouth Rice | American Entertainer | Britannica” 2020) The character Rice originated was a would-be black dandy named Jim Crow,[29] whom Rice played in blackface while garbed in raggedy clothes worn in such a way as to give the impression that Crow was less of a dandy than an inept black whose unfounded airs made him, not a hip fashion devotee, but a farcical illustration of what it meant to be black and out of your league. As Rice acted his heart out on stage night after night, Jim Crow evolved into a living stereotype — a goofy-thinking, lazy, fawning, unintentionally hilarious buffoon.

All this for the pleasure of white audiences, exactly as the doctor ordered! Not only had patrons been entertained, now they “knew” exactly what blacks were supposedly like!

Culturally defined by such stereotypes as well as by intersecting rationalizations (e.g., theological, scientific, cultural) for black enslavement, the challenge of developing a black revolutionary consciousness among slaves undoubtedly seemed impossible at times to Walker and other antislavery activists. Still, in spite of such realities, Walker accepted the challenge of breaking through the wall of racist mythology in order to define more clearly how slaves were held back by a worldview designed to guarantee their continued physical as well as mental subjugation.

In one of the book’s examples of this problem—i.e., the issue of black identity in a white-defined society—Walker retells a newspaper story concerning sixty newly purchased slaves who were being transported in a wagon to Kentucky by two guards and a driver. Of the slaves, the males were shackled with iron fetters, whereas women and children remained unbound. During the journey, however, the men secretly loosened their restraints with a chisel, then, when they thought the time right, attacked those in charge, killing, they believed, all three of them. However, after the slaves escaped into the woods, the wagon driver whom they believed dead regained consciousness. Seeing this, one of the female slaves who had stayed behind revived him either out of pity or from a sense of duty, then helped him escape.

Walker criticizes this slave’s behavior, accusing her of accepting her oppressors’ view of what was expected of her as a slave—i.e., to protect white power and its needs, regardless of the costs. From Walker’s perspective, these costs included not only the endless drudgery of slave life but also the cost of the slave’s acceptance of white supremacy’s view of reality as your own. Therefore, the author concludes that the woman’s apparently charitable act of nursing the white man back to health is, in fact, a type of self-mutilation. Disregarding her own needs as an enslaved black, she instead clings to her mandated role as a white enabler. In doing this, she fails to see, from Walker’s perspective, the moment when the other slaves escape as a moment of potential free action for herself also, a chance to reclaim her identity as a free human being by joining the other slaves’ rebellion. Instead, she digs down as deeply, as securely as possible, into the imagined safety of her enslavedness.

By offering this analysis, Walker proves himself to be not merely a promoter of black insurrection, but also a psychologist of such insurrection, of how the “outer” antislavery battle is also an inner psychological one that entails the slave’s struggles with the values instilled in them by white society. In taking this approach, he foreshadowed W.E.B. Du Boise’s work decades later (1877) in developing the concept of black double consciousness. Walker also was the forerunner of another thinker, Frantz Fanon, whose book Black Skin, White Masks, pursued similar concerns, particularly with regard to the impact of white colonial ideology and culture on the colonized’s consciousness.

Although Walker understood black liberation would entail in significant part a casting-off of the negative impact of white supremacist values on black consciousness, he also grasped, and in the Appeal expressed his frustrations about, the enormous difficulty of doing so, a difficulty which began with the slave’s “animal existence,”[30] a life of unceasing labor and exhaustion, along with the perpetual threat of the whipping post or a beating at the least sign of fatigue or a failure to do what was ordered.

Although Walker believed that, if his words could only penetrate the slave’s propagandized consciousness, he would be able to communicate with a purer, less subjugated place within them, an area of “unconquerable disposition”[31] and stoke revolt, he found his attempts to do this often frustrating and elusive. This is why the slave who helped the wagon driver escape was an enigma to him. From the author’s perspective, the slave’s assistance saved the life of a desperate man, whose avaricious and cruel object was to drive her and her companions in miseries, through the country like cattle, to make his fortune on their carcasses.[32]

Why would she do that? the author wondered.

For Walker, this was the problem in a nutshell. Providing people with information about their selfhood, about their right not to be driven “like cattle” here and there by a white man only so he can “make his fortune on their carcasses”—this information alone, this revelation of their selfhood as free human beings, didn’t seem sufficient to arouse significant numbers of slaves to open acts of individual rebellion or to join a group insurrection. This both stumped him and complicated his efforts to communicate his message. Something blocked many blacks, prevented them from internalizing, then acting upon, their right to revolt. Consequently, he writes—

Oh! coloured people of these United States, I ask you, in the name of that God who made us, have we, in consequence of oppression, nearly lost the spirit of man, and, in no very trifling degree, adopted that of brutes?[33]

Although Walker understood that the very fact of enslavement entails not only the surrender of one’s body to someone else’s control (as well as to the slave system’s control), but also the usurpation of that which makes a human being human (e.g., critical thought, freedom of ideas, etc.), he nonetheless was exasperated by it, which is evidenced in the Appeal’s many expressions of aggravation with how difficult it was for slaves to extricate themselves from the “wretchedness and miseries”[34] imposed on them by the totality of society—religion, government, the economy, white supremacy’s ownership of the word freedom.

It was not merely forced labor and forced ignorance that comprised the tribulation facing slaves and other blacks. It was also the fact that slavery did not merely consist of the ownership of black bodies and the extraction from those bodies of wealth-producing labor. It also consisted in the constant reproduction of the very conditions which guaranteed that white supremacy/black subjugation would continue generation after generation via a white power structure and culture, and a slave class shaped by the black codes which spelled out what slaves were and weren’t allowed to do.

For Walker, these codes structured black consciousness, providing the slave with a framework for how to view her or himself, since what the slave was allowed to do in many ways constituted who he or she was. According to the codes, slaves were denied, among other things, the following rights: to testify against whites in court, read and write, marry, gather in a group unless supervised by whites, own firearms, read or distribute antislavery literature, retaliate against white physical abuse, or leave a plantation without written permission.

By definition, then, the black self was rooted in the principle of not: not intellectually able, not allowed to (do anything autonomous), not white, not . . . of value, other than as a product owned by a white. The slave’s conception, therefore, of right and wrong and, indeed, of who exactly he or she was, was modulated by a whites-imposed system of principles and behavioral restrictions based on the premise that a slave was a nothing, a brute good for only one thing, forced labor.

The way white consciousness is implicated in black consciousness, imbuing it with a self-awareness rooted in a Caucasian vision of blacks’ essence, convinced Walker that the young country’s whites, including the founders, possessed no inclination to extend to people of color the Declaration of Independence’s “unalienable rights” principle or the document’s proclamation that the oppressed were allowed “to alter or to abolish” tyrannical governments. What whites wanted, he believed, was simple: to keep blacks enslaved, permanently. “The natural love in them to be called masters,”[35] Walker wrote in the Appeal, guaranteed that whites “will keep us in ignorance and wretchedness, as long as they possibly can.”[36] (Walker, Appeal, 62) Given these thoughts, it is not surprising that although Walker believed cultivating a black liberationist consciousness was achievable, he also periodically succumbed to the fear that freeing black consciousness from its colonization by the dominant race’s thinking was nearly impossible.

Walker’s wrestling with the question of what was necessary to ignite a black uprising in multiple states led to his book’s many expressions of despair, as when he noted that too many blacks “yield in a moment to the whites” and this is “the reason the whites are able to keep their feet on our throats.”[37] Consequently, he cries out in frustration,

“Oh! my coloured brethren . . . when shall we arise from this death-like apathy?–And be men!!”[38] (Ibid.)

Another time he writes, “Many of us know no better than to fight against ourselves.”[39] He didn’t mean here only that blacks sometimes sided with their masters against other slaves, but also that blacks, by internalizing the white power system’s worldview, developed a whites-based self-image rooted in the idea that if they questioned white rule, they themselves became the enemy which they had to fight.

It is here, in Walker’s exasperation with and fear of what white supremacist thought had done to black consciousness, that Walker made one of his most creative contributions to the philosophy of black liberation. This contribution, unlike his use of the Declaration of Independence to justify black revolution, is not as concrete, although it is as revelatory. With the Declaration, he recontextualized the original meaning of “all men are created equal” in which by the word man the reader was to understand white man so that now the word man was redesignated to mean human being. In this other contribution, Walker opened up the door to studying the psychology of racial oppression in ways that had not been employed before.

In other words, he paved the way for a revolutionary inquiry that had not yet been defined but was necessary for strategizing black liberation. This is called leaving a legacy.

For Walker, one crucial part of remedying the problem of the debilitating effects of enslavement on black consciousness entails developing a new black self by reintroducing what has been exiled from it by white supremacy: its own history seen through its own eyes and undistorted by racist assumptions.

In large part, this is precisely what the Appeal is, an anti-story—i.e., a narrative which, once inserted into, or set side by side with, the dominant white story of white superiority, would destroy the notion of that superiority by showing what it did in order to sanctify the myth of its greatness—e.g., the mass murders and use of terrorism to enslave and demonize the innocent for the sole purpose of allowing “those who are actuated by sordid avarice”[40] to rule over the so-called inferior in order to accumulate greater wealth as the result of how “the labor of slaves comes so cheap”[41] to them.

This unearthing of such a buried history is a form of the return of the repressed. As detailed by Herbert Marcuse in Eros and Civilization, this is a process during which a “tabooed and subterranean history” disruptively resurfaces after a long absence in order to provide us with a fuller history which reveals “not only the secret of the individual” within society during the relevant period “but also that of civilization at the time.”[42]

Walker’s analysis is connected to this approach in that he views all forms of black anger and frustration at, and resistance to, white domination as signaling the homecoming or return of blacks to themselves from their whites-imposed anonymity within a denied history created by white supremacy’s powers that be—pastors, government officials, educators, etc.—as well as by all those who either happily or out of convenience participate in this denial by accepting its righteousness without question.

That this hidden history’s return from death by exclusion is an explosive moment for a white supremacist society should be no surprise, since it disrupts the dominant racial narrative and thereby unsettles the status quo’s smugness, replacing it with white dread of what comes next. Hence, the hysteria triggered by Walker’s Appeal, which was, up until that time, the most comprehensive summation and analysis of the nation’s untold racist history, a history which, when made visible, possessed the power to rewrite the traditional fairytale account of American grandeur.

This is what white supremacy fears, the unearthing of the nation’s racial anti-story, a reformulation of the nation’s history.

Consequently, this is why even today the killing of unarmed blacks is not confined to a two- or three-month hunting season but is instead allowed every month of the year. For white supremacists, this hunt is not for food, but part of a collective attempt to eliminate as many blacks as possible.

As David Walker understood, a battle against this level of racism cannot be won by endlessly waiting for the system to self-correct. Rather, he tells his readers, it requires insurrectionists to appear on the scene like “a gang of lions and tigers” whose threatening energy forces the dominant society to realize this is a challenge it can’t merely “deal with,”[43] but is rather one to which it must acquiesce.


[1]David Walker, 1785-1830.” 2020. Univ. North Carolina – Education. 2020. https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/bio.html.

[2] David Walker, (Full title) Appeal to the COLOURERED CITIZENS OF THE WORLD, but in particular, and very expressly, to those of THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1965).

[3] Walker, Appeal, 75.

[4] “David Walker.” Pbs.Org. 2020. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2930.html.

[5] Walker, Appeal, x.

[6] Herbert Aptheker, ed. One Continual Cry: David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. (New York: Humanities Press, 1965), p.34.

[7] “James Hamilton, 1786-1857. Negro Plot. An Account of the Late Intended Insurrection.” (Boston: Joseph W. Ingraham, 1822). 2020. https://docsouth.unc.edu/church/hamilton/hamilton.html.

[8] Ibid.

[9] James Hamilton, Negro Plot, 2020.

[10] James Spady, “Power and Confession: On the Credibility of the Earliest Reports of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy.” (Virginia: The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 68, April 2011), p. 287.

[11] Ibid.

[12] William Lloyd Garrison. Editorial regarding Walker’s pamphlet. The Liberator. Jan. 8, 1831

[13] Walker, Appeal, 26.

[14] “Full Text of ‘Genius of Universal Emancipation.’” 2015. Archive.Org. 2015. https://archive.org/stream/geniusuniversal01garrgoog/geniusuniversal01garrgoog_djvu.txt.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Walker, Appeal, 26.

[17] Walker, Appeal, 75.

[18] “Avalon Project – Notes on the State of Virginia.” 2020. Yale.Edu. 2020. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp.

[19] Walker, Appeal, 26.

[20] Walker, Appeal, 15

[21] Walker, Appeal, 10.

[22] Walker, Appeal, 35.

[23] Walker, Appeal, 5.

[24] Walker, Appeal, 61.

[25] Herbert Aptheker, One Continual Cry, 54.

[26] Walker, Appeal, 24

[27] Walker, Appeal, 2.

[28] “Thomas Dartmouth Rice | American Entertainer | Britannica.” 2020. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Dartmouth-Rice.

[29] Rice’s Jim Crow character is the source of the name later adopted to describe the violently racist post-Reconstruction south.

[30] Walker, Appeal, 25.

[31] Walker, Appeal, 25.

[32] Walker, Appeal, 26.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Walker, Appeal, 1.

[35] Walker, Appeal, 61.

[36] Walker, Appeal, 62.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Walker, Appeal, 60.

[40] Walker, Appeal, 3.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization. (New York: Vintage Books, February 1962), p. 15.

 [43]  Walker, Appeal, 25.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Scroll to Top Skip to content