David Walker and the Composition Classroom?

For various reasons, I always like to teach David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) in my Early American literature courses. Typically, I do not have students read selections from Walker’s Appeal until later in the semester; however, as I noted in a previous post, I am having students read it at the very beginning of the semester before moving backwards to Thomas Jefferson, William Bradford, Mary Rowlandson, and others. I did this for a couple of reasons, but recently, after teaching excerpts from the Appeal last week, I found another important reason to teach Walker’s text first. This reason does not deal with thematic elements in the Appeal that relate to our current milieu or to destabilizing the traditional literary survey, even though those are important reasons for choosing to have students read this text first. Rather, Walker provides a key bridge for students coming to a literary survey after taking their core composition courses because he highlights writing and reading as a conversation.

Over the past few years, I have been structuring my composition courses around Kenneth Burke’s Parlor Metaphor and the idea of writing as a conversation instead of as a solitary activity. While this may seem intuitive, I can recall that during my early days in the classroom, I did not do this. However, once I started to teach writing, and reading, as a conversation, I saw students become more engaged in the course because they felt like they could actually contribute their own voice to an ongoing conversation. For me, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing along with Mike Palmquist and Barbara Wallraff’s Joining the Conversation: A Guide and Handbook for Writers have proven to be good textbooks to bring the idea of writing as a conversation into the classroom.

Burke’s metaphor is pretty easy to follow. Imagine that you arrive at party and hear the people that are already there talking about whether or not college athletes should be paid or not. You stand to the side, possibly, and listen to the conversation as it progresses, taking in both sides of the debate. A couple of people leave,  and the debate continues. Eventually, you decide that you understand the tenor of the conversation enough to throw your own ideas into the ring. A new person arrives, listens, then joins in the conversation. You realize it’s getting late, and then you leave. However, the conversation continues. It started before you arrived, carried on while you were there, and continues after you leave. This is the underlying idea of writing as conversation.

Now, what does this have to do with Walker’s Appeal? Why is the Appeal a good text to bridge that gap between a freshman composition course and a sophomore literature survey?  Throughout his Appeal, Walker highlights writing as a conversation and debate about ideas that existed before he was born and that continue to this day. For our purposes today, I am only going to focus on one such instance where Walker does this, with part of his discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on race. This is not the only instance where Walker displays Burke’s metaphor. He does it with Daniel Webster, the American Colonization Society, and others as well.

walkersappeal

In “Article I: Our Wretchedness in Consequence of Slavery,” Walker joins in the contemporaneous conversation surrounding race during the early part of the nineteenth century in America. He quotes, and refutes, Jefferson’s ideas on race, specifically the thoughts he espoused in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), where the third President of the United States claims, “I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to whites in the endowments of both body and mind” (465). Walker takes Jefferson’s “suspicion” to task, asking, “Has Mr. Jefferson declared to the world, that we are inferior to the whites, both in the endowments of our bodies and of minds?” (514). After asking the question, Walker presents the image of two deer, one caged and one able to run free. If the caged deer gets released, Walker says, it will have to struggle to achieve the abilities of the deer that could run free, even if it was in bondage. Walker then returns to the biblical reference of the Egyptians allowing slaves, Joseph and Moses, to rise among them, while whites in America refuse to allowed free slaves to own land.

Walker’s argument is more intricate than just refuting Jefferson’s ideas, because Jefferson’s ideas influenced others as well. Walker makes a note of this later in “Article I” when he solicits his readers “to buy a copy of Mr. Jefferson’s “Notes on Virginia,” and put it in the hand of his son” (517). By stating this, Walker does not say that Jefferson’s ideas are valid and correct; instead, he asserts that in order to refute claims like those made by Jefferson about the inferiority of blacks, one must know what the other side says. As well, Walker realizes the power of the printed word and its ability to influence people’s thoughts. That is why he wanted his Appeal to circulate as widely as possible, sending it with sailors and others all  over the country.

There is a lot more that could be said here with the relationship between teaching Walker’s Appeal, or other texts,  in relation to the idea of writing as a conversation in composition courses. Showing students this link gets them interested in examine literature in different ways and provides them with a foundation for exploring texts that they may not be familiar with. More importantly, it empowers students from the very beginning of a survey course when they may feel intimidated because they have never been introduced to the texts or concepts of the course. By framing Walker in the context of writing as a conversation, students can draw on their previous knowledge to encounter unfamiliar texts.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me now in the comments below.

Jefferson, Thomas. From Notes on the State of Virginia. America Literature. Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, and Hilary E. Wuss. 2nd Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2014. 462-465.

Walker, David. From Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. America Literature. Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, and Hilary E. Wuss. 2nd Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2014. 512-520.

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