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David Walker’s Early Years:

I could only start where all stories start, at the beginning, with David Walker’s free-born entry into the world in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1795 or 1796.  No amount of research will reveal where or from whom Walker acquired his impressive education, though his hometown black church was the most likely resource.

As a young adult, David Walker moved to Charleston, South Carolina, which boasted a sizable free black community. There, he became active in the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston[1], which was the locus of Denmark Vesey’s sabotaged slave insurrection of 1822. Scholars think it likely that Walker was active in the insurrection attempt.

Likely a fugitive revolutionary post-1822, Walker roamed the country widely, seeing South and North and human oppression in its many ghastly forms. That he ended up in Boston by 1825 is of special note, for Boston was the abolitionist movement’s smoldering hot bed.

[1] This is the same church at which white supremacist Dylan Roof slaughtered nine people in 2015.

See full essay here

While widely known amongst Black Studies and African-American literature scholars, David Walker’s life and work is virtually unknown amongst the wider public.

The Subversive Women who Self-Publish Novels Amid Jihadist War

In conservative Northern Nigeria, women write wildly popular, cheaply printed romances in the Hausa language. Their devout Muslim heroines free themselves from patriarchal traditions like forced child marriage, female illiteracy and polygamy. They become brilliant students, excel in careers and find passionate love in monogamous marriages. The writers inspire thousands of enthusiastic fans to find a voice in this society where a conservative trend of Islam mixes with long-standing local custom to devalue women.  This is, moreover, the region where the extremist jihadist militia Boko Haram (Hausa for “Western education is sinful”) terrorizes the population and kidnapped 276 girls from Chibok school for enforced marriage. We hear a lot about Boko Haram and Northern Nigerian women as victims, but very little about these thousands of women seeking freedom through romance fiction.  Yet their movement is more enormous by far.

See Glenna Gordon, Diagram of the Heart

Laura Mallonee: Northern Nigeria … is not …  a place you’d expect a literary movement of Muslim women to flourish, especially one that sells pulpy novels in the very marketplaces targeted by jihadists.

Whatever the plot, these stories frequently denounce child marriage, sex trafficking, and slavery in all its forms. They are often handwritten, transcribed onto a computer, self-published and sold in markets throughout the Sahel region of Africa. The women who write them brave censorship and become leaders of their community, working within the bounds of society even as they shape it.

“The women fearlessly raise pressing societal issues while promoting literacy among women,”  says Kano literature scholar Abdalla Uba Adama.
Read more here

“Written in Hausa, these romantic novels are the work of mostly female authors, who have been printing their own works in Kano since Nigeria’s publishing industry fell apart in the 1980s.”
Read more here

Femke van Zeijl: “Even though soyayya (love) novels are deeply pious in tone and portray marriage as the single most important goal in a woman’s life, in the strict Islamic north of Nigeria – where senators defend the right to marry 13-year-old girls… – these entertaining and affordable books challenge taboos and empower women.”
Read more here.

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Activism and Altruism in Boston

In Boston, Walker went to work, setting up a used clothing store on Brattle Street, a major thoroughfare near Boston’s wharves. He married Eliza Butler, a daughter of well-to-do black Bostonians. Walker counted as his best friend Boston’s only licensed black ship outfitter, James Stewart.

By the late 1820s, Walker came to live in a home near Boston’s African Meeting House, a refuge for those in need. Despite his business success, he was known to live with startling frugality, apparently bent on giving nearly all he earned in charity to the less fortunate, a quality that drew the admiration of many.

In a December 1828 speech to the Massachusetts General Colored Association, he used his status to call for greater unity among the coloured people of Massachusetts.

Walker and his abolitionist associates were among the first to valorize the Haitian freedom struggle, marking Haitian independence by openly parading through the streets of Boston in celebration and solidarity with the slave rebels of that Caribbean nation.

Walker became Boston correspondent for Freedom’s Journal, America’s first black-owned newspaper.

And he fascinated a penniless idealistic Quaker, William Lloyd Garrison (founder of The Liberator, the famous abolitionist newspaper), who was inspired by Walker’s abolition work.

See full essay here

Walker is, with Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and John Brown, one of the four foremost figures in the abolition movement.

Romances Create Community: Radios and Mobile Phones

Beyond the novels, authors communicate with readers through radio and mobile phone.  Since the female literacy rate is between 35% and 50%, about twenty radio stations do daily readings of these extremely popular novels.

Isa Sanusi: “When Express FM in Kano airs its romance novel slot at 09:00 every weekday morning, many homes comes to a standstill for the next 30 minutes.”

The authors often put their mobile numbers on the cover of their novels, allowing direct feedback from readers who  call to ask for advice.

Many young women are inspired by these novels to strive for an education.  Female literacy is rising as are the numbers of women who attend university.
Read more here

“The books are often credited as being partly responsible for the marked rise in literacy among Hausa women,” according to editor Rakesh Khanna.
Read more here

Michelle Faul:  “Author Hadiza Nuhu Gudaji’s novellas are so popular that she is invited to give advice on radio talk shows…. A 15-year-old … called in, begging the novelist to persuade her father not to force her into marriage. “We said: ‘The father of this girl, you are listening to us, you hear what your girl is saying…. A few weeks later, the girl called to say thank you, and that she was back in school.
“It’s a quiet revolution,” says Ado Ahmed Gidan Dabino, a male novelist, and head of the Kano branch of the Nigerian Writers’ Association.
Read more here

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The Appeal:

The Appeal speaks to us from under the shadow of a slave society, but it is no slave narrative. It is the liberation manifesto of a free man amidst a world enchained.

David Walker attacked avarice itself, finding this urge at the root of all predatory ideology, undergirding all systems of slavery, serfdom, and oppression: “…[T]hose who are actuated by sordid avarice only, overlook the evils, which will as sure as the Lord lives, follow after the good. In fact, they are so happy to keep in ignorance and degradation, and to receive the homage and the labour of the slaves, they forget that God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth… [and] will at one day appear fully in behalf of the oppressed”[1].

David Walker’s Appeal calls for an end to slavery, but it also calls us to a much greater self-mastery and self-development. Of education, Walker offers that “I would crawl on my hands and knees through muck and mire, to the feet of a learned man, where I would sit and humbly supplicate him to instill into me, that which neither devils nor tyrants could remove” because “for coloured people to acquire learning in this country, make[s] tyrants quake and tremble on their sandy foundation.”
“[Walker’s] explicit display,” Elizabeth McHenry explains in Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies, “of the ability of a black man to read widely, reason lucidly, and write authoritatively defied claims of black intellectual inferiority and delivered a crippling blow to the prime justification for black enslavement and oppression”[2].


[1] Walker, David. David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Third and final edition, first published in 1830. Black Classic Press. Baltimore, MD. 1993.

[1] McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History pf African American Literary Societies. Duke University Press. Durham and London: 2002.

[2] McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History pf African American Literary Societies. Duke University Press. Durham and London: 2002.

See full essay here

Walker is a key figure in the study of revolution.
The Appeal speaks to us from under the shadow of a slave society, but it is no slave narrative.

Romance Writers and Boko Haram: Opposing responses to a “volatile social climate”

Novian Whitsitt:  “The romance writers, without exception, feel a sense of social responsibility in advising a youth confused by the volatile social climate” (Whitsitt, 2002).

Michelle Faul:  “Boko Haram denounces the Western influences that are inextricably entwined with the romance genre — an argument author Gudaji firmly rejects. Her 16-year-old son was blinded in one eye … during a 2014 Boko Haram attack on Kano’s Grand Mosque. Gudaji says: ‘What they are preaching and doing is not in the Quran, it’s un-Islamic.’” (See Faul)

Novian Whitsitt: “Overwhelmed by the immediacy their growing pains, conservative Hausa communities often conceive of Soyayya writers as a cultural enemy. But history will view the works of these writers as vital contributions to social transformation of Hausa-Islamic culture” (Whistsitt, 2003).

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The Plan:

Walker, instead of depending on the publishing industry apparatus, used his own money earned in business for the printing, binding and self-publishing of the Appeal. The pamphlet made the Boston abolition circuit, as would be expected. But when shipments of the manifesto were confiscated as far off as Savannah, Georgia, Wilmington, North Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina, it was clear that Walker had much deeper designs.

Walker smuggled insurrection through his shop, which, remember, was near Boston’s waterfront. Many black men worked on ships at the time and Walker’s best friend happened to be a successful independent ship outfitter of whaling and fishing vessels. His friend directed seamen to Walker’s shop, where Walker sewed the Appeal into the thick lining of their gear.

Down the Atlantic seaboard the Appeal then spread. Each pamphlet placed in the hand of a bookish Negro dock-worker or read aloud to an illiterate congregation served to penetrate the slaveocracy.

The local improvisations by which the Appeal circulated were independent of Walker or any other central coordinating figure. A few boxes would be packed in with other boxes in a shopkeeper’s den, a freedman taking the long way to work, a church service that lasts ten minutes more, or lets out earlier than usual, proliferated the manifesto’s presence throughout all reaches of the South.
See full essay here

Walker went underground, enshrining the objectives of the black liberation struggle through guerilla distribution.

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu: The first and most subversive of the Romance novelists

Thomas Page says of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s traumatic childhood marriages and divorces:  “But this  isn’t a sad story.   Instead it’s one of community and independence — from the unlikeliest source.”
Read more here

“From illiterate child bride to famous Nigerian novelist”

Femke van Zeijl: Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s own struggle to regain control over her life and claim her voice as a woman has made her an outspoken advocate of women’s rights.

She was taken out of primary school at the age of 12 to marry a man in his 40s whom she had never met before…. One year and eight months after the wedding, [she] was finally sent back to her father’s house in disgrace.

“If you know where I came from, you’ll realise how much I have fought,” says the 57-year-old author of nine novels.

[W]hen she went out with her sewing machine, it was actually to learn how to read and write Hausa. “Only my mother knew,” Yakubu remembers. “She helped cover for me when my father asked where I was.”

At the Murtala Muhammed Foundation, … she is a programme officer coordinating trauma counselling. Over the past few years, with the rise of Boko Haram, her job has become almost entirely about supporting the victims of bomb blasts.  She feels her own traumatic experiences make it easier to communicate with these casualties. “I know how it is to feel powerless and unable to speak out.”
Read more here

Interview with Yakubu:

“… whenever I write or talk, I side with women. I’m presumed to be too independent and desirous of women being at par with men. That’s what they accuse me of and is what I see as a challenge but I’m not bothered at all. All I want is for women to get their rights. That’s what my books are about and is what I stand for.”
Read more here

Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy that Follows you Home, is the only Kano romance translated from Hausa into English — by an Indian publisher.

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The Impact:

By late autumn of 1829 the dangerous pamphlet was found circulating among blacks in Savannah, Georgia. In North Carolina, the state’s Governor was informed by a magistrate of a seditious document “treating in most inflammatory terms of the condition of the slaves in the Southern states, exaggerating their sufferings, magnifying their physical strength and underrating the power of the whites…”[1]. Virginia Governor James Floyd intercepted an anonymous letter that asked a shopkeeper to distribute thirty copies and to await more still. Edward Smith, a supplier, was arrested, charged and convicted in Charleston for distributing it. But despite all efforts to stop its spread, the Appeal was in black and white hands all across the South by summertime.

Georgia and Louisiana lawmakers banned distribution of all anti-slavery literature and enacted laws against black literacy. By fall, North Carolina, Walker’s home state, where he had been educated and where the great Negro scholar John Chavis, likely the most learned black man of the early nineteenth century, had taught white and black alike, would follow suit outlawing black literacy. Georgia put a $10,000 bounty on Walker captured alive, a $1,000 bounty if dead. Back in Boston, Walker’s associates urged him to flee to Canada, but Walker stood his ground. “I write without the fear of man. I am writing for my God, and fear none but himself; they may put me to death if they choose,” he preached in the Appeal.

[1] Letter Book of the Governors of North Carolina, 1829-1830. James F. McRae to Governor John Owen, August 7, 1830.
See full essay here

David Walker could not be silenced any more from within the movement than from without. He wanted immediate freedom, education, and equality for all blacks held in bondage.

Romance Writers Reinterpret Islam and Redefine Sin

Isa Sanusi: “The Kano governor in 2007 led a widely publicised burning of thousands of the novels.  A censorship board was then set up, requiring writers to present their works for scrutiny before publication. This has now been relaxed after some writers won a civil court case which upheld their freedom of expression.”
Read more here

The authors are now left pretty much alone because of the very social changes they have contributed to forging.

Novian Whitsitt: In an open letter to Soyayya [“Love”] writers, the editor of the religious magazine Gwagwarmaya (Struggle) wrote: “Right from your book cover the design is sinful….  Similarly when somebody reads your books he will see that the inside consists of sin and forbidden things…. Citations like ‘my better half’ (rabin raina), ‘the light of my heart’ (hasken zuciyata) and other lies make you wonder whether the writer should be lashed” (Whitsitt, 2003).

Novelist Balaraba Ramat Yakubu reinterprets Islam and redefines sin in direct contrast to the doctrines of mainstream Kano Islam and as well as Boko Haram.  Her devout and virtuous heroines pray to Allah, who punishes the selfish husband and rewards his devout daughter Saudatu with educational achievement and monogamous love.  Allah plays an authorial role in this novel.

From the preface to Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home:

In this book, I tell a story  about a type of man found commonly in Nigeria who regards a married woman with children as a sort of slave to be bought or sold at the marketplace.  These men think they may treat such a woman as poorly as they like, since they believe her to be completely worthless….

I hope my story will serve as a lesson to the Muslim community. May the Lord God make the sinners change their ways, as He does not forgive a man’s crime against another.

I am deeply grateful to Allah for giving me the inspiration to write this novel.

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The End and the Legacy:

On June 28th, 1830, David Walker died suddenly. Walker’s abolitionist associates believed he’d been poisoned by pro-slavery enemies. The opinion of most historians is that Walker fell victim to the cholera epidemic that swept through Boston in the summer of 1830 and that had claimed the life of Walker’s young daughter a week before his death.

Swiftly thereafter, legislation came down in one Southern state, then the next, to ban in law what was supposed to have been banned in custom all along. Negroes would forever be banned from the book. They would not be taught to read or to write. Those found teaching Negroes these skills would be punished under the law.

David Walker was the most highly regarded abolitionist of his day. Walker scholar Darryl Scriven reflects that “David Walker was a stalwart man, a loyal American, a venture capitalist…a passionate evangelist, an aggressive intellectual, a sought-after journalist, a subversive theologian, an insightful cultural critic, a free-born black, a dedicated activist, [and] a formidable philosopher”[1].

[1] Scriven, Darryl. A Dealer of Old Clothes: Philosophical Conversations With David Walker. iUniverse, Inc. Lincoln, NE. 2004.
See full essay here

Saidiya Hartmann, in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, asks “To what end does one conjure the ghost of slavery, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present?”

Women’s Popular Culture: An Overlooked Source of Freedom

Carmen McCain: “ [Kano romance] novels have often been denigrated by an intellectual elite in Nigeria. Critics, many of whom have read only a few of the novels, or none at all, often condemn an entire range of genres and literary accomplishment as “trashy romance novels.”
Read more here

Joining her in opposing this disdain, Graham Furniss and Abdalla Uba Adamu write that it’s “a puzzle … why one such combination of initiatives and circumstances may explode and change society.”  Of the women’s romances in the 1980s they say: “Women, in particular, became emboldened by the potentials of creative freedom assured by their audiences. A more inauspicious context in which to engender an explosion of popular creative writing would be difficult to imagine than existed in northern Nigeria at the end of the 1980s.”

At that time, the first woman novelist Balaraba Yakubu joined a group of writers who, like her, had no formal education, and learned to read and write as adults. With a “sense that they were looked down on by the educated,” they named their group Raina Kama.  “Raina Kama means, literally, ‘belittling the appearance’ and implies … that something that is disdainfully treated will one day be something of significance” (Furniss and Adamu, 2012)