The Condition, Elevation, Migration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States Politically Considered Essay - Critical Essays

Martin Robison Delany


The preface to The Condition prepares readers for the peculiarity of the book. Delany admits to writing the entire book within one month during a business trip to New York City, during which he divided his time between attending to urgent business, sometimes lecturing on physiology, and writing. There was also another consideration—he wrote when he was “poor, weary and hungry.” Given these contexts, he cautions readers against any expectations of stylistic or linguistic elegance. His prime consideration was to address the facts and confront entrenched stereotypes about black people. Through the frequent use of words such as “we” and “ours,” he confirms his identity with the experience he writes about.

Of the issues he addressed, perhaps the most critical was racism. During the ascendancy of moral suasion, Delany and other black leaders faithfully advanced the doctrine of self-improvement as a means of elevation, strongly believing that a change in the condition of black people would end racism. Some even deemphasized racism and instead dreamed of a unified humankind, the realization of which, they argued, was temporarily delayed by the painfully slow process of black elevation. By the end of the 1840’s, however, this optimism had virtually disappeared. Self-improvement had not dented racism. Many began to wonder if the reverse was not the case—that racism created and actually thrived upon black poverty. The Condition echoes this change in black consciousness and strategy away from improving the condition of African Americans in order to appeal to the moral conscience of whites and toward challenging the moral conscience of whites and actively contesting for the rights and privileges of American citizenship.

Delany had two objectives in highlighting the patriotism of black soldiers and the contributions of African Americans to the social, economic, intellectual, and cultural development of the nation in general. First, he wanted to confront and negate proslavery denials of black contributions to national development. For a long time, proslavery advocates had denied that black people contributed anything positive to national development. Slaves and free blacks were both portrayed as lazy, wretched, and parasitic; these characteristics were usually cited to justify their subordination. Second, Delany wanted to show that African Americans satisfied all acceptable criteria for citizenship (by reason of birth, natural right, and contributions to the nation). Emphasizing racism, he hoped, would convince free blacks, particularly those who still harbored faith in the system, that they had little to which to look forward. He did this graphically, by publishing the full text of the Fugitive Slave Act, hoping to give free blacks a “conception of its enormity” and to convert them to emigrationism.

His criticism of the psychological orientation of African Americans underlined the continued reliance on moral suasionist values. That he...

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