In this essay, I evaluate the validity of David Walker’s central argument introduced in Article II of his controversial pamphlet, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. This argument, in which Walker contends that African Americans are complicit in their own domination, is clearly suggested in the rhetoric of the chapter title, Our Wretchedness in Consequence of Ignorance.
Though he explicitly states that black American’s ignorance is the cause for their perilous subordination, Walker’s description of ignorance is not simply the nature of bewilderment that the white Americans adopt and enforce throughout the illogical system of slavery. Rather, Walker is referring to African Americans’ ignorance of their God-ordained nature that craves freedom. Walker expands on this notion through the way he frames freedom. According to Walker, freedom is not selfexecuting but relies on performativity; freedom requires action and resistance.
Reflective of all African Americans, Walker depicts black people’s detrimental ignorance in his analysis of the the treacherous slave woman and the “happy” free black shoe cleaner, prohibits it from being achieved. This ignorance possessed by black Americans, both enslaved and freedbolsters their acceptance of passivity and servitude, an unnatural and deceitful mindset that disinhibits solidarity within the community.
Though justified in some of his criticisms, which I intend on dissecting throughout the course of this essay Walker’s assertion of African American’s liability in the perpetuation of their own subordination contains a narrowminded perspective and fails to acknowledge the systemic corruption that forces slaves to adopt these mentalities and behaviors. A deeply religious man, Walker argues that African Americans are warranted to liberty not only because they are promised in the Declaration of Independence but primarily because God affixed the quality and desire for freedom into their manhood.
Depicted when he states, “Man is a particular creature – he is the image of God, though he may be subjected to the most wretched condition upon earth, yet the spirit and feeling which constitute the creature, man, can never be entirely erased from his breast, because God who made him after his own image, planted it in his heart; he cannot get rid of it. ” Walker associates the “spirit and feeling” of freedom as a corporeal feature of humanity (Walker 64). In this, Walker is introducing the complexity of freedom.
Walker is required to dissect and reconstruct the idea of freedom because slavery forced African Americans to be confined to the ambiguous status of both object and subject. As a result, the two-fold nature of freedom in fact versus freedom in form- freedom in fact referring to one’s legal designation and freedom in form referring to one’s agency and self-identity, erected. Regardless of which aspect in the duality one is appealing to, Walker makes it very clear that, despite African Americans’ bodily entitlement to the “spirit and feeling” of freedom, this entitlement does not automatically make it acquirable.
If that were the case, America would not be plagued by the nightmarish implications of a previous system that functioned by the domination and subjugation of an entire group of people. However, because slavery relied and prospered on the creation of an unjust social hierarchy, the mere fact that African Americans were created for freedom and possess the capacity for it is insufficient in the actualization of it. As a result, Walker proposes that the attainment of freedom relies on performance, resistance, and action.
Walker’s assertion that performance is a fundamental element in achieving freedom is further seen in his aggressive critiques of the southern slave woman and the northern coloured man. In both events, Walker denounces their ignorance, which he views is the principle cause of their oppression. Referred to as “ignorant and deceitful,” Walker employs especially harsh language when reflecting upon the actions of the slave woman.
In this, about sixty newly purchased negroes traveling with two white men “had succeeded in separating the iron which bound their hands. ” “Found perfectly at liberty,” a gang of slaves revolted, killing one of the men and escaped with about $2400. Gordon, the driver of the wagon that was also injured, was able to escape “by the assistance of one of the women,” ultimately resulting in the “capture of the whole gang and the recovery of the greatest part of the money.
Condemning the slave woman’s behavior, Walker reiterates his belief in African Americans’ ignorance when he states, “For my own part I cannot think it was anything but servile deceit, combined with the most gross ignorance: for we must remember that humanity, kindness, and fear of the Lord, does not consist in protecting devils. ” One may question how the slave woman’s actions make her “ignorant and deceitful? ” Considering of the juxtaposition of the two abominable traitsignorance suggests a sense of not knowing while deceit implies ill-intent- how can Walker fault the slave woman for her actions?
Clearly in a situation that presented no right answer, in which she was forced to choose between her own freedom and a moral obligation to preserving the life of another person, how was the slave woman supposed to respond? According to Walker, because God embedded freedom into the constitution of each person, the woman should have felt obliged to choose freedom. Therefore, the slave woman’s decision to help “save” the white man was an unnatural rejection of the “spirit and feeling” instilled in her.
Walker further supports his insistence of African Americans’ corporeal desire for freedom is when he emphasizes The blacks, once you get them started, they glory in death. The whites have had us under them for more than three centuries, murdering, ad treating us like brutes; and, as Mr. Jefferson wisely said, they have never found us out, they do not know, breasts of the blacks, which, when it is fully awakened and put in motion, will be subdued, only with the destruction of the animal existence.
In this, Walker asserts that black people, if given the opportunity, would invoke violence against white people in the name of freedom. As a result, the slave woman’s endangerment of herself and the other slaves unnaturally ignores her bodily need and desire for freedom that is ingrained by God into her personhood. Walker’s critique of blacks’ perpetuation of their own subjugated state as the result of their defective ignorance extends beyond that of slaves and is also attributed to African Americans living in the North.
This is depicted in Walker’s interaction with the coloured shoe cleaner. Here, Walker returns to his idea of enslavement lack of freedom in form and in fact because, though technically not a slave in form, the shoe cleaner’s ignorance preserves his enslavement in fact because he is still restricted to a position of servitude. Walker portrays this criticism when he responds to the shoe cleaner’s proclamation that he is “completely happy!!! [and] never wants to to live any better or happier than when I can het a plenty of boots and shoes to clean! with the harsh, considerably elitist claim, “Oh! How can those who are actuated by avarice only, but think, that our Creator made us to be an inheritance to them for ever, when they see that our greatest glory is centered in mean and low objects? ” In this, as seen when he claims, “The man whose aspirations are not above, and even below these [cleaning shoes], is indeed, ignorant and wretched enough,” Walker condemns the shoe cleaner’s lack of ambition as ignorance of the natural freedom and greatness that God inspired in him.
Furthermore, Walker criticizes the coloured man for his complacency and selfishness- l advanced therefore to you, not as a problematical, but as an unshaken and for ever immovable fact, that your full glory and happiness, as well as other coloured people under Heaven, shall never be fully consummated, but with the entire emancipation of your enslaved brethren all over the world. You may therefore, go to work and do what you can to rescue, or join in with tyrants to oppress them and yourselves, until the Lord shall come upon you all like a thief in the night.
For I believe it is the will of the Lord that our greatest happiness shall consist in working for the salvation of our whole body. Emphasizing that the servile positions occupied by the free blacks in the north are still positions of enslavement, Walker condemns the lack of solidarity between the free blacks in the north and the enslaved blacks in the south. Walker warns the freemen, if any of you wish to know how free you are, let one of you start and go through the southern and western states of this country.
And unless you travel as a slave to a white man (a servant is a slave to the man whom he serves) or have free papers, (which If you are not careful they will get from you) if they do not take you and put you in jail, and if you cannot give good evidence of your freedom, sell you into eternal slavery, I am not a living man and challenges the “freedom” that they naively believe to possess. By questioning the necessity of having freedom papers, Walker reframes the papers as objects that are required to prove that an individual is an exception to slavery.
If bound by certain restrictions, the need to provide proof of their freedom through the presentation of their freedom papers, is an individual really free? Following this idea that the free blacks in the north are merely exceptions to the corrupted institution, Walker concludes that these northern blacks are not truly free These fundamental questions support Walker’s claim of the essentialness of solidarity. Because free blacks are required to prove their freedom, Walker implies that freedom is not actually theirs. Therefore, the domination and subjection that black people experience in America, is enforced by a racialized classification.
The corruption and abusive power of whiteness does not distinguish slave from free. Rather, it only sees black. As a result, no African American, regardless of what legal status, is immune to the institution’s perilous domination. Therefore, this vulnerability compels all blacks to feel a sense of obligation to other blacks. As forewarned in beginning of the chapter, this disunity between the free and enslaved blacks that Walker is referring to is “the reason our natural enemies [white people] are enabled to keep their feet on our throats. ”
Though I agree with some of Walker’s critiques, such as the necessity of ambition, education, and solidarity for the strengthening and transcendence of the black community—I disagree with Walker’s belief in African Americans’ complicit role in their own domination. Walker presents strong arguments regarding the detrimental affects of ignorance but desperately fails to recognize the overwhelming restraints of the corrupted system. Though performativity is an important feature of freedom, freedom is not entirely dependent on performance and action. One cannot simply claim liberty and simply ignore oppressive social forces the prove otherwise.
Instead, I contend that true freedom – freedom in form and in fact – must be systemically absolved, an ambition that requires efforts from both the oppressor and the oppressed. Furthermore, because of the massive, enduring, and coercive circulation of black inferiority, in both white and black communities, repulsive traits like impurity, helplessness, and ignorance, are internally adopted and actualized by African Americans. Having unwillingly inherited these distasteful understandings, black Americans are compelled to act in only the ways they know how, thereby absolving them from their compliance in their own subjugation,