MAXWELL:  “There were no brothers’ on board

5/3/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Most white people I know have seen Titanic, but I know only a handful of African-Americans who have seen this most expensive film ever. Evidence shows, in fact, that black interest in the movie is far below that of whites.

And few black girls _ if any _ are swooning over Leonardo DiCaprio’s “terrific” eyes.

Why the differences? The answers are based in history.

When asked about the reactions of blacks to his masterpiece, director James Cameron spoke candidly: “There were no brothers on Titanic when it went down, because it was a rich man’s ship. So it was like there’s this justice to it, this symmetry which you can totally appreciate. One of my regrets on this film is that, you know, there were no African-Americans on Titanic, so there was no opportunity to cast them.”

The notions of “justice” and “symmetry” that Cameron refers to partly explain why today’s blacks and whites react differently to the film, and these notions also explain why blacks and whites living in 1912, when the ship sank, reacted differently to the tragedy.

Because no blacks were among the more than 1,500 passengers and crew who perished, many blacks were jubilant after the Titanic went down.

Intellectuals such as Booker T. Washington and other middle-class blacks voiced “deep and sincere sympathy” to the loved ones of the victims. Washington even wrote to President Howard Taft expressing his sorrow. W.E.B. DuBois, editor of The Crisis, the NAACP’s monthly journal, also wrote sympathetically.

But the overwhelming majority of African-Americans, especially those in the South and in the urban ghettos of the Northeast, dismissed these expressions of compassion as the “accommodationism” of Uncle Toms.

The reality was that racial brutality and Jim Crowism were at their zenith when the Titanic sank. In fact, 1912, with 61 black men lynched by whites, was a year of horror. Other types of violence _ floggings, home burnings and Klan harassment _ made life unbearable for tens of thousands.

America was a “white man’s country,” and black resentment was greater than it had been at any time since Reconstruction. The sinking of the lily-white Titanic, therefore, was, as Cameron suggests, “justice.”

Many blacks publicly called the sinking divine retribution and recorded the awful news in prose and in verse. One such lyrical invention, called a toast, is a rhythmical oral narrative that often rhymes and can be recited or sung. Often, it is picaresque, profane and obscene. Titanic toasts are always contemptuous of whites.

The black attitude toward the calamity is best captured in toasts featuring Shine, a character who mocks the white man’s comeuppance. Shine _ a derogatory term for blacks, especially dark-hued males _ is the black man’s black man. Through action, speech and temperament, he embodies the full range of black emotion, cunning and physicality.

Although the details of Shine’s exploits differ from one storyteller to the next, the core of the myth _ a victim who beats tough odds, those of nature and those of the white man _ never changes, as this summary illustrates:

Shine, the ship’s only black, works as a stoker. Slaving below deck, he is the first to learn that the ship is taking on water. The captain does not believe that the vessel is sinking and argues this point with Shine.

Finally seeing water below deck, the captain seeks Shine’s help in saving himself. But Shine rejects his bribes: money and sexual relations with his wife and daughter. Seeing that the ship is going down, Shine jumps overboard, demonstrating his superhuman swimming ability. Indeed, when news of the tragedy reaches shore, Shine is already on dry land.

Here is the punch line of a stanza praising Shine’s escape:

When the news got around the world that the great Titanic had sunk,

Shine was in Harlem on 125th Street, damn near drunk.


When all them white folks went to Heaven,

Shine was in Sugar Ray’s Bar drinking Seagram’s Seven.

The Titanic toast, like a William Faulkner story, draws sharp distinctions between whites and blacks. Although the white characters are shown as being powerful and wealthy, they are simultaneously portrayed as being vain, greedy, stupid, stubborn and immoral, which makes Shine, the ultimate trickster, the superior character.

Songs of the time echo this assessment of race and character. For example, a Huddie Ledbelly song shows heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who had been persecuted by whites for marrying white women, dancing at the news of the Titanic:

When he heard the mighty shock,

Mighta seen that man doin’ the Eagle Rock.

Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.

In the same song, Ledbelly rejoices at the irony that, because of racism, blacks were barred from the ship:

Black man oughta shout for joy

Never lost a girl or either a boy.

I was the only black in the theater when I saw Titanic. And I was not surprised. Sure, I wish that all blacks could transcend the fact that Titanic is a “white” film, accept the universality of human loss and appreciate Cameron’s special artistry.

But, then again, perhaps I am asking too much of a people whose collective memory of suffering and violence, of being perpetually excluded, still guides their daily lives.

Even though I can let go of the past and approach events and ideas intellectually, I, or anyone else, would be naive to expect most other blacks to suspend the reality of their status of inferiority in American history. We would be naive to ask them to pretend that the Titanic is their ship, too.