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.


  1. Blaque Swan

    You know, the more I think about it, the more it seems that white virtue is one of the most enduring and central tenets of white racial framing. It eracists history, that is to say it erases and distorts history in a racist manner. The atrocities of slavery and counter-reconstruction are completely forgotten, and Africans become ineffectual puppets totally dependent upon the will, good or otherwise, of whites. So Nat Turner becomes a murderer; Denmark Vesey never existed; and, as my AP American history told us, if slavery was really that oppressive, there would’ve been more rebellions. Then of course, Lincoln freed the slaves; for some unknown reason, African Americans got themselves re-enslaved and need MLK to free them again. And even though Barry Goldwater had no use for King, today’s conservatives are the true heirs of both the Black Freedom Movement and Goldwater and Buckley.

    To make matters worse, we can’t teach history accurately because it would engender “rebellion against the government,” meanwhile everyone’s encouraged to “remember the Alamo.”

    White Americans feel perfectly fine fighting to keep racist university mascots like Colonel Reb and passing legislation to keep racist mascots like North Dakota’s Fighting Soiux. After complaining about the use of “plantation” as a game piece, I ran afoul of someone who was offended by the very idea of making changes based on the “aesthetic of language.” That is, this person was offended that I was offended.

    I could go on, but suffice it to say that despite all the concrete evidence to contrary, white Americans and their enablers of color insist that racism’s impact is nearly negligible; and, this argument, this line of thought, this frame of mind all rests on the presumption of white moral virtue. In the end, we end up with tens of millions of white Americans who skip past the CRM, past women’s rights movements, past John Brown, and just past the Whiskey Rebellion to hearken back to the pre-Revolutionary Boston tea party to find inspiration for protesting over-taxation not 4 months into the administration of the first president of color who, by the way, had lowered their taxes.

    Did I touch on everything historically? I’m not as versed in the history of Hispanic, Southeast Asian, and First Americans as I am in the history of blacks. But I did want to at least acknowledge that Africans aren’t the only ones to have our-stories forgotten and distorted in the white racial frame.

    Also, did I make any sense? Cause I guess the most succinct way to make my point would’ve been to point out the way that MLK’s “Dream” has been distilled to his children being judged “not by the color of their skin.” Or better yet, the way the speech is known simply as the “I Have a Dream Speech.” Sorry for being so long-winded.

    Is there slavery in heaven?

    – unknown slave

  2. Joe

    Well put actually, thanks. I think whites’ collective forgetting is foundational to contemporary white framing, for the reason you accent. If whites recognize this brutal, bloody, holocaust type history, white virtue seems an oxymoron indeed. And you are right much more than African American oppression has been conveniently forgotten about our long oppressive history.

  3. seydsaba

    Dozens of people turned out Saturday to protest an anti-Iranian poster that has hung in a Katy restaurant for more than three decades.
    John Nonmacher, owner of Nonmacher’s Bar-B-Que on South Mason, said he has no plans to take down the controversial poster,

    which depicts an Iranian man hanging from a rope surrounded by cowboys, one of whom is wearing a T-shirt that reads “Iranians Suck.”

    I am shocked to see how some people (mostly from the southern states) are defending the owner (John Nonmacher) for promoting hatred and racism against Iranian Americans.
    The mere fact that this poster was from 1979 does not mean it’s ok to post it…while he is at it, why not hang a “Kill all niggers and jews” poster (oh well, it’s just an old poster…don’t be so sensitive about it).

    It’s disturbing that the local authorities and mayor of the town are not doing anything against this “open racism” against the Iranian Americans who live peacefully in this country.

    I am asking the mayor of KATY, TX to get involved and show his/her support to end this act of racism once and for all.

  4. Joe

    Seydsaba, thanks for the information and insight. I grew up just down the road from Katy, and way too many folks down that way are highly unreflective about the common hostile white framing of many groups. Socrates once said, according to Plato, that an unexamined life is not worth living. Such an unexamined approach to life also causes much pain for others.

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