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Cultivating Nia: The Daring Resolve of David Walker’s Appeal with a Note on African American Values and Traditions

The Kwanzaa principle Nia (Purpose) reminds us of our commitment to living a meaningful life in support of African people. The essence of Nia is “to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness” (http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/index.shtml). African American history and culture is replete with examples of people who dedicated their entire life to this singular purpose. Nia requires the courage to pledge one’s life to a goal greater than oneself. Nia stresses that we carry forth our commitment with consistency, integrity, and bravery. One individual who exemplified the spirit of Nia was David Walker (1785-1830). We know him from his collection of essays entitled the Walker’s 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, known as David Walker’s Appeal.[1] Walker was fortunate to have operated within a period of early America where free Africans were vigorously responding to the consolidation of slavery, while at the same time advocating for the upliftment of northern free Black communities. David Walker’s Appeal is considered a crucial text in Africana historical studies, representing a severe assessment of the system of slavery in the United States in the early period of the Abolitionist Movement.

Walker called on free Africans to continue to support abolitionism and reminded enslaved Africans that they had a responsibility to secure their freedom. Walker stated: “my object is, if possible, to awaken in the breasts of my afflicted, degraded and slumbering brethren, a spirit of enquiry and investigation respecting our miseries and wretchedness in this Republican Land of Liberty!!!!!” Walker spoke directly to the nation when he prophesized that a divine reckoning would occur if American slavery did not end. Having migrated from the south to the north, Walker was well aware of the risks of writing and distributing the Appeal. It was considered provocative, rebellious, and militant because it advocated that Blacks take up arms to win their freedom. The south saw the Appeal’s implications for the entire Black population, and moved to convict Blacks in possession of the pamphlet with the criminal offense of conspiracy. Slaveholders were also concerned about strengthening and upholding bans on reading and writing for enslaved Africans. Walker understood that the proslavery faction intended to keep Africans ignorant and filled with the belief that their existence meant unending service to the slave power. To respond to that idea Walker said: “they want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us in order to subject us to that wretched condition—therefore, if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed.” Further, he openly challenged slaveholder’s contradictory Christian conceptions of good conduct: “…being Christians enlightened and sensible, they are completely prepared for such hellish cruelties.”

Walker warned that slaveholders “…will have enough of us (Africans) by and by—their stomachs shall run over with us; they want us for their slaves, and shall have us to their fill.” Walker admonished Christians for the mistreatment and mis-education of African people because in his mind the great sin of slavery could only be absolved by “repenting” (through abolitionism).

As a function of Nia, Walker’s singular ambition, his life theme, was to deliver the message, as a free Black man, that the enslavement of African people, the harshest, most cruel example in the history of the world, must be stopped. Throughout the Appeal Walker reiterated the right of Africans to secure their freedom: “The man who would not fight under our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in the glorious and heavenly cause of freedom and of God—to be delivered from the most wretched, abject and servile slavery, that ever a people was afflicted with since the foundation of the world, to the present day—ought to be kept with all of his children or family, in slavery, or in chains, to be butchered by his cruel enemies.”

For African people, having a purpose in life transcends the need to react to the imposition of difficult circumstances; it is the cultivation of character (or as Black mothers used to say “walk with a sense of purpose”). There are several notable contemporary academic and trade books on such African American values, a subject that has been at the forefront of Black cultural nationalist thought for decades. Some diverse and notable examples of these texts include: Joyce A. Ladner‘s The Ties that Bind; Timeless Values for African American Families (2000), Teresa L. Fry Brown’s God Don’t Like Ugly: African American Women Handing on Spiritual Values (2000), Jawanza Kunjufu‘s Restoring the Village, Values, and Commitment: Solutions for the Black Family (1997), James L. Conyers, Jr., Afrocentric Traditions (Vol. 1, 2005), Maat, the Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt by Maulana Karenga and Jan Assmann (2006), and Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings by Maulana Karenga (1999). For African Americans, we have generations of wisdom and knowledge which speaks to the best of our values and traditions—our Nia. The purpose of David Walker’s Appeal was to unite Africans in consolidated thought and action in order to eradicate the institution of slavery in the United States.

by Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina


[1] See David Walker, “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World: Our Wretchedness in Consequence of Slavery,” in African Intellectual Heritage: A Book of Sources edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Abu S. Abarry, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996, pp. 627-636; and for the full text of the third edition see David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in particular, and very expressly, to those of the United States of America, Introduction by James Turner, Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 1993; see also a digital edition in pdf David Walkers Appeal Third Edition 1830.