David Walker was an early 19th-century black abolitionist and activist, who wrote An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Ryan McAnnally-Linz celebrates his ideas in this influential pamphlet that gave dignity, hope, and courage to slaves and freed black people alike, urging them to continue fighting for their freedom while the United States struggled toward the end of slavery.
This episode is part of our celebration of Black History Month; we offer these short reflections in appreciation and gratitude for the black voices who’ve shaped how we experience the world, how we think about it, and how we live in it.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.
So far during Black History Month, our team at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, along with some of our friends in our extended circles, have been reflecting on the black voices who've shaped how we experience the world, how we think about it, how we live in it. We want to celebrate the personal impact these authors, artists, activists have had in our lives, and pass along some of their words and work to you, whether as recommended reading or a simple reflective appreciation and gratitude just in this moment. So over the next couple of weeks, we're going to publish some of these reflections, each of them short, highlighting some of the central ideas and key points of their work, just enough that we hope you'll connect with them maybe add them to your own reading list.
Today, we're hearing from Ryan McAnnally-Linz, with an appreciation for David Walker, a black abolitionist, an activist whose influence predated the civil war--an emancipation proclamation--by half a century. He died of tuberculosis at age 34, but not before writing his stirring and courageous pamphlet, An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: This is Ryan McAnnally-Linz from the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. In 1829, David Walker, a black man born free in North Carolina who had moved to Boston as an adult, published a short appeal in four articles together with a preamble to the colored citizens of the world, but in particular and very expressly to those of the United States of America. Walker's appeal called for black people to devote themselves to securing the freedom and equality that was their right. He would die in the next year of tuberculosis in his mid-thirties, not living to see the civil war that he foresaw or the emancipation of the people he'd urged to claim their rightful freedom.
Now to read Walker's appeal as a white American like me is to listen in on a conversation that's not yours. It's an appeal to the colored citizens of the world after all. As Willie Jennings has argued, the colonial project worked by severing the connection of people to particular lands. It had taken the wide array of Igbo and Ashanti and so on and rendered them all simply, uniformly black. Walker's appeal is from one such black man to all others. It refers consistently to white Americans and white Christians in the third person as they and them.
Now the very fact of this conversation not meant for me is one of the most important things Walker's appeal helps cement in my thinking. The first nourishment for white Christian like me thinking theologically about the injustice of race ought to be the crumbs that fall from the table of a meal that's not my own. That's the big lesson that I take away from Walker's appeal. I mean, there are so many other things, but really, I want to give you just enough that you feel like you have to read it for yourself. So, I'll highlight just one.
Walker's core theological argument is as concise as it is incisive. All human beings belong to God and Christ as their creator and redeemer. Therefore, no human being can belong to another human. In other words, there is no Lord, but the Lord, no master, but Christ who crucially gave his life for his servants and called them friends. To seek to become anyone's master, to lord your power over another, is to usurp the place that belongs exclusively and absolutely to God. It's to claim divinity for yourself.
"God gave the Americans a plenty of everything calculated to do them good," Walker writes, "not satisfied with this, however, they wanted slaves, and wanted us for their slaves, who belong to the Holy Ghost, and no other, who we shall have to serve instead of tyrants. I say, the Americans want us, the property of the Holy Ghost, to serve them." And take it there're more ways to do them demanding, more ways to want service than claiming literal ownership in chattel slavery.
Something crucial follows from this. It's the kind of thing that sounds a little obvious after the fact, but that's revolutionary the first time someone puts straight forward words to it. To stop perpetrating injustice is not to do anyone a favor and it's not a sacrifice in any proper sense. Walker writes, "Should tyrants take into their heads to emancipate any of you, remember that your freedom is your natural right. You were a man as well as they, and instead of returning thanks to them for your freedom, return it to the Holy Ghost, who is our rightful owner." You don't get a pat on the back for finally giving up your rank injustice. There's no gratitude owed to you. Slave owners may have felt like emancipation cost them something, but it was in fact only returning stolen goods.
Reading Walker on this point raises this question for me: what in our day do we claim as ours when in fact it belongs to God? But more specifically, and honestly more to the point in reading Walker: where do I find myself clinging to racial privilege as though it were rightfully mine? And where do I find myself looking for gratitude from black Americans for doing only what obedience to God requires?
I really can't recommend David Walker's appeal strongly enough. It's a breathtaking read and it's fairly short. You can finish it in an afternoon or a couple of evenings. And you'll come away better for having done so.
Evan Rosa: To read more about David Walker, including a link to his entire Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World,check the show notes for this episode. Thanks for listening, friends.
For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian, Ryan McAnnally-Linz. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We produce a new episode every Saturday and you can subscribe through any podcast app. Thanks for listening.