Consituting Antebellum African Identity: Resistance, Violence, and Masculinity in Henry Highland Garnet's (1843) 'Address to the Slaves'

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Quarterly Journal of Speech


Communication Studies


In August 1843 Presbyterian minister Henry Highland Garnet delivered his “Address to the Slaves of the United States of America” to the National Convention of Colored Citizens in Buffalo, NY. While often read (and almost as often dismissed) as either an unqualified call for a violent slave rebellion or, at the least, a celebration of prior acts of militant resistance which suggested that such methods deserved further consideration than they were currently receiving, the “Address” might profitably be approached within the context of an identity–action dialectic. Garnet's discussion of resistance and violence is more complicated than many scholars have recognized; one way in which we might recuperate these contested ideas and recognize their implications for African American identity and agency is to examine the way Garnet engaged and negotiated some of the antebellum African American community's dominant discursive traditions. The image and the accompanying idiom of a frequently submissive, emasculated “suffering servant” as well as the image/idiom of a violent, potentially brutish “avenging messiah” have long occupied prominent positions in the African American cultural imagination. Garnet's “Address” negotiated the disjunctive logics of submission/resistance, emasculation/brutish violence, and “suffering servant”/“avenging messiah” by drawing on and exploiting the resources of these and other performative traditions in order to fashion a tertium quid, a middle course of action capable of constituting a new mode of African American agency and an alternative form of civic identity.