David Walker (1785-1830)
Contributing Editor: Paul Lauter
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The first problem with teaching this author is the militance of Walker's Appeal. Some students (especially whites) are troubled by the vehemence with which he attacks whites. They, after all, don't defend slavery, so why should all whites be condemned? Some (especially students of color) prefer not to get into open discussion where their sympathies with Walker's views will necessarily emerge. Some also don't like his criticism of his fellow blacks. Some of the material added to this selection suggests that Walker viewed at least some whites as potential allies and was concerned not to alienate all white people, but to win them over to his view.
A second problem is the rhetoric of the Appeal. It uses techniques drawn from sermons (note especially the biblical references) and from the political platforms of the day. Most students are unfamiliar with religious or political rhetoric of our time, much less that of 150 years ago.
One way of beginning to address these problems is to ask students whether they think Georgia officials were "correct" in putting a price on Walker's head and in trying to get his Appeal banned from the mails. This can be put in the form of "trying" the text, with arguments for prosecution and defense, etc. Is Walker guilty of sedition, of trying to foment insurrection?
Another approach can be to use a more recent expression of black militance, e.g., Stokely Carmichael on black power: "When you talk of black power, you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created." How do students feel about that? Would Walker approve? Sometimes an effective way to begin class discussion is by reading aloud brief anonymous student responses.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
It's critical for students to understand the difference between "colonization" schemes for ending slavery (which would gradually send blacks back to Africa) and Walker's commitment to immediate and unconditional emancipation.
If they have read earlier (eighteenth-century) expressions of black protest (e.g., Prince Hall, Olaudah Equiano ), it's important and useful to see how Walker departs from these in tone, as well as in audience and purpose.
Ultimately, the question is what does Walker want to happen? Blacks to unite, to kill or be killed, if it comes to that?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
To some extent the rhetorical questions, the multiple exclamation points, the quoting of biblical passages, the heated terminology are features of the period. It can be useful to ask students to rewrite a paragraph using the comparable rhetorical devices of our day. Or, vice versa, to use Walker's style to deal with a current political issue like the level of unemployment and homelessness among blacks.
This is a central issue: The Appeal is clearly directed to black people, Walker's "brethren." But since most black slaves were not literate, doesn't that blunt the impact? Or were there ways around that problem?
Why isn't Walker writing to whites, since they seem to have a monopoly of power? Or is he, really? Does he seem to be speaking to two differing audiences, even while seeming to address one?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The Walker text is placed with a number of others concerned with the issue of slavery in order to facilitate such comparisons. While some share the religious rhetoric (e.g., Grimké ), others the disdain of colonization (e.g., Garrison ), others the appeal to black pride (e.g., Garnet ), others the valorization of a black revolutionary (e.g., Higginson ), all differently compose such elements. What links (values, style) and separates them?
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
Why would the government of Georgia put a price on Walker's head?
2. I like the idea of asking students to try adapting Walker's style (and that of other writers in this section) to contemporary events. It helps get them "inside" the rhetoric.
There are not many sources to consult; the best of these are already cited in the primary and secondary bibliographies in the text.