To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance.
The Pennsylvania State University
I am not the first to detect similarities between Gary Collison's Shadrack Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen and Peter Hinks's To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance. Almost nothing is known of either Minkins or Walker, and these volumes represent the time-honored device of using a spare biographical scaffold to support imaginatively conceived social history. Students of African American literary and intellectual life will find the Hinks volume more satisfying, by far, since Walker is already well-known to them for his 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens o the World. Minkins was apparently "illiterate all his life, [and] died with his thoughts and experiences unrecorded."
David Walker and Shadrack Minkins migrated, under different circumstances, from their respective slave states of North Carolina and Virginia to Boston. Each, in his way, became symbolic within the black community of the struggle against slavery. Walker was born technically free, and left the South in the wake of oppression, following the Denmark Vesey conspiracy. Minkins, who was born a slave, expressed his thoughts on slavery in the most pragmatic sense by his flight to Boston, where he was subsequently arrested under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. It seemed that he was destined to be shipped back to Norfolk, but an angry group of black Bostonians freed him by storming the courtroom, and he was spirited away to Canada with the aid of the Boston Vigilance Committee. There is no record of his having gone on to become a crusading abolitionist or an artful conductor for the Underground Railroad.
Much of what little we know of David Walker is preserved under ironic circumstances, resulting, as it does, from the frequently erupting conflicts between Frederick Douglass and rival black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet. In 1843 a convention of black leaders was held in Buffalo, New York, where Garnet delivered a paper that has come to be known as Garnet's Address to the Slaves of the United States, in which he enjoined enslaved persons to rise up against their masters and deliver an irresistible stroke for freedom. At first the address was greeted with enthusiasm, and the whole convention "was literally infused with tears." But Frederick Douglass rose on that occasion to oppose adoption of the address by the convention and, by the irresistible power of his ego, prevailed on the convention to reject it by a vote of 19 to 18. Douglass insisted that publication of such a paper would lead to a racial conflagration destructive to the lives and limbs of all African Americans, whether enslaved or free.
Five years later, Garnet finally published his Address, and the predicted racial cataclysm did not ensue. Garnet's stubborn persistence provided, aside from the obvious benefit of the document's preservation, an additional boon for historians. Garnet had long admired David Walker's Appeal, which he republished along with a short biographical preface in the same binding with his own address. The biography was maddeningly brief, but it remains the source of almost everything that we know today about the life of Walker.
Peter Hinks, an historian of great skill, dedication, and inventiveness, has undertaken the search for additional details on Walker with assiduous professionalism, and has produced a work that is as provocative and creative as it is well-crafted. To A waken My Afflicted Brethren is more interesting for the questions it raises than for the answers it provides, however. The work demonstrates impressively the craftsmanship and perseverance of the author, and must be described as a brilliantly performed virtuoso piece, but Hinks's exhaustive search has produced little new data on Walker's life. Hinks offers some most exciting speculations - for example, those based on Walker's report that he attended at a camp meeting in South Carolina, around the time of the Vesey conspiracy and trial. Hinks also provides much information on the probable routes whereby Walker's Appeal was distributed. The volume is well-indexed and profusely documented, with footnotes where they belong, securely anchoring the text to the base of every page.
Gary Collison's Shadrack Minkins treats a hazier figure, more indistinct than David Walker, and necessarily abounds in even more speculation. Prior to Collision's work, the most significant known details on Minkins's life were summarized in Volume II of The Black Abolitionist Papers, edited by C. Peter Ripley, Roy Finkenbine, et al. This information was partially derived from Stanley W. Campbell's The Slave Catchers. The originality of Collison's contribution is in his discovery of additional facts about Minkins's life before and during his sojourn in Boston, and after his arrival in Montreal. Collison's enthusiasm for his work is infectious, as he describes the moment of his discovery of Minkins's name on the microfilm of the manuscript of the Canadian census of 1861. "I was uncovering an African-American equivalent of a lost tribe of Israel. . . . But where was Shadrack Minkins. . . . Then a shot of adrenaline swept through me. The census taker had misheard and written down the name [Shadrack] 'Nichols' instead of 'Minkins.' "As a result, Collison now had the names of Minkins's Irish wife, Mary, and his first two children, Mary and William. He discovered references to additional children in a later census.
Collison's book is very well-written, although one wishes for a more complete index, and it would have been well to give more prominent acknowledgment to the previous scholarship on Minkins - sparse though it is. Collison provides a new and interesting perspective on the history of the Fugitive Slave Law and its victims, and adds some shading to what is still only the barest outline of a biography. The usefulness of this volume is that it competently synthesizes an appreciable amount of prior scholarship on the era of the Fugitive Slave Law. Barring the possibility of some amazing discovery that Minkins was literate after all, and that he was the author of a book or the editor of a newspaper, it seems unlikely that he will ever be as important to African American history as David Walker. It is maddening that the sum total of biographical raw material that we can retrieve on Walker is roughly the same as that we can retrieve on Minkins. This tragic fact in itself tells us something of the brutal realities of black intellectual life in North America during the mid-nineteenth century, where so much of the literary and cultural life of the desperate communities of "Free Africans" must be reconstructed from relics whose very obscurity bears mute testimony to the instability of their freedom and the fragility of their happiness.
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|Author:||Moses, Wilson J.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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