Systemic Racism and Collective Forgetting: Let Us Recover Those Like Walker, Garnet, and Delaney

In my The White Racial Frame book I not only discuss this age-old white racial frame, which accents both white virtue material and anti-others material, but also the important counter frames to this dominant white frame that people of color have developed. In the U.S. case African Americans have developed an especially strong counter frame over centuries, perhaps because they have had the longest period of time situated firmly within this systemically racist society.

One feature of U.S. systemic racism involves a rather intentional collective forgetting by whites of key African Americans who articulated and often organized around a strong counter frame. Let me remind our readers of a few of these great Americans.

One of the first to put counter frame down on paper was David Walker, a young African American abolitionist working in Boston. In 1829 he published a strong manifesto, entitled Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Demanding full equality, he wrote to his fellow African Americans with revolutionary arguments in an anti-oppression framing, so much so that slaveholding whites put a large cash bounty on his head. (He died young, probably as a result.) Walker analyzes slavery and racial segregation for free blacks quite bluntly. Most whites are “cruel oppressors and murderers” whose “oppression” will be overthrown. They are “an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings.” Whites seek for African Americans to be slaves to them

and their children forever to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!

He then quotes the words “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence and challenges whites:

Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us–men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation! . . . . I ask you candidly, was your sufferings under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?

A little later in the 19th century, an admirer of Walker, the African American abolitionist Henry Garnet, gave a radical speech, “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” at a National Negro Convention. Garnet’s counter framing is very assertive and to the point, and it is also an address to those enslaved. He offers a structural analysis of “oppression,” arguing too that the white “oppressor’s power is fading.” African Americans like “all men cherish the love of liberty. . . . In every man’s mind the good seeds of liberty are planted.” He calls on those enslaved to take revolutionary action:

There is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather die freemen, than live to be slaves.” He concludes with a strong call to rebellion: “Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties.

One of the most brilliant of the 19th century analysts of systemic racism was the great abolitionist, Martin Delaney, who among other actions worked in revolutionary efforts to overthrow the slavery system. (In May 1858, he and John Brown gathered black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary meeting in Chatham, Canada. Four dozen black and white Americans wrote a new constitution to govern a growing band of armed revolutionaries they hoped would come from the enslaved US population.) Directing a book at all Americans, Delaney emphasizes the

United States, untrue to her trust and unfaithful to her professed principles of republican equality, has also pursued a policy of political degradation to a large portion of her native born countrymen. . . . there is no species of degradation to which we are not subject.

His counter framing is one of resistance and extends the old liberty-and-justice frame beyond white rhetoric:

We believe in the universal equality of man, and believe in that declaration of God’s word, in which it is positively said, that ‘God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.’

Delaney attacks whites’ stereotypes of African Americans with a detailed listing of important achievements of numerous free and enslaved African Americans and emphasizes how enslaved workers brought very important skills in farming to North America that European colonists did not have. African American workers were the “bone and sinews of the country” and the very “existence of the white man, South, depends entirely on the labor of the black man.” Delaney emphasizes that African Americans are indeed very old Americans:

Our common country is the United States. . . . and from here will we not be driven by any policy that may be schemed against us. We are Americans, having a birthright citizenship.

Let us bring these and other important 19th African Americans back into our contemporary history, as they were both thinkers and activists in the long tradition of people fighting for liberty in the United States. Note too essential elements of the black counter frame in these and many other black thinkers and activists too often forgotten writings from the 19th century: a strong critique of racial oppression; an aggressive countering of white’s negative framing of African Americans; and a very strong accent on the centrality and importance of liberty, justice, and equality for all Americans. African Americans have been perhaps the most central Americans in keeping these liberty and justice ideals constantly alive and imbedded in resistance organizations over four long centuries of freedom struggles in the racist history of the United States.