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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

Understanding the Contexts of African American Abolitionist Writings: Suggestions for Teachers, Librarians and Students Using Web-based Resources

John Saillant

Professor of English and History, Western Michigan University

Text-searchable historical resources provide students in African American studies classes with new techniques and opportunities to explore black-authored writings. Most early black Anglophone authors (1760 to 1860) wrote in a complex, allusive style, referring commonly to the King James Bible and contemporary Protestant sermons and less commonly, but still in important ways, to hymns, histories, travelogues, the classics and political tracts.

One tendency among both scholars and students has been to read black-authored documents hermetically, without regard for their discursive contexts. Another tendency has been to read black-authored documents as intertextual, that is, drawing from other texts and responding to them. Early black authors typically mined white-authored writings for the ideas, values, rhetoric, and, more fundamentally, the structures of thought that helped argue against the slave trade and slavery. Black abolitionists usually borrowed from white authors, yet corrected them or disagreed with them on racial matters. Without some awareness of the intertextual strategies of its authors, early black abolitionist writings are often all but incomprehensible and their authors alien to our students.

Before offering some suggestions for teachers, librarians and students, let us look at two ways of considering the intertextuality of early black-authored writings.

One way is exemplified in the editorial and scholarly writings of Vincent Carretta. Among his books are editions of Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano and a biography of Equiano.[1] Carretta has set the gold standard for the discursive context of early black authors, attempting to reconstruct their very own libraries. Many of the footnotes in his editions connect for twenty-first-century readers the reading and the writing of the first black Anglophone authors.

Another way is exemplified in my own scholarly writings, which include a monograph on Lemuel Haynes and articles on John Marrant.[2] I annotate less, but seek to show how reliance upon various texts, along with disagreements with them, made black abolitionist arguments possible. Haynes, for instance, engaged the theologies of his day—both Calvinist and Universalist—and built his abolitionism upon his views of them. Marrant used references to the Bible as a covert way of communicating to his black auditors and readers that they should flee North America for Sierra Leone.

Both ways of understanding intertextuality require something that students have rarely reached yet: familiarity with the texts read by black authors along with intuition about which texts they might have relied upon in writing. How can this familiarity be fostered for students, not only making texts accessible to them but also making them original researchers? One answer is a combination of modern search techniques, careful reading of texts and guidance from instructors and librarians who know the texts black authors read.

The famous, once infamous, David Walker (circa 1796–1830) is a good example of such an author. Walker published an Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (several editions, 1829–1830).[3] The Appeal makes several points: black people by intellectual and practical means must resist both racism and the slave system; some black people, far from resistant, are complicit in slavery; accord between blacks and whites might be possible, even desirable, but it was far from realization around 1830. Walker recommended a revolution both mental and physical—free your minds and fight back. The Appeal brought a price upon his head in some areas of the South. The dominant reading of the Appeal has been to understand it as a product of black communities, both Southern and Northern, as well as an extension of black oral culture, particularly sermonizing.

However, Walker was recognized in his time as a voracious reader. William Lloyd Garrison wrote, for instance, "We are assured, by those who intimately knew him, that his Appeal was an exact transcript of his daily conversations; that, within the last four years, he was hurtfully indefatigable in his studies."[4] Familiarity with his context suggests another source of the Appeal: the documents of the American Revolution and the federal convention, all commonly available in Boston in the 1820s. Walker almost certainly relied on Thomas Paine's Common Sense, The American Crisis, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason as well as Publius's The Federalist.

A search of a digital resource including The Federalist, for instance, yields a large number of unattributed quotations and paraphrases from its numbers, often several from one number near one another in the Appeal.[5] The first two parts of the Appeal, its "Preamble" and "Article I" (out of four), cover in a modern edition six and twelve pages respectively. In these eighteen pages there are at least ninety-seven quotations or near-quotations from The Federalist. There is a similarly large number of attributed quotations and paraphrases in these same pages from Thomas Paine as well as attributed quotations and paraphrases from the Bible and from Thomas Jefferson. Walker seems to have named white authors when he disagreed with them (Jefferson) but hidden his sources when he agreed with them (Paine and Publius). Today most of the documents Walker used, or seems to have used, are available in reliable searchable databases, and we can reconstruct his reading by searching for words and phrases from the Appeal in books Walker might have read.

What was the attraction of The Federalist for the author of the Appeal? How did its concerns support his abolitionism? Let us leave those as questions for the students. But let us identify how we can guide them to informed answers that flow from their own use of these new digital resources. Often students are creative in their database sleuthing and surprise us with their well-informed responses. We can suggest elements of the context for them and set them hunting. We can suggest resources where the hunting may be good. To encourage students to read not just the words returned by the search engine, but the document itself, we must tell them that while occasionally an author borrows in a lapidary style, early black authors engaged the meaning and the significance of texts that seemed to have some bearing on the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery. Students who want to understand black abolitionism must understand its contexts.


Works Cited and Consulted

[1]. Complete Writings: Phillis Wheatley, edited with an introduction by Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin Books, 2001). Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited with an introduction and notes by Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin Books, 2003). Vincent Carretta, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (Atlanta: The University of Georgia Press, 2005).

[2]. John Saillant, Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). John Saillant, "'Wipe away All Tears from Their Eyes': John Marrant's Theology in the Black Atlantic, 1785-1808," The Journal of Millennial Studies (Volume 1, Number 2: Winter, 1999), available online at

[3]. The standard modern edition is David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, edited with a new introduction and annotations by Peter P. Hinks (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000). An online edition is available at

[4]. The Liberator, January 29, 1831, quoted in Peter P. Hinks, To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), p. 117.

[5]. An online searchable edition of The Federalist is available through the Avalon Project at Yale Law School at

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