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African-American Religion Alan Mitchell

Roberts 20 March 1995

Manhood and Spirituality in David Walker's Appeal

In his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, David Walker assesses the way

in which white racists systematically stripped black men of their manhood during ante-

bellum times. He argues that slaveholders refused to admit the slaves' humanity be-

cause such an admission would disintegrate the foundation of slavery and lead to eco-

nomic, social, and religious ruin. Walker further insists that if the racists acknowledge

the humanity of blacks, the latter group would find themselves free (on so many levels)

from the chains of slavery. His manifesto, at once passionate, reasoned, and spiritual,

demands that other educated black men aid in the bringing up of their brethren, and

challenges the corruption which he feels permeates white Christianity. The result is a

work vital to an understanding of the religious and political history of African-America

that. by turns addresses spiritual and mundane issues, but ultimately asserts the black

man's claim to manhood, and the right of that man to live a spiritual and free life.

The issue of manhood figures prominently in Walker's Appeal as early as in the

Preface, in which he establishes the themes of first, God's role in the slave's struggle for

freedom and equality, and second, the slave's status as a man. These two themes bridge

the gap between the religious and profane dimensions of the slave's life, as it integrates

God into the political effort for liberation. Walker carefully establishes first that God's

aim is to treat all His creations fairly, and only then posits that since (quite obviously)

blacks are as much a creation of God as whites, they, too, might expect fair treatment

from the Lord. "Is not God a God of justice to all his creatures," asks Walker, setting up

the major premise of his argument. He then demands of his reade(Sy to "allow that we
',,--,

1Although the title of Walker's appeal would seem to indicate that the work is
directed only at "coloured citizens of the world ...particular[ly] those of the United States of
America," his intended, implied, and addressed audience seems to alternate between other

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[blacks] are MEN" and are therefore entitled to the (divine and political) privileges of all

men, including the right not to be kept "in eternal ignorance and wretchedness" through

slavery (Walker, 5). If God is just, as all Christians should believe He is, then He would

not want his creations trapped in wretchedness. Though this argument is fairly basic, it

hinges on the acceptance of slaves as men. Unless that realization comes to pass, slave-

holders could stand by their argument that slaves are less men than they are brutes, and

therefore subject to the control of God's favored creations, white Christians.

One gets the sense, however, that Walker wants to establish his manhood not

merely for the political end of liberation, but for the religious one of proving he and other

African-Americans have souls, and are therefore spiritual beings with a partly transcen-

dent nature, a nature above the chains and toil of slavery. Walker contends that slavery

has deprived his brethren of political freedom, as well as of religious legitimacy, as

manifested in the loss or denial of the soul. The soul is the last line of defense against

the barbarism of slavery, since it almost by default takes away all forms of physical

freedom. Walker would hope that slavemasters could not somehow reach inside the

slave and remove his soul, that which keeps him from being viewed as nothing more

than material property. The presence of a soul in the body seems to Walker to be one,

but not the only, indication of manhood, and one reason for white Christians to move

towards abolition. Walker also uses the soul's existence to incite other learned and reli-

gious black men to stand up and rebel against slavery. That they have a soul should
--..:
speak to the aspirations within to rise above their present state, rather than merely wait

fro the acceptance or acknowledgment of whites. "See how the American people treat

us? Do we have souls in our bodies? Are we men who have any spirits at all? ..We are

men as well as other people" (Walker, 14). Slavery intends to deny the transcendent na-

educated black men, slaves, all blacks, slaveholding whites, abolitionist or sympathetic
whites, and perhaps even God Himself. The shifting "you" of Walker's text allows it to
resonate even more deeply, as the author shares his passion with everyone from those whom he
despises to that which he worships.

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ture of the black man, which is to reduce him to a laboring machine, or a brute, a notion

which in turn opens the door to the denial of political rights. This logic of white

Christian slaveholders allows the permanence of slavery, but it is a logic applied only to

the black man, and only in 17th- to 19th-century American, a condition of which Walker

is all too aware. "All the inhabitants of the earth, (except however, the sons of Africa)

are called men, and of course are, and ought to be free. But we, (coloured people) and

our children are brutes!! and of course are, and ought to be, slaves to the American peo-

pIe and their children forever" (Walker, 7).

Walker's case that Christian slaveholders saw blacks only as "brutes" is a strong

one, and he repeats it almost as frequently as he insists on his humanity. It is as though

he feels that through repetition, the strength of his argument will become increasingly

clear, and that of his opponent's more and more preposterous. While his point is not at

all to draw pity from his readership, his words intend to elicit a strong emotional reac-

tion from his audience, whether of empathy or, in some cases, fear. In his case against

the notion of black man as brute (a point vital to the larger argument about slavery as a

whole), Walker must take on no lesser an opponent than the persuasive and perhaps

mythic figure of Thomas Jefferson. Unabashedly, Walker jumps into the debate, alter-

nately analyzing, responding to, and mocking Jefferson's well-known ruminations on the

genetic inferiority of the black man.2 Before even quoting Jefferson, he first praises him

("a man of such great learning, combined with such excellent natural parts") and then

debunks Jefferson's suggestions of inherent inferiority with an apt and brilliant

metaphor, which calls to mind the "brute" and bondage imagery of the debate but dis-

ables it just as quickly. Walker maintains that Jefferson's thesis is 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" (Walker,

2These meditations can be found in Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, Query
XIV. Walker deals almost exclusively with this controversial selection from Jefferson.

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10). Walker supplements this analogy with a repudiation from the Old Testament that

describes the relatively just treatment of the Israelites by the Egyptians. By mixing the

rational and sacred worlds of philosophy and religion, Walker builds his argument

against those who insist in the inferiority, or inhumanity, of blacks and works to estab-

lish his race as struggling against the worst conditions.

Unfortunately for Walker and other blacks, Jefferson and those of like mind were

to quick to ignore the dire conditions in which they had placed the slave while assessing

their intelligence and humanity. Walker endlessly rebuts allegations that place him

somewhere on the chain of being between object and animal. Jefferson's absurd postu-

lation that since great men like Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus had emerged from

Greek slavery and were white, and no such great man (in his eyes) had been borne of

American slavery, then "it is not their condition ...which had made the distinction, but

their nature" (Walker, 14) angers Walker to no end. Jefferson's conclusion skips over the

enormous differences between the two systems, and leaves himself and other slavehold-

ers blameless in the "wretched and abject" state of the black man. This ideology,

Walker says, reduces blacks to commodity, to be traded and passed along as any other

piece of property. "We being made a little darker means we are forever inherited by

them, the same as a parcel of brutes" (Walker, 16). It is this conclusion which brings the

Appeal to its most fervent point yet, and carries him into an entirely new argument as

Walker asks of his brethren and the world, "Are we men!!-I ask you, 0 my brethren!

are we MEN? Did our Creator make us to be slaves to dust and ashes like ourselves?"

This question leads to Walker's daring assertion that not only is the black man

by nature equal to the white man, but he may even be superior in certain regards. "How

could we be so submissive to a gang of men, whom we cannot tell whether they are as

good as ourselves or not, I could never conceive" (Walker, 16). Walker seems to be

pushing his sympathetic readers to the conclusion that it is reprehensible for one class of

man to enslave another, but even more so when the enslaving class is, perhaps by defi-

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nition, morally inferior to the enslaved. It is important to note that at least in this case,
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Walker uses the religious image of d.ivine judges as sitting in judgment on all of human-

ity, thus casting heavy doubt on the seeming moral infallibility slave-owning Christians

had adopted for themselves. "Have they [whites] not to make their appearance before

the tribunal of Heaven, to answer for the deeds done in the body, as well as we?" he

asks (Walker, 16). For Walker, religion and divinely guided justice seems more signifi-

cant, more permanent, than the mundane justice of the political realm. This feeling might

be represented by his almost immediate disavowal of a hero of government whose ratio-

nalized political philosophy does not compare with Walker's complete trust in God and

the Heavenly tribunal. If Heaven decides with Walker that "the whites have always

been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious, and blood-thirsty set of beings, always

seeking after power and authority" and that blacks in Africa and Asia "were never half

so avaricious, deceitful, and unmerciful as the whites" (Walker, 16-17),he will most cer-

tainly be justified in advancing the supremely bold suspicion of "whether they [whites]

are as good by nature as we are or not" (Walker, 17). Without waiting for heaven,

Walker soon leads himself to the conclusion that "blacks, take them half enlightened and

ignorant, are more humane and merciful than the most enlightened and refined European

that can be found in all the Earth" (Walker, 24).

This approach while nearly as generalizing as anything the white man would

have to offer probably is aimed at inciting fellow educated blacks to take pride in them-

selves and their ability to change the status of their enslaved brethren. Precisely because

so many whites have denigrated the human nature of the black man, and perhaps given

them an inferiority complex, Walker feels it is incumbent upon him to build the spirits of

men like him, so that they too will stand and be heard. Christians have kept blacks in

ignorance, Walker maintains, "telling them they are a distinct and ignorant race"

(Walker, 19),but he intends to do his part to galvanize other blacks by returning pride in

their abilities in a variety of disciplines, from the physical to the spiritual. He fears that

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blacks have been particularly damaged in this latter category, not because of any moral

failing, but rather because whites for so long have attempted to deny blacks their spiri-

tuality. Their efforts in this regard have been relentless, and it is conceivable that they

might have been successful. Walker must ask himself whether other African-Americans

"have .. .in consequence of oppression nearly lost the spirit of man and adopted that of

beast" (Walker, 26), and if they have, he understands it as his work, and the work of

men like Richard Allen, to restore the black man's faith in his faith.

Even when slaveholders would allow slaves the opportunity to explore

Christianity, they did so with the political end of teaching them servility and passivity.

Walker (as well as many slave narratives) detail the process by which religion, often a

means of escape and resistance, was subverted by the whites to keep slaves from re-

belling. Whites would shape Christianity to promote injustice and, as Walker points

out, undeserved punishment. Particularly effective in this process is the manipulation of

guilt, which slaveholders would use to exploit their slaves. The general argument from

master (and preacher) to slave seems to have gone, "Even if you didn't do anything

wrong, you still deserve to be punished, since you probably did something wrong I don't

know about" (Walker, 39) The implication behind this philosophy is that the slave is not

an independent moral agent (Le.,a man) capable of distinguishing right from wrong, nor

is he able to interpret Christianity according to his own beliefs.3 Such a mentality denies

the slave his spirituality and refutes the image of the just God that Walker tries to pro-

mulgate from his earliest words. His work, then, can be understood at least in part as

an effort to redeem or revivify the slaves' faith in Christianity, while positing spirituality

as a defining characteristic of humanity.

Although Walker was extremely disturbed with the way in which whites had

maligned Christianity from Boston to Georgia, he held onto his belief that Christianity

3This belief carried over into the political realm as well. Walker excoriates the white
man for "telling us that we the (blacks) [sic] are an inferior race of beings! incapable of self
government" (Walker, 66).

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was one of several means to freedom, and wished to share that vision with other of his

more educated brethren. To these he wrote, once again emphasizing the important link

between the sacred with the secular, "Men of colour, and of sense, for you particularly

is my appeal designed. Our more ignorant brethren are not able to penetrate its

value ...You have to prove that we are men and not brutes. The way to do this is to work

towards the salvation of all brethren through education and religion" (Walker, 30). In

reestablishing Christianity as a viable means of resistance and pride, Walker's appeal

can be understood as a spiritual work, one of a man determined to bring faith to others,

to right the wrongs of white Christian preachers, and to take bold religious and political

stances in his efforts to achieve the justice he believes God want, and to reclaim his

brethren's humanity. As Gayraud Wilmore suggests, Walker "never surrendered his

faith to cynicism" (Wilmore, 39). His insistence on his and other blacks' spirituality

frames them as men at least equal to the whites in moral standing, and on a philosophi-

cal and moral level, damages the always questionable legitimacy of slavery. Walker's

steadfast dedication to the notion of manhood, combined with his be.liefin spirituality,

informs each of his arguments against the conditions of slavery and racism, and did

much to plant the seeds of revolt that ultimately would bring down the former, and

move towards diminishing the other. His almost shockingly cheerful, but fair, conclusion

that if whites merely acknowledge the humanity of blacks and "treat us like men" then

"there is no danger but we will all live in peace and happiness together" (Walker, 70)

points to an optimism in the political realm that seems capable only from a religious

perspective. This is true to the degree that one historian was moved to the conclusion

that the Appeal is far from being a solely political manifesto, and "if there is anyone

characteristic in the Walker work that is clearer and sharper than any other, it is its reli-

giosity" (Aptheker, 5). While we have not yet attained Walker's spiritual and social

utopia, his political and religious means of establishing, perhaps demanding, blacks'

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humanity inspires all people to, in his words, "become a united and happy people"

(Walker, 70).

Sources:
Aptheker, Herbert. One Continual Cry: David Walker's Appeal: Its Meaning and Setting.
Walker, David. An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.
Wilmore, Gayraud. Black Religion and Black Radicalism.

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