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  • The Exodus of Martin Delany
  • Grant Shreve (bio)

Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped.

Psalms 124.7, read aloud by Martin R. Delany at the National Emigration Convention of Colored People, 26 Aug. 1854

By the late 1850s, the territorial advances of US slaveholding interests had convinced a growing class of black intellectuals that universal bondage was in the offing. Divine judgment, they reasoned, would soon follow, and no blood struck upon the lintels of their doorways would spare them from God's wrath. In their eyes, the only alternative was escape. Black emigrationism was the political movement developing out of these conclusions, and although it was plagued by accusations that its projects were no better than or different from white-led colonization efforts, it remained fundamentally "an ideology of empowerment," one "centered on the notion that a black-ruled nation could provide a refuge for those African Americans who found racism intolerable" (Power-Greene 4). Integrationists, despite their reservations about the future of African Americans in the US, demanded that the nation live up to its founding ideals and forge black communities within its bounds. Emigrationists, on the other hand, sought refuge in new Canaans, where they believed they could create social orders free from the seemingly irremediable burdens of racism. [End Page 449]

In one of a series of six essays written for The Anglo-African Magazine (1859–60) advocating the collective emigration of African Americans to Haiti, the black Protestant Episcopal minister James T. Holly alerted his readers:

The social ostracism of the colored people in the United States is complete and irremediable. . . . They must escape as Lot from the guilty and doomed cities of the plain, not even looking back upon this accursed land—lest like the wife of Lot, they should be turned into signal monuments of Divine vengeance; or like that Slavish generation of Israelites, who hankered after the flesh pots of Egypt, be doomed to wander in the wilderness of darkness and error until they are all slain by the avenging hand of God[.]


By layering the biblical accounts of Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction atop the wilderness experience of the Israelites, Holly grimly prophesies the nation's future and crafts a cautionary tale about the perils of nostalgia. While he knows these imaginary pilgrims may yearn to steal one last glance at the land of their birth or salivate over remembered "flesh pots," Holly has no sympathy for retrospective longing. For "the only means by which a suffering people can seek their political regeneration" is to break decisively with an old social order and construct a radically new one in its place (241). The Israelites' 40 years in the wilderness, he reminds his readers, were a punishment, not a prerequisite.

Appearing in the same issue of The Anglo-African Magazine were several chapters of Martin R. Delany's Blake; or, the Huts of America (1859–62). As it had for Holly and many others, the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 led Delany (already a well-known editor, physician, orator, abolitionist, and journalist) to devote his considerable energies to emigrationist schemes.1 Blake, his sole novel, is the most sophisticated and capacious expression of his thinking from within emigrationism, yet because it begins with its titular hero's attempt to incite a mass land-based slave rebellion, the novel at first glance hardly seems a representative emigrationist narrative. Brazen in its representations of black radicalism, the first of the novel's two parts is a revolutionary picaresque through the antebellum South as Henry Blake, a former slave, foments insurrection across the region. It is only after a narrative turn midway through the text that Blake abandons his rebellion, flees north to Canada with what remains of his family, and then travels to Cuba, where he simultaneously plots a new uprising, forms a nascent pan-African nation, and fashions a new black religion. Despite the novel's hectic pace and geographic scope, it is anchored by the story of Israelite [End Page 450] liberation in the book of Exodus. But, like Holly's prophetic warning, Blake does...


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