American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

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 ofJohn 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 romantic 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. [See also CARIBBEAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA; SLAVE NARRATIVES]

FURTHER READING: Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997; Born, Brad. “Writing on the ‘Restless Billows’: Black Mariners and Mutineers in Selected Works of Antebellum American Literature.” Diss., University of Kansas, 1993; Malloy, Mary. African Americans in the Maritime Trades: A Guide to Resources in New England. Sharon, MA: Kendall Whaling Museum, 1990; Schultz, Elizabeth. “African American Literature.” American Literature and the Sea: A Literary History. Ed. Haskell Springer. Athens and London: U of Georgia P, 1995, 233-59.

Elizabeth Schultz