Three Moments in America’s Conversation on Race

by Bill Benzon

D1ff4cd9-79d8-4c11-86fc-22bfd2f71d98In Playing in the Dark, a set of essays on race in American literature, Toni Morrison is led “to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature . . . are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence. . . . Through significant and underscored omissions, startling contradictions, heavily nuanced conflicts, through the way writers peopled their work with the signs and bodies of this presence–one can see that a real or fabricated Africanist presense was crucial to their sense of Americanness.” That is to say, the sense of American identity embodied in our literature is at least partially achieved through reference to African Americans.

Let’s consider three imaginative works where race is an issue. First we have Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is not American, of course, but English. The character of Caliban, who may not even be human, marks the imaginative space the English used for understanding Africans. The play was written and performed at about the same time as Jamestown, Virginia, as first settled.

Then we move forward two and a half centuries to late 19th Century. America has established itself as an independent nation and fought its bloodiest war, the Civil War, over the status of the American sons and daughters of Caliban. We find Huck Finn fleeing his abusive father by rafting down the Mississippi with a runaway slave. Jim sure isn’t Shakespeare’s Caliban nor is Huck a Prospero. I conclude with a counter narrative from the early 20th Century, an African-American “toast”, as they’re called, about the sinking of the Titanic. Think of such oral narratives as antecedents of rap and hip-hop.

Shakespeare's Caliban

The symbolic universe of white America originated in Europe. In The White Man's Burden, Winthrop D. Jordan showed that by the Early Modern era Europeans had become disposed to see blacks as strongly emotional and sensual, qualities they were coming to reject in themselves. In the late Renaissance blacks were likened to beasts. In Bacon's New Atlantis (1624) the “Spirit of Fornication” was depicted as “a little foul ugly Æthiop” (p. 19). Jordan notes that Englishmen “were especially inclined to discover attributes in savages which they found first, but could not speak of, in themselves”. Thus before the European settlers of North America had any substantial contact with Africans, they had a violent and lascivious place prepared in their symbol system through which to understand and interact with them.

We can see this symbol system in Shakespeare's The Tempest. The central character, Prospero, is a magician who calls storms into being and conjures visions before the eyes of the other characters. In this conjuring he enacts the dramatist's role. Prospero is Shakespeare's symbolic representation of his own role in life and The Tempest is his statement about the nature and purpose of dramatic art. In this play Shakespeare presents his symbolic universe, a symbolic universe which has been central to the imaginative life of European culture. In his plays Shakespeare drew on a wide variety of sources, but The Tempest is his own through and through. In it, he distilled all he had embraced in his career and presented the essence. What role does he assign to Africans?

There is one character in the play, Caliban, who is generally thought to embody European views of Africans. Stephano, one of the strangers shipwrecked on Prospero's island, remarks thus of Caliban on first seeing him:

What's the matter? Have we devils here? Do you put tricks upon 's with savages and men of Inde, ha? I have not scaped drowing to be afeard now of your four legs. . . . This is some monster of the isle, with four legs, who hath got, as I take it, an ague. Where the devil should he learn our langauge? . . . If I can recover him, and keep him tame, and get to Naples with him, he's a present for any emperer that ever trod on neat's leather. (The Tempest, II. ii. 58-72)

Caliban was, in point of mythical fact, the son of Sycorax, a witch who lived on the island when Prospero arrived. Prior to the time of the play, Prospero taught him to speak and made him his slave. Then Caliban fell from Prospero's favor after attempting to rape Miranda. During the play Caliban is part of a ludicrous plot to overthrow Prospero–which will then give him sexual access to Miranda. Thus Caliban is plagued with the sexuality which Europeans have been seeing in non-Europeans, especially Africans, ever since they began to trade with and to conquer them.

However, when the overthrow plot is finally foiled, Prospero asserts of Caliban that “this thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine” (5.1.275 – 276). Prospero is now taking responsibility for Caliban's rebellious and sexual ways. That means that, in some sense, Prospero now regards them as his own rebellious and sexual ways. Prospero and Caliban are one being, with Prospero representing the conscious desires and Caliban the unconscious.

We don't have to push this very far to get into waters deep and dark. For, Caliban had originally fallen from favor for attempting to rape Miranda, Prospero's daughter. If Caliban is but an agent for Prospero's own repressed desire, then it was Prospero who had, unconsciously, desired to rape his daughter. With this acknowledgement, we are now in the psychological realm pioneered by Sigmund Freud. The notion of unconscious sexual desire between members of the same family was shocking in Freud's day, as it is in ours. But in our day, incest has become the kind of shock that is discussed on talk shows and in tabloids. We are, at last, trying to deal with such matters.

Modern filmmakers, for example, can be freer and more explicit about the relationship between the conscious and unconscious than Shakespeare could ever have been. For example, Forbidden Planet is a science fiction film from the mid-fifties and was based loosely on The Tempest. Instead of a nobleman/magician marooned on an island in the Mediterranean we have a brilliant scientist, one Dr. Morbius, marooned on a distant planet. Instead of the sprite Ariel to do Prospero's bidding, we have Robbie the Robot. Instead of Caliban the man-monster, we have the Monster from the Id. Recognizing the symbolic connection between Caliban and the id of Freudian psychology, these filmmakers made that connection explicit by naming the monster after that very id. In the movie, the monster arose when Morbius's unconscious somehow linked up with a fantastic power-generating system left behind by an ancient, and now dead, civilization. A connection that Shakespeare had only hinted at was made more explicit by post-Freudian filmmakers of the fifties.

Returning to Shakespeare, the point is that, however great his artistry, he was not exempt from standard European prejudice. He painted Caliban with the same brush Europeans used to paint their pictures of Africa and Africans. However, he did, just barely, manage to indicate that the colors and forms in that picture came, not from Africa, but from himself, from Europe. Whatever Africans were really like, their picture was European, painted to meet European psychological needs. Caliban was Prospero's creature, acting out those desires which Prospero himself could not acknowledge.

The Tempest was written in 1611 and first performed in 1612. The first enslaved Africans, twenty of them, arrived in North America at Jamestown in 1619. While a culture's symbolic universe can change over time, the necessary time span is greater than the seven or eight years between The Tempest and Jamestown. The symbolic universe Shakespeare presented in his play is the same one inhabited by the Jamestown colonists. Their twenty enslaved Africans would represent the same forces to them that Caliban represented to Shakespeare and his audience. African cultural reality would be forced to bow to the intense pressure of European psychological need.

Sam Clemens and Huck Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about a poor white boy who takes off down the Mississippi River on a raft. Why? The immediate problem was the return of his alcoholic and abusive father. Huck feared for his life, and justifiably so. In order to get to the Mississippi he had to escape from his father's cabin after his father had locked him in. But that's not all that drove him. He had been under the care of the Widow Douglas, who set out to “sivilize” him, dressing him in proper clothes, forcing him to eat supper at the right time, with the correct manners, forbidding him to smoke, insisting on reading to him “about Moses and the Bulrushers”, and so forth. Between his father's probable assault on his body and the Widow's constriction of his spirit, Huck had no choice but to escape.

And so he does, and meets up with Jim, who is also escaping. Huck treats Jim as a black mammy who soothes the wounds inflicted by his abusive father and constricting mother-surrogate. In Jim Huck finds the nurturing parent he so desperately needed, prompting Leslie Fiedler to remark (in Love and Death in the American Novel) that Jim gives Huck:

. . . pure affection . . . without the threat of marriage . . . the protection and petting offered by his volunteer foster-mothers without the threat of pious conformity . . . the friendship offered by Tom without the everlasting rhetoric and make-believe. Jim is all things to him: father and mother and playmate and beloved . . . calling Huck by the names appropriate to their multiform relationship: “Huck” or “honey” or “chile” or “boss,” and just once “white genlman.”

That is an absolutely extraordinary statement, but it is true. At the very heart of American literature we have this story of a dispossessed white boy who finds his deepest emotional satisfaction in the bosom a black man. For the first time in his life Huck feels at home, on a raft in the Mississippi with an escaped slave standing in for his parents.

This is a rootless image of home. Which is to say that it is a contradiction, for home is where one's roots are. Home is where the heart is. Huck's heart was threatened by his father and kept at a distance by the good Widow. Where there is no heart, home is just a house. Huck finds fellowship only with a man who is, by virtue of his race and history, an outcast to Huck's society, and that's saying something, for Huck himself is pretty marginal.

Thus the novel collapses at the end, with no real resolution, no home achieved. Jim finally tells Huck that his father is dead. Though now a free man, there is no sense of a viable future for Jim. As for Huck, he's going to “light out for the territory . . . because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it.” Home on the Mississippi has dissipated and our protagonist can only return to rootless wandering.

In the symbolic structures of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, emotional fullness and ease exist only in African America. Jim is an ideal type, an Aunt Jemima in a male body. Yet Mark Twain had no way of reclaiming that emotional richness for European American, not even in the provisional and fictive magic of the novel. He didn't make Jim a white man, say, accused of a crime he didn't commit, because his symbolic universe would not and could not function with a white man in the narrative's central parental role. The only way he had to point up the radical difference between the upbringing Huck had had and the upbringing he needed was to clothe that difference in the most radical symbolic opposition the culture had available, the difference between black and white.

Yet, less than a half-century later—Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884—young white boys like Bix Biederbecke and Benny Goodman, Huck's spiritual descendants, would listen to jazz records and sneak into jazz clubs where they would admire black musicians and aspire to play like them—for a fictional example, see my discussion of Young Man With a Horn. What these boys did was no longer symbolic, it was real¬—a reality shaped by centuries of fiction. Their black role models were hardly ideal; they certainly were not Aunt Jemima types. What jazz musicians, black and white, have in common is that they play jazz. Otherwise they are as diverse as any other occupational group. But the imagined events of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn molded the lives of real people, helping to prepare a place in the white man's soul that would make it easier for him to pattern his music on a black model.


Just as white folks have been using stories as a way of negotiating a place for black folks in their world, so black folks have been reciprocating in various kinds. The toast is one of these kinds, a form of boasting narrative in the African-American oral tradition that is a precursor to rap and hip-hop.

Scholars started collecting toasts in the late 1960s, but they are undoubtedly much older. The Titanic toast is about, well, the sinking of the Titanic. A mythic black boiler man, Shine, escapes from the sinking ship and swims safely ashore. The ship’s captain attempts to keep Shine on board, first offering him money and then offering the sexual favors of white women, including his own daughter. Shine rejects all offers and remains steadfast in his determination to swim ashore. The poem thus rejects white evaluation of black character by depicting a white authority figure as being so depraved as to offer his daughter up to a boiler man for no rational purpose. More obviously, “Titanic” is also about white arrogance, the arrogance that believed the Titanic to be unsinkable, or, more recently, the arrogance that believed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico couldn’t fail. You can multiply examples at will.

Here’s a version by George Clinton to a musical accompaniment:

Here’s another version without music that’s posted to YouTube by Nanna2590:

We’ll conclude with this version by Afthur Pfister (aka Professor Arturo), which was collected by Louisiana Voices.

I'm a weaver of the word, not a maker of rhyme
But I'm going to tell you the story about my man, my main man Shine.
It was a helluva day in the merry month of May,
Shine was the stoker on the Titanic that day
When a big iceberg come a floatin' their way.

Shine said, “Cap'n Charley, Cap'n Charley, there's a big iceberg floatin' our way.”
Cap'n said, “Shine, Shine, don't you be no clown,
I got ninety-nine pumps to pump the water down.
I got pumps made of pipes and chumps to pump.
I got a trillion dollar load I ain't going to dump.”

Shine said, “Cap'n Charley, Cap'n Charley, if you look now,
There's a whole lot of ice comin' 'cross the bow.
I ain't never read a book, ain't never been to school,
But Louzeeanna Annie ain't never raised a fool.”
Shine said that to himself.

Cap'n Charley said, “Shine, Shine don't you know my might?
Anything I say and do is right.
You work for Cap'n Charley when the sun comes up
You brings my favorite slippers and my coffee cup.
You work for Cap'n Charley, stokin' the coal.
You work for Cap'n Charley and I owns your soul.
You might be a Christian and pray to the Lord,
But on the Titanic, I outranks God.”

[Pfister makes a sound to indicate that an iceberg hits the ship]
Then there was a loud, crashin,' smashin' sound
God pulled rank.
Shine said, “You might be the Cap'n on the land and the sea,
You might run the engines, you might turn the key.
You might be Cap'n Charley, well all that's hip,
But I'm gettin' off of Cap'n's stinkin,' sinkin' ship.”

Jumped his black butt into the sea, he did.
He said, “I'm going to tell you one thing, and I don't mean maybe,
But I was long and grown when Father Time was a baby.
I done kilt a whole lot of men's way better than you.
Done kilt a thousand V.C. in Dien Bien Phu.
You can be Tarzan and Rambo and Jungle Jim,
But that's one iceberg that sure ain't slim.
Forked is your tongue, I done heard all the lies,
I'm going to ride with the water and make my own enterprise.”

Just about then a beggar came on board cryin,'
“Save me, save me, Shine, in the name of the Lord.
I gots money and dollars I can't even spend,
I owns a whole lot of people, got stock in the pen,
I give you fine black women and white ones, too,
because I gots more money than the U.S. Mint do.
I give you big pretty houses and Cadillac cars,
Give you fifty hotels and ninety-nine bars.
I runs all the drugs from Harlem to Watts,
I takes food from the mouths of the tiniest tots,
I buys all the missiles and guns for the planes,
I own ninety-nine ships and three hundred trains.
I give you all the money that a black boy needs,
Give you ten tons of coke and twenty tons of weed.”

Shine thought for a while. . . .
“I'm the runner of the world,
The master in the Lord,
I'm going to please her with my Visa and my Bank Americard.
I'll give you money and power and fortune and fame,
Every fine black girl in the world going to know your name.”
Shine said, “You can giggle from the weed, you can laugh from the coke,
But get your bootie in the water and cut your stroke.
You can have all your money, your friends and your foes,
You can finance your wars and your G.I. Joes.
You gots more money than a human had oughta,
So get your butt out here in this freezin' cold water.
You rich and you greedy, ain't never been broke,
So get your butt in the water and cut your stroke.
You can call on the mounties and the C.I.A.,
But they going to get their dry behinds wet today.
Sorry, Mr. Banker, I don't need your pain,
because I'll be sittin' with my baby just a listenin' to the Train.
I'm going to swim to New Orleans for some panne meat,
Going to do the Mississippi Mambo down on Claiborne Street.
Going to wear orange and gold and purple and green,
Go runnin' with the Injuns, eat all the red beans.
You might like Chaka, you might like Rufus,
Even Leon Spinks know you lying through your toofus.”
Just then the banker's daughter floated by Shine.
She said, “Come over here, Shine.
Save some o'little ole mine.
I got a body like a ballard and cheeks like Gladys,
Butt like Bertha and hair like Alice.
I got legs like Tina and a chest like Dolly,
I can almost sing colored and lilac ollie.”

He said, “I like my women's lips red and my crawfish burled
I like the mamas with the boom booms and their hair all curled.
I like hot filΠgumbo and devilish eggs.
I like them Uptown girls with they big fine legs,
I like Downtown womens with they night dark eyes,
I like Backatown womens with they big brown thighs.
I done lived on the land and on ships in the sea,
And the ladies on land is the ladies for me.”

And Shine swam on. . . .
Shine swam down past the Florida Keys,
He was trembling in the arms and weak in the knees.
While Shine was a'swimming, the ocean grew dark,
And he bumped right into a great, big shark,
A biiigggg black one.
The shark he was purty, with pearly white teeth,
He said, “Come over here, Shine, I'm a make you my meat.
You sure look good, swimming in my sea,
Gon' make a right mighty fine meal for me.
I ain't got no chilrens and I don't have a wife,
But one thing I got is your no-swimming life.
I'm a take you and eat you and swallow you whole,
Make you cuss the very day your mammy borned your soul.
I'm big and I'm strong, I takes what I like,
I done robbed Robin Givens and beat up Mike.
Yeah, Mr. Shine, Mack the Knife is sweet,
I can outswim a wave, and I like dark meat.
I rules all the waters, I'm King o'the sea,
Ain't ne'er whale or minnow can get past me.
All the fishes in the water gets outta my way,
From the Rock o'Gibraltar to Barataria Bay.
Ran into a whale, he thought he was slick,
Lil' minnow told me his name was Moby-Dick.
When I tore my teeth into that little ole whale,
I had to hang out a sign saying [high-pitched voice], `Blubber for sale.'
I done wrote with Alex Haley and dunked with Kareem,
Hung with I. W. Harper, got drunk with Jim Beam.
I done ate up the bones o'Gunga Din,
Got Cap'n Bligh's blood on my chinnie, chin, chin.
I done ate up some pirate when they walked the plank,
I done lied with Nixon and sang with Frank.
I done ate German subs and planes full o'people,
Ate the rock from the Hudson and the bell from the steeple.
I done ate up the quail that was hiding in the bush,
Took your grandma to the mountain and gave her a push.
I'm a meeaann shark.
I done ate up Sally, I done ate up Sue,
Start choking, quit stroking, I'm a eat up you!”

Shine said, “Mr. Shark, I'm a tell you, and it ain't no lie,
I taught the Signifying Monkey how to signify.
I done taught Hank Aaron how to hit the ball,
I showed Barbie's mammy how to make a doll.
That ain't really nothing, cause I tell you what,
I done showed Big Bertha how to do the butt.
You might rule the water from London to Selma,
But you ain't no badder than J. J. and Thelma.
My daddy's a poet, my mama's a singer,
I got a uncle out West who's a baaadd gunslinger,
Kilt three white men and lived, he did.
If you wants you some bones and some flesh to tear,
There's a cap'n and a banker and his daughter out there.
If you might chance to think you can catch this man,
You might as well be a tuna in a tunafish can.
Who you out here call yo'self trying to warn?
All you sayin' ain't but talk behind the barn.
You mighta ate a lotta pirates when they walked the plank,
But I likes shark meat, don't you see my shank?
I like red, silky shirts, I done paid my dues,
I like black Cadillacs and shark-skin shoes.
You might rule the ocean, reign over the sea,
But you gotta grow new fins to outswim me.

And Shine swam on.
The Titanic sank and a lotta folk died,
Grandmamas was weepin' and little babies cried.
When the news hit shore about the Titanic that night,
Shine was in New Orleans, high as a kite!
He played him some music with Satcha-moe,
Went to a cemetery party with Marie Laveau.
He was the slickest and the quickest,
He was fine like wine.
He was wicked in the picket, my man, Shine.

They thought Shine was dead, somewhere down afar,
But Shine was in New Orleans,
Hankin' and a pankin'
Glidin' and a slidin'
Honkin' and a tonkin'
Dreamin' and a schemin'
Smackin' and a mackin'
Smokin' and a jokin'
Bammin' and a jammin'
Jumpin' and a bumpin'
Winkin' and a blinkin'
Coolin' and a schoolin'
Juicin' and a goosin'
Hangin' and a bangin'
Skinnin' and a grinnin'
Rappin' and a yappin'
Buggin' and a huggin'
Gigglin' and a wigglin'
Hobbin' and a knobbin'
Peepin' and a creepin'
Maxin' and relaxin'
Funkin' and a junkin'
Chillin' and a illin'
In the neighborhood bar.
Yeah, yeah, in the neighborhood bar—Shine.