Martin Delany: The First Transformatist

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante


Martin Delany lived during an extraordinary time in the history of African people. Among his contemporaries in the struggle for genuine African liberation were James McCune Smith, a physician and professor; James W. C. Pennington, orator and minister; Alexander Crummell, philosopher and minister; Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and orator;  and William Wells Brown, novelist. Delany was not the least among these giants and in some instances might have been considered the superior in intellect and action to some of them, including the eloquent Douglass.

Abraham Lincoln introduced Martin Robison Delany to Secretary of War Stanton as “this most extraordinary and intelligent black man.”

One can easily ask, “What made Delany extraordinary and intelligent in Lincoln’s mind?”  I ask this question because Lincoln’s estimation of blacks in general was negative. There are several laws of intelligence. One is to have a clear sense of one’s situation—psychological, social, economic, cultural, and spiritual.   The second law of intelligence is to have a healthy sense of self. This was the case with Martin Delany during a time when many blacks hated their origins because they identified Africa with slavery. Some refused to see themselves in any sense of identity but “colored American.” Delany escaped the prison of inferiority that was created by the practice of white supremacy and found his strength in the acceptance of his innate capabilities as a man.

Physically, he was jet black in complexion and was known to say, according to the famous historian Benjamin Quarles, that he was different from Frederick Douglass who thanked God for making him a man; Delany thanked God for making him a black man. There was something he felt in the nature of the black man’s spirit that had come from the pressures of enslavement that made him adaptable, resilient, and willful. These were characteristics that made him proud of his race.

Identity was important to Delany as it is to most people. He knew something about his own origins, but, like most Africans who had been forced into bondage and who had lost their language, Delany could not go beyond a few generations.  But he held onto what he had. Names had often been stolen and thrown away into the thin air of anonymity by the slave trade itself.

Delany’s grandfather had been enslaved but the family had managed to make its way to Pennsylvania where Martin Delany began to make his own history. He devoted his time to reading, to studying, and to demonstrating the capability of the black man. He saw himself as the equal to any other man. After two hundred and fifty years of subservience this was something that challenged the thinking of blacks.

Delany managed to edit a newspaper, studied medicine at Harvard until he was asked to leave, explored the Niger River in West Africa, accepted a commission from Lincoln to become a major in the Union Army, lived in South Carolina and run for Lieutenant Governor, amassing an impressive vote. Projecting himself always as the representative of his people, despite the fact that he found himself between the Republicans and Democrats and had to abandon South Carolina, he finally settled in Ohio and was buried in Wilberforce.

Delany’s experiences taught him early that there were many other Africans who had independence of spirit, who thought for themselves, and who desired to elevate their status. They were free even if they were oppressed economically, socially, and politically. Even among the free blacks in the North, liberty was pursued with eagerness at the same time liberation was suppressed. Thus, Delany’s practical demonstration was electrifying to other blacks.  His idea was to demonstrate that none of this oppression of black people was based on the fact of the quality of the people but own the avarice, cruelty, and pettiness of the whites. As for Delany, he was not merely equal to other blacks, but to other men.

Delany wrote in The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People, “Fleecy locks and black complexion cannot forfeit nature’s claims, skins may differ but affection dwells in black and white the same. Were I so tall as to reach the heavens or to grasp the ocean with a span, still I must be judged by my character, the mind is the standard of the man.”

Furthermore, Delany believed and said that white people did not know black people, even the whites who were friends of blacks had no idea who blacks were or what blacks were capable of and therefore they tried to speak for blacks, dictate to blacks, and represent blacks to the world.

By Delany’s time, Africans had been in North America nearly 250 years and during all those years basis for white ignorance was the belief in white supremacy and white superiority. Delany knew that it was false when it first began and it was false in his own time. He had proved it with his own work and in his own life, against all odds, and without the support of an interconnected system of favors that whites had reserved to themselves.

So Delany wrote that whites knew nothing of the African’s past.  He claimed that whites could not properly discuss the present or the future of blacks because they had created the conditions for moral and mental servitude among blacks. In his words, “A moral or mental servitude is as obnoxious as a physical one.” Consequently, he advanced the idea that knowledge, pure and simple, was essential to establishing the basis for change and maturity. Neither blacks nor whites could exist in a free society without accurate historical knowledge. This was fundamental to Delany’s philosophy.

Delany honored his African ancestors by speaking about that first black convention held in Philadelphia in 1830 when the most intelligent and fearless blacks among the free community met to devise ways of bettering our condition. To Delany, those brave souls who gathered in Philadelphia were as important to America’s history as the whites that had come to the city over forty years earlier to write the Constitution. Those black men were every bit the equal in intelligence and gifts to the white men who sat at Independence Hall.

Of course, Delany is not operating in a historical vacuum. Let’s face it. Without the heroes of the Haitian Revolution, L’Ouverture, Dessalines, Christophe, and without Prosser, Vesey, David Walker, Maria Stewart, and Nat Turner, as recently as 1831, there would not have been a Martin Delany in the 1840s and 1850s with the legacy for liberation and equality. He worked off of their energy as well as his own sense of place.

Other blacks would find their strength in his example. His name appeared in every book about outstanding blacks of his generation. He would be the progenitor of Anna Julia Cooper and teach her the vow “When and where I enter my people enter with me.”  Generations of intellectual activists would see him as the most nimble giant of his age, and so he inspired Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Maulana Karenga, and hundreds more who felt that Delany’s philosophy and example stated and verified their own experiences.

I find in Martin Delany my own personal sense of mission because I believe he held the most powerful philosophy of change for oppressed people.  He was transformatist, active, bold, intelligent, independent, self-determining, and fearless, and these are the qualities that have always served the oppressed best.

Delany was not a Black Nationalist. There was neither a black nation nor a black country that he found to which he attached himself. To Delany there were only the African people recently freed from 246 years of bondage who needed to be elevated. Thus, the label, “Black Nationalist,” serves to belittle Delany’s intellectual and activist philosophy, to consign him to a marginal space, and to defeat the attempt at self-determination and independence. Of course, he was black and was proud of his African heritage but that is to be expected of a self-respecting human being. One cannot change his origins. To say that Delany is a Black Nationalist, however, as some black and white writers have said, is to minimize the strength of his intellect by casting his work as a counter to white nationalism. Delany would have been necessary without whites if blacks had found themselves in an oppressive situation. Why is his philosophy called Black Nationalism when in effect he was simply creating a philosophy of recovery, reconstruction of a badly treated people?

Delany never called himself a Black Nationalist.  Victor Frankl, after the Holocaust, was called a logotherapist, not a Jewish Nationalist, although his philosophy, later to morph into assertiveness training was important to people who had been brutalized. Only in the case of a black intellectual that sees the damage done to Africans by oppression do whites and some blacks run to say that the person who offers powerful solutions is a Black Nationalist. In effect, this label is the projection of whiteness seeking to categorize the thinking of a free, proud, and determined African. When used by whites and some blacks the label “Black Nationalist” is never meant to exalt an African thinker. Delany was the most glorious of our thinkers because he took into consideration what was wrong with whites and blacks and demonstrated a remedy.

Martin Delany was a transformatist.  This is the name that best describes the philosophy that he articulated. If one reads his books and essays one finds throughout his writings that he was advancing a theory of African liberation based on a commitment to self-definition, sacrifice, and the willingness to be bold enough to create one’s own world.

Black Nationalism is usually defined as a philosophy that advocates a commitment to ethnic and cultural identity, self-definition, African unity, self-determination, an intense ethical sense of justice and a fervent desire for independence.  This seems quite close to Delany’s idea of his own mission but the label “Black Nationalist” is clearly wrong, regardless of the definitional tag given to it.  Because Delany supported these ideas some writers have manipulated the term Black Nationalist to attach it to him. But this label of Black Nationalist must be abandoned, not because there is anything wrong with the word “black” or “nationalist” per se, but because this combination term obfuscates Delany’s philosophy rather than clarifies it. One cannot dismiss the intellectual content of the genius who emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century to wrest from whites the control of African definitions, determination, philosophies, and attitudes.

In effect, it is much better, and in fact, clearer to see Delany as he saw himself in his writings, essays and the novel Blake as a transformatist.  A person who subscribes to the transformatist ideal refuses to accept servility, subservience, and inferiority, but is one who contends that self-identity and the acceptance of self-determination as a motivator for human maturity can bring about profound realization that one is as human as the next person. Thus, Delany was perhaps the first founder of a line of thinking or school of thought that would reverberate for generations among black thinkers.

I have referred to this school of thought as transformative identity and Martin Delany as the first transformatist. He was a campaigner for transforming identity and creating within the oppressed, that happened to be largely black, a response based on self-determination. 

Delany’s transformatist approach would be appropriated by a number of writers. The main characteristics of Delany’s approach are based on these propositions:

  1. A deep analysis of one’s historical and real situation in society, that is, a question of location in time and reality is essential to freedom. Delany writes:  “From the earliest period of the history of nations, the African race had been known as an industrious people, cultivator of the soil. The grain fields of Ethiopia and Egypt were the themes of the poet, and their garners, the subject of the historian. Like the present America, all the world went to Africa, to get a supply of commodities.”  (Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People, 1852).
  2. One must assume a positive posture toward African capacity as a marker of self-determination. Delany believed that Europe had undermined Africa not simply materially but also in terms of the information. Europe had essentially minimized African contributions to the West. He wrote “These facts were familiar to the Europeans who were continually trading on the coast of Africa as it was then the most important part of adventure and research known to the world.” In Blake, or The Huts of America, edited by Floyd Miller in 1970, but published in part in 1859 and 1861 by the author, Delany has a black man escape from bondage and demonstrate his will to use violence to overcome his oppressors. In this presentation of the humanizing quality of fighting back against oppression Delany anticipates Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and its emphasis on violence against the colonizer as a way for the oppressed to recognize that that the supposedly superior person also bleeds.
  3. The belief in self-determination is at the core of equality. Delany became involved in all efforts to support the rise of black masses against their subordination. He attended the national meetings of the Colored Citizens when he could as an example of self-determination.
  4. Blacks had to accept the possibility of separation from whites if racism could not be eliminated in America. This option, troublesome to blacks who had long depended upon white guidance, was essential to black agency.  If necessary, Delany would go, as he did, to Africa to investigate the possibility of blacks in the United States immigrating to the continent if freedom and equality could not be attained in America. An emissary was sent to Haiti in 1855 and President Faustian Soulouque invited nearly 2000 blacks to settle in Haiti. Delany made an expedition to the Niger Valley in West Africa that was interrupted by the American Civil War. He took a commission from President Lincoln as a field officer in the Union Army.
  5. The acceptance of Africa as the spiritual home of blacks in America must undergird any attempt at mental liberation. Delany was born in West Virginia in 1812, grew up in Chambersburg, and moved to Pittsburgh, but he was always African in his orientation.  Quick to speak in support of African aspirations, African possibilities, and the historic rights of African people on the continent, Delany was the chief interpreter of Africa for the African American.

Before Alexander Crummell championed the intellectual capacity of blacks and created the Negro Academy, there was Delany.  Before Du Bois went off to Fisk, Berlin, and Harvard to combat racist history, there was Delany. Before Woodson conceived Negro History Week, the Journal of Negro History, and the Associated Publishers, we had Delany.  The generation represented by Delany was one that created a formidable legacy of men and women who defied the odds measured out by racism and discrimination. I like to think that Delany had his intellectual descendants in those who advanced transformatist ideas. Some of these thinkers advanced Delany’s ideas far beyond anything he imagined, although some have thought that the ideas came freely to them from the heavens, not knowing that Delany had shaken the sky long before they were born.

Among the children of Delany were Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, and Maulana Karenga. A central idea to Garveyism was that African people in every part of the world were one people and they would never advance if they did not put aside their cultural and ethnic differences and contrast.

Malcolm X believed that African Americans must develop their own society and ethical values, including the self-help, community-based enterprises, and seek to achieve internal cooperation and unity. He prophetically believed there “would be bloodshed” if the racism problem in America remained ignored. Fanon produced his greatest works, A Dying Colonialism, and perhaps the most important work on decolonization yet written, The Wretched of the Earth, on the idea of self-determination. In Wretched, Fanon lucidly analyzes the role of class, race, national culture, and violence in the struggle for national liberation. Fanon became the leading anti-colonial thinker of the twentieth century.  Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa, articulated the view that a cultural crisis was at the heart of despair in the African American community and that a restorative culture or a reconstructed culture would have to be created.

Finally, the character of Martin Delany is shown in his position on the right of a person to defend his home and his family.  Delany demonstrated in a speech given in response to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 that his transformatist ideas would govern his political and physical actions. Delany exhibits his excellent command of the English language, his knowledge of American history, and his political courage in his oration. Here is what he said when the mayor of Pittsburgh asked him to speak about the Fugitive Slave Law.

Delany said:  “Honorable mayor, whatever ideas of liberty I may have I have received from reading the lives of your revolutionary fathers. And one of those ideas is that a man may defend his castle with his life, even to the taking of life.  Sir, my house is my castle and in it dwell none but my wife and my children free as the angels in heaven and with a liberty as sacred as the pillars of God. If any man shall enter that house in search of a slave, be he constable, sheriff or magistrate, or let it be he who sanctioned this act into law, (President Millard Fillmore), with his cabinet as his body guard, the declaration of independence dangling above his head as his banner, and the Constitution of his country on his breast as his shield, if he shall enter the threshold of my house and I do not lay him a lifeless corpse at my feet may the grave refuse my body a resting place and righteous heaven my spirit a home. No he cannot enter that house and we both live.”

I think this speech adequately encapsulates the spirit, dignity, and determination of Delany and portrays the force of his personality and logic of his mind that make him the quintessential transformatist. I offer homage to him for being such a pioneer in the area of liberation theory.


Note: Molefi Kete Asante is the author of seventy-four books and more than five hundred articles. This article is based on a speech he gave for the Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, May 9, 2012.