AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA. Although African American literature centers predominantly on the American landscape,
rural and urban, when it does allude to the sea, it is usually associated with
the historical memory of slavery. Consequently, in this literature, including
folk materials, the sea is represented paradoxically, through the vicissitudes
of the Middle Passage and the loss of a homeland as well as through
possibilities for liberation and the re-creation of a new homeland. African
American spirituals reflect this duality, voicing, on one hand, the slave community’s consciousness of the sea’s perils in songs concerning Noah and the
Ark, Jonah and the whale, Moses and the Red Sea, or Jesus on the Sea of
Galilee and, on the other, belief in the sea’s power, as a manifestation of
God’s will, to destroy their enemies and belief in the capacities of righteous
and courageous individuals to triumph over hardships at sea and in life.
Olaudah Equiano* in his 1789 narrative presents a graphic description of
his terrifying, dehumanizing personal experiences during the Middle Passage, a description that is repeatedly evoked throughout the twentieth century in such diverse works as Melvin Tolson’s epic poem Libretto for the
Republic of Liberia (1935), Robert Hayden’s* long, symbolic poem “The
Middle Passage” (1962), Alex Haley’s* fictionalized family history Roots:
The Saga of an American Family (1976), Paule Marshall’s Caribbean* novels The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969) and Praisesong for the Widow
(1983), and Charles Johnson’s National Book Award-winning Middle Passage* (1990).
As the sea historically provided slaves the opportunity to leave the South
and, both before and after the Civil War, the opportunity for employment,
it came to be associated with escape. In the nineteenth century both Frederick Douglass* in “Heroic Slave” (1853) and Martin Delaney in Blake: Or,
The Huts of America* (1859, 1861–1862), drawing on such incidents as
the 1839 Amistad* revolt, imagine the heroic endeavors of brilliant African
American men to organize shipboard slave mutinies. Another factual narrative of escape on shipboard is John Thompson’s Life of John Thompson, a
Fugitive Slave (1856). Narratives of working sailors include Native/African
American Paul Cuffe Jr.’s Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Paul
Cuffe, a Pequot Indian: During Thirty Years Spent at Sea (1839) and James
H. Williams’ papers, edited by Warren F. Kuehl in Blow the Man Down! A
Yankee Seaman’s Adventures under Sail (1959). Louise Meriwether’s historical novel Fragments of the Ark (1994) tells the story of a ship pilot and
slave who commandeers a Confederate gunboat and delivers it with a group
of escaped slaves to the Union navy. Harlem Renaissance writers Claude
McKay, in novels Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929), and Langston
Hughes,* in several poems and his autobiography The Big Sea (1940), as
well as late twentieth-century novelists Toni Morrison in Tar Baby (1981),
Ntozake Shange in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982), and Johnson in
Middle Passage, propose the open sea, with its options for contemplation,
travel, and the democratic fraternity of sailors, as an alternative for black
men to the limited options for work and civil rights in the United States.
Racism may persist on shipboard, but Shine, in a well-known African American folk poem, forced to perform degrading work in the Titanic’s* boiler
room, has the last laugh as he swims to safety while his abusers drown.
Shine’s story is told in many places; the version that Hughes purportedly
heard in Harlem in 1956 appears with the title “Sinking of the Titanic” in
Book of Negro Folklore, a collection that was edited by Hughes and Arna
Bontemps (1958).
From the end of the nineteenth century, African American writing assigns
to the sea symbolic, mythic, and psychological interpretations. In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s* turn-of-the-century, nondialectic poems, the sea becomes
the projection of the poet’s romantic despair. For the Harlem Renaissance
poets McKay, Hughes, and Countee Cullen, the sea is equated with ro-AHAB 7
mantic yearning for Africa and the Caribbean, for mystery and love. In her
fiction, “John Redding Goes to Sea” (1921) and Their Eyes Were Watching
God (1937), both of which draw extensively on black folk culture, Zora
Neale Hurston associates the sea with the pursuit of individual desires,
doomed if they are not mitigated by love. Increasingly, African American
writers, including modern poets Hayden and Michael S. Harper,* have
joined an awareness of the sea’s historical significance with its symbolic,
mythic, and psychological possibilities. Late twentieth-century fiction, including Morrison’s Tar Baby, Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Johnson’s Middle Passage, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988), and Marshall’s
Chosen Place, Praisesong, and Daughters (1991), presents the sea as the immediate source of renewal through the characters’ memory of the Africans
who suffered and died during the Middle Passage and their mystical reincarnation and celebration in memory. Derek Walcott’s* poem “The Schooner Flight” (1979) and his epic Omeros (1990) render this theme
evocatively, biographically, and racially.