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“Let no man of us budge one step”: David Walker and the Rhetoric of African American Emplacement

From: Early American Literature
Volume 46, Number 2, 2011
pp. 319-350 | 10.1353/eal.2011.0011

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When David Walker sought examples from the global history of enslavement for his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America (1829; David Walker’s Appeal), he didn’t have to look very hard to find instances that cut to the core of the young republic’s ideals. Classical exemplars like that of the Helots in Sparta or the quite larger system of Roman slavery represented a wry challenge to the national aspiration to be the modern incarnation of and improvement on the classical republican spirit, but it was the precedent set by Hebrew slaves in Egypt that Walker found most telling and most rhetorically useful. Walker employs the story of Exodus to develop his claim that African Americans (enslaved and free) are “the most degraded, wretched, and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began” (1), enabling him to undercut white America’s vision of itself as a chosen nation.1 At the same time, Exodus provided a model for African American resistance and community building, what Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., calls “a political history about slavery and freedom, law and rebellion” (5). Critics like Michael Walzer characterize the importance of the Exodus tale in African American culture as primarily symbolic—not only representative of a divinely liberated people but also proof of an ethical imperative for self-improvement, so that becoming a chosen people was “not a matter of where we plant our feet but of how we cultivate our spirits” (108). The symbolic movement in Exodus from enslaved to free thus became a metaphor for the material and spiritual progress of the black individual and the community. However, such conceptions often function anachronistically, framing early African American culture in ways that reflect later social formations. This is not to say that the Exodus narrative was not important, but that it carried multiple functions for blacks in the early republic. For Walker, African American political identity is absolutely a matter of “where we plant our feet.”

Indeed, Walker’s preamble, beginning with his reading of the Egyptian oppression of the Jews, demonstrates his interest not only in the history of slavery but in the spaces of slave history—in particular, the ways in which slavery traveled westward with civilization and was planted in North America. By overlaying the spatial development of slavery on the routes taken by ostensibly democratic models that had established themselves in the Americas, Walker could argue that the United States, if it was the exemplar of liberty, was in its slave system also the paragon of tyranny. As Robert S. Levine recently argued, Walker was keenly aware of the debate over the Missouri Compromise, a dispute that was widely reported in the African American press and which often focused on the mobility of free blacks within the Union.2 Walker’s exploration of the nation’s conflicted relationship with slavery would not only call into question the providential logic of the national narrative but also critique the westward movement of white America. His choice to utilize the structure of the Exodus tale in this case was not an innovation; instead, Walker was developing and building on the structure that had long been a staple of African American religious imagination and a mainstay within early black sermons and spirituals.

In order to best gauge Walker’s contributions to the African American narrative of Exodus, I turn first to the various uses of Exodus as precedent and metaphor in early African American writings. I then address the history of the American Colonization Society, the most visible target of Walker’s ire in the Appeal, in order to underscore the political stakes for Walker’s rhetoric. As Walker would argue, Liberian colonization depended on the rhetoric of return for African slaves—colonizationalists claimed to restore Africans to their ancestral homeland, and to rescue them from a lifetime as strangers in a strange land. The resultant emigration of black citizens to their “rightful” homeland would confirm the idea of the United States as an inherently, even “naturally,” white nation. Walker recognized the fallacy of such arguments, anticipating theorist Henri Lefebvre’s...