Martin R. Delany and His Work Pioneering Black Nationalism

Topic: Political Ideologies
Words: 1394 Pages: 5


The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States by Martin Delany is a powerful example of a politically-driven innovation particularly relevant for its time. This work, being written by an African-American man, showcases the sharpness of insight into something considered the norm then – the systematic oppression and deprivation of natural rights of the black people.

According to his vision, the strengthening of African identity in then-enslaved black people would lead to their emancipation, not in the framework of policy only, but more importantly, the changing of their mentality. Thus, Martin Robinson Delany serves as one of the strongest instances of a self-assured nationalist that is quite radical at times yet remains infinitely sober in his theoretical explorations. In the following paper, the idea of nationalism will be expanded and dissected, with Delany’s work providing the blueprint for the understanding of the phenomenon – while also highlighting him as a representative of that form of ideology.

Historical Position of Black People of the Day

Being a black man, it is apparent that Delany has experienced a great portion of his people’s hardships as he collects a number of stories from his interviewees throughout the States. In his work, he paints vibrant stories of his contemporaries as well as the people, went in order to compile a comprehensive overview of his people’s condition in the United States of America. Providing examples as early as the Spanish invasion, Delany is instrumental in persuading his readers.

He argues that the European settlers have strategically initiated slavery. This is evident in the case of “heartless Spanish taskmasters” who forced Native Americans to work in goldmines, only to find out that Africans were more suitable for it. Delany then renders a formula that can be admired for its laconism “as a policy, we the colored people were selected as the subordinate class in this country, not on account of any actual or supposed inferiority.” By explaining these historical processes, he allows the reader to gain a realistic perception, which will, in turn, provide more logical ground for his argument.

The Call for Action

Evidently, being a man of deeds himself, Delany shows strong concern for the state of matters in his age. He points out, and rightfully so, that “speculations are not enough; that the practical application of principles adduced, the thing carried out, is the only true and proper course to pursue.” At this stage, the author actually exhibits his nationalistic inclinations, which will then be carried through the text. Addressing the notion of abolitionism in great detail, he disproves the efforts of the white man to participate in or facilitate the elevation of the black man – by saying that equality sounds like a virtuous idea “in ethics, but not in politics.” This is the breaking point of his proposition – the realization that things usually differ drastically in theory and when put to practice.

African Nationalism as the Solution

Perhaps, it is particularly due to the fact that he can devise no other alternative, and those that have been devised already proved to be futile for the cause of black civil freedom, Delany turns to black nationalism. Having been disappointed with anything that the American society has to offer to his people concerning their rights and freedoms, he thinks it is best to take matters into his own hands.

Exhibiting one of the most characteristic features of nationalism – the active promotion of the idea of the excellence of a certain nation – “nation within a nation,” to be more precise, he lists a grand majority of free black people occupying respectful positions in various fields. This tedious work, in its actuality, is a healing process – Delany aims to eradicate the notion that black people are “nonentities” and are able to serve any other purpose than domestic work. In a sense, it is the elimination of the problem with its own kind: just like European-Americans have established themselves as superiors at the start of the colonization.

The difference between the two peoples, however, is particularly pronounced for Delany – when speaking of slavery, he says that the thought of it “should awaken every sensibility of our common nature.” Thus, he calls upon his people to organize a council of the most brilliant African-Americans in order to devise a plan of action, calling out, “our elevation must be the result of self-efforts, and work of our own hands.” Moreover, he has already contrived the approximate strategy, which he explains in great detail.

To put it briefly, Delany offers African-Americans to mobilize and establish an independent immigrant community – even providing the most suitable options. In doing so, Delany proves himself to be a confident nationalist, as he places the physical and moral wellbeing of the black nation as his highest priority. Arguing that African-Americans need to view “ourselves in our true political position in the body politic,” gaining the insight that “we are aliens to the laws and political privileges”– again, inspiring an unobscured outlook in his fellow black people. It is particularly from this understanding and the principle comes Delany’s abolitionism and, notably, his nationalism.

The Concept of Nationalism on the Exemplar of Martin Delany

The meaning of the ideology of nationalism is almost self-explanatory – yet it is much deeper at the same time. It is the concept around which many nations of the world have built their statehood. However, for Delany, as for all African-Americans being presented with the cruel realities of 19th century United States, it possesses a remedial quality. This is understandable – as mentioned before, the prospect of any other solution other than self-mobilization was virtually impossible.

What intensifies his nationalistic tendencies and cements them as the only favorable option for the colored people is the idea that the nation is not worthy of respect when their freedom is granted to them by outside forces. He says that such people will “certainly not” be worthy of being respected as a nation – and it is hard to disagree. Thus, the main idea of Delany’s black nationalism is that Africans must fight for themselves, must remember their humanity in becoming outstanding members of the society, and must escape the oppression by returning to the African continent.’


While it is hard to underestimate Martin Delany’s ideas, especially when viewed against a historical background and truly appreciating their radicality, there are some downfalls in his propositions. First, although he speaks of his fellow Africans who are enslaved with a heavy heart, realistically, there is not much that can be done about their condition, given the fact that Delany’s efforts to organize a council are successful. In terms of a slave’s sensibility and the potential to become a valuable member of society, the author is obviously, correct; however, the institute of slavery, particularly in the deep South, is etched into American statehood.

This simple fact renders all efforts of outside agents, such as Delany’s black elite from the North, practically useless. The slaves exist within a system, and even if they are emancipated, they have no means of survival other than returning to manual labor. Therefore, even if their self-perception is altered, they have no means of overcoming their condition here and now, and urgency is what Delany specifically calls for.

Additionally, Delany showcases his naivete in the matter of getting his expedition to Africa sponsored by European imperial countries such as England or France. Despite being highly descriptive and argumentative in his writing, here, he exhibits a logical fallacy. The reason as to why these colonial empires would sponsor such a large expedition – besides the supposed feeling of guilt before the African nation – is certainly not strong enough of an argument.


In conclusion, it is suitable to say that, as evident from The Condition, Elevation Emigration and Destine of the Colored People of the United States, the author subscribes to nationalistic ideals. His nationalism is quite pronounced through the change that he is trying to promote among his fellow African-Americans – and through the sense of not being able to rely on no one but his own people. It is very optimistic in the sense that Delany sincerely believes in the positive outcome if everything is done correctly. However, it originates in the sense of fatality of the destine of colored people.


Martin Delany. The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States. Published by the author, 1852.

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