Martin Delany Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Martin Delany 1812-–1885

Full name Martin Robinson Delany. American nonfiction writer, essayist, historian, and novelist.

One of the first black Americans to have a novel published in the United States, Delany is most remembered for his advocacy of black separatism and emigration in the nineteenth‐century. Departing intellectual company with most abolitionists of his time, Delany espoused black nationalism and Pan‐Africanism in an effort to elevate the status of blacks in the United States. His views, which emphasized the need for the separation of the races and self‐government for blacks, often alienated him from his colleagues, who still embraced an accommodation philosophy focused on the integration of blacks into white society.

Biographical Information

Delany was born into a family of free blacks in Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia); his mother, Pati Delany, was the daughter of a Mandinka prince, and his father, Samuel Delany, descended from the Golah tribe in Africa. As a young boy he learned of his noble African heritage from his grandmother, which he contrasted with the oppression faced by blacks, including his own family, in America. When Delany was ten years old, his father was imprisoned for protecting himself from a white man who was beating him. Delany's mother also was found guilty of violating a law that targeted blacks around this time, in this case a prohibition of the education of black children. After the conviction of Mrs. Delany, the family fled to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where Delany worked as a barber and began his study of medicine. Delany moved to Pittsburgh in 1831, and it was here that he began his lifelong career as a political activist. He joined the Abstinence Society and served as executive secretary of the Philanthropic Society, a group dedicated to helping free blacks migrate to the North. He also joined a vigilante group that protected black communities from attacks by whites. Delany's separatist position, though not yet completely formed, was strengthened by his 1839 visit to the states of Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, where slavery was still in existence. Delany married Catherine A. Richards in 1843; together they had thirteen children, four of whom died in infancy. That same year Delany became editor of the Mystery, one of the earliest black newspapers, which he used as a vehicle to champion the rights of black people. In 1847, Delany gave up the editorship of the newspaper because of financial difficulties and became co‐editor and western agent for Frederick Douglass's newspaper, North Star. The partnership lasted until 1849, when the two parted ways ideologically because Delany's separatist leanings clashed with Douglass's accommodation belief that the well‐being of blacks lay within the structure of a racially integrated American society.

His interests in science and pan‐Africanism characterized Delany's activities during the 1850s and 1860s. He was accepted to study medicine at Harvard University, but was not allowed to return for a second term because his presence there caused a rift among students. Delany then returned to Pittsburgh to practice medicine and to continue his political activities. He openly advocated the emigration of blacks and represented Pittsburgh at a meeting of black emigrationists in Toronto in 1851. Delany continued to popularize self‐elevation and voluntary emigration of free blacks, issuing a call for a National Emigration Convention, which eventually met in Cleveland in 1854. Here he attacked the American Colonization Society and delivered his famous speech, “Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent” (1854). In it Delany rejects the idea that blacks can live and prosper in the United States and advocates their emigration to the West Indies and Central and South America. In 1856, he left the United States for Chatham, Canada, where he practiced medicine and conducted scientific research. Between 1859 and 1861, Delany and Robert Campbell, a Jamaican, traveled to the Niger Valley in Africa to investigate the possibilities for the settlement of American blacks. With a group of native chiefs, they signed treaties that outlined a plan to establish a colony that would spread Christianity throughout West Africa, as well as export cotton to England—thus undermining the economy of the slave‐holding states in America. He lectured in England and America to try to gain support for the plan, but it eventually lost momentum because of English and American opposition and the changing social climate that came with the American Civil War. Delany continued to lecture, both in the United States and abroad, and also became involved in domestic politics. He recruited black soldiers to fight against Confederate forces and in 1865 was commissioned as the first black major in the United States Army. After the war, he remained in South Carolina to champion the rights of freed blacks. He made one more attempt at an emigration plan in 1878, when he became treasurer of the Liberian Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company. The group purchased a steamship, but the maiden voyage ended disastrously. Delany continued to lecture and participate in politics until the end of his life. He rejoined his family in Ohio in 1884 and died of a lung infection in 1885.

Major Works

Delany's works reflect his political interests and closely parallel his activities. In 1852, he published his first polemical work, The Condition, Elevation, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852). In this work he expressed his idea that the United States had not fulfilled its obligation to its black citizens. He also advocated the emigration of free blacks to Central America and the creation of a black country that could use economic and political pressure to defeat American slavery. Delany's treatise on freemasonry, The Origins and Objects of Ancient Freemasonry (1853), based on his ethnological studies, argues that all wisdom began with blacks in Africa and links this idea to the issue of elevation of the black race. Delany's novel, Blake (1859), involves a broken slave family, their escape, and their journey North. Blake, an escaped slave, becomes the general of a force of black insurrectionists, and, with the help of his friend, Placido, a militant Cuban poet, plans to overthrow the Cuban government and to prevent the United States's annexation of Cuba. Delany's Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party (1861), completed after his trip to Africa, is largely an account of his ideas for a settlement project and of his experience is Africa. Delany's final work, Principia of Ethnology, published in 1879, asserts the racial superiority of pure‐blooded blacks over mulattos. Delany also attempts to scientifically prove the intellectual, economic, political, and social ascendancy of early Ethiopian and Egyptian empires, pointing out that this superiority should serve as positive motivation to American Blacks. He concludes the work with his hope for the fulfillment of a prophecy made in the Psalms: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God.”

Critical Reception

Delany's ideas and his writings have elicited much controversy, starting with his contemporary critics and continuing through to today. The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States was roundly criticized for extremism, even by the abolitionist newspapers of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Critics consider Blake an important American novel because of the insights it provides into American slavery and because it offers the first portrayal in American literature of a fully‐developed West Indian character in its protagonist. Blake expresses a militancy that was rare for its time and which did not really gain support until the 1960s. However, it is criticized for its poor literary style and inconsistencies. Delany's works did not receive much critical attention until the 1950s because his ideas were considered radical and his works propagandistic. In the 1950s historians began to write about his role in American history. Delany and his works became the subjects of much critical and popular attention in the 1960s and 1970s, when scholars focused on his ideas regarding black separatism and emigration. Interest in Delany's works has continued unabated, with a growing focus on Blake as an ideological as well as a literary work.