David Walker’s Appeal opens with an impassioned examination of the Black condition in America driving slow and painstakingly towards a radical crescendo at the close of the fourth article. Upon first glance, the Appeal seems to exhibit one the earliest written examples of the classical Negro sermon invoking the tools of emotional petition, scriptural analogy and historical scrutiny in outlining the core narrative. Through further revisions to the text, Walker was able to expand upon the original thesis to form the ideological framework of Black liberation theology, social theory and nationalist discourse with consideration towards both freedmen and enslaved Blacks.
The Preamble of Walker’s Appeal provides an intriguing context for the rise and influence of Black liberation theology where the theological construct exists as the last bastion of “free” intellectual inquiry available to those held in slavery. Walker mines the potentiality of biblical scripture in order to establish his case for the abolition of slavery through moral suasion, Pan-African struggle and armed resistance when necessary. For sewing these seeds of discord, Walker would find himself revered amongst enslaved Blacks and radical abolitionists, reviled amongst whites and slaveowners, held afar by moderate whites and Blacks alike who considered his approach too extreme and later murdered near his shop only a year from the publication of the manuscript.
Walker divided his appeal into four distinct areas of discourse following the Preamble which considered the effects of Slavery, Ignorance, Religion and Colonization upon the minds of Black people. He used each of these areas to display how the historical treatment of Blacks in America was mired in moral, social and political hypocrisy which should prevent us from thinking naively that we could hope for a fairer treatment in the future than we had been afforded in the past. While he fiercely refuted the efforts to colonize members of the free Black community in the African nation of Liberia, he displayed a particularly warm kinship for the recently liberated island nation of Haiti whose inspiration he drew upon in outlining his impression of what steps could be taken in America to secure freedom for all Black people.
While some concepts in the Appeal leave themselves open to misinterpretation in a modern context such as Walker’s own fondness for the English whom he considered friends of the Negro, there are areas here which remain ripe for exploration in understanding the course of events which culminated in ending slavery. The Appeal was quite masterful at fomenting radical discourse when it was published in 1829 and taken together with the rebellion of Nat Turner in 1831 most certainly struck an alarming chord in states which had continued the practice of slavery. The Appeal was outlawed and at least one legislature, Georgia, placed a bounty upon Walker’s head. It still managed to circulate widely through underground networks of abolitionists, freedmen societies, churches and maroon communities.
As we stand in the aftermath of cases in Arizona, Texas and Tennessee on the cusp of seeing the necessity for the return of outlaw education, let us take a lesson from David Walker in thinking dangerously and writing fearlessly about the oppressive systems which continue to impact our quality of life in this day and the overlapping alliances we must forge in order to break them apart permanently.