Black People and Titanic: The Myth

Almost immediately after the news of the Titanic’s demise began to spread, the memory of the ship and the sinking was key.  Before it even reached New York City, the Carpathia, the ship that rescued the survivors of Titanic, was inundated with wireless messages from press agencies requesting information about the sinking, including personal accounts.  The Carpathia arrived in New York City the night of Thursday, April 18.  As survivors disembarked, they were greeted by throngs of reporters and photographers who crowded the pier, intent on coming away with photographs and news stories about survivors.  Within hours of the Carpathia’s arrival, Senator William Alden Smith spearheaded an inquiry into the cause of the sinking.  A few weeks later, a British inquiry also occurred.  A few months after the sinking, the first film ever depicting the Titanic’s sinking, Saved From the Titanic, was produced, starring Dorothy Gibson, an actress and an actual survivor of the real disaster.

All these events are memories of the Titanic, popular in American culture today and in 1912.  They all have much in common, but one particular aspect is that they do not include African-American reactions to or memories of the ship.

In 1912, an array of more pressing matters besides the sinking of the Titanic demanded the attention of African-Americans of the period.  They faced a steep battle for basic rights in America, and the Titanic seemed far removed from their reality.  However, it was not as distant in reality as previously thought.  A Haitian man traveled onboard the Titanic from France with his young family.  This nugget of information has been left out of the mainstream Titanic narrative, which begs the question of why it has been omitted. You’ll hear more about the Laroches in tomorrow’s post.

Despite their apparent distance from the Titanic disaster, blacks appropriated the memory of the Titanic and adapted it for their own use.  For African-Americans, the Titanic lived in music as well as narrative poems called toasts.  Why did African-Americans remember the Titanic in these manners, and what meanings did the Titanic hold for them?  Additionally, why has the story of a real black man aboard the ship largely escaped the notice of both blacks and whites?  In the case of blacks, why has the memory of the real man, Laroche, been replaced with that of a mythical Titanic crewmemeber named Shine?



The sinking of the Titanic entered folk tradition in three ways: a little-known black spiritual, a well-known camp and college song, and a toast, the most widely known of the three. A toast is an expressive performance of a narrative poem and uses humor to relay a message.  Toasts may be based on historical events or people, but the content of the narratives are usually fictional.  In Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry from Black Oral Tradition, Bruce Jackson compiled and analyzed popular African-American toasts. Jackson suggests that toasts are attempts to deal with harsh realities of blacks’ experiences during the twentieth century. In toasts, a performance-audience situation always exists, as the audience is one of the key requirements. Toasts are similar to jokes.  The main difference is that jokes have only one punchline, usually, while toasts have many.

One of the most prominent examples of the Titanic in African-American memory is a narrative poem about a fictional black stoker aboard the Titanic named Shine. The Titanic toast is one of the three most frequently told toasts.  The other two are “Stackolee,” about an archetypical badman who will fight someone upon a moment’s notice, and “Signifying Monkey,” about a monkey who outsmarts a lion in the jungle.

The exact date of origin for the Shine toast is unclear, however sources trace the narrative back to at least the 1920s.  There are many different versions of Shine’s story.  All of them are riddled with factual errors, and they are all inconsistent with each other; however, all the versions follow the same basic premise and pattern. Shine is supposedly the only black person aboard the Titanic, and he manages to survive the sinking. He is down in one of the boiler rooms of the Titanic when the ship hits the iceberg.  Shine goes above deck and tries to warn Captain Smith that the ship is in great peril, however, Smith refuses to hear what Shine has to say and orders him back below decks.  Shine disobeys and jumps overboard.  After Shine leaves the ship, the passengers finally learn of the ship’s danger and plead with him to save them, offering wealth and sex, but Shine refuses them.  He swims for America, racing a shark along the way.  His final destination differs among the different versions of the story.  Some depict Shine in Harlem, while others depict him in Chicago.

Because oral traditions, by definition, privilege the spoken word over the written, stories change with the person delivering it.  No two people tell a story exactly alike.  The same person might not necessarily tell the same story in exactly the same way each time he delivers it.  He may change words or entire verses for a variety of reasons, such as to suit the type of audience for which he is performing.  Rudy Ray Moore’s performances of the Shine narrative are a relevant example of this.  Ray delivered one version of this story in the film Dolemite.  He performed another version of Shine’s story on his comedy album Eat Out More Often.

(WARNING: Some of the language in the toasts is explicit, so reader beware.)

Rudy Ray Moore, from the album Eat Out More Often (1970):

          The twelfth of May was one helluva day.

            When the news got around to all the seaport towns,

            That the great Titanic was sinkin’ down.

            Up stepped a black man from the deck below that they called ‘Shine’.

            Hollerin’, “Captain! Captain! Don’t you know?

            There’s forty feet of water on the boiler room flo’.”

            The captain said, “Go back, you dirty black!

            We got a thousand pumps to keep this water back.”

            Shine went back below and began to think.

            Said, “Mm, this big, bad muthafucka is bound to sink.”

            Shine said, “There’s fish in the ocean and crabs in the sea.

            But it’s one time you good cool white people ain’t gonna bullshit me.”

            Shine went on the deck, jumped overboard, waved his ass and began to swim.

            With a thousand millionaires lookin’ at him.

            The Captain’s wife stepped on the deck,

            Said, “Shine! Shine! please save po me!

            I’ll give you all the good pussy you can see.”

            Shine said, “Your pussy’s good and that is true,

            But there’s some ho’s down on fifth street that’s make an ass outta you

           Now there’s pussy on land and pussy on seaI got twenty five ho’s in New York just waitin for       me.”

            The captain’s daughter stepped on the deck,

            Said, “Shine! Shine! Please save po me!”

            Said, “I’ll name this little kid after thee.”

            Shine said, “Biiitch! You knocked up and gonna have a kid,

            But yo ass gotta hit this water just like ole Shine did.”

            Here come the captain, “Shine! Shine! Please save me!

            I’ll make you richer than any shine can be.”

            Shine said, “Captain, to save you would be very fine,

            But I gotta first save this black ass of mine!”

            Said, “There’s money on land and money on sea,

            I got a thousand dollars in New York just waitin’ on me.”

            Shine said, “Shark, look out!”

            Said, “I know some of this black ass you’d like to taste.

            But from here to New York it’s gonna be one helluva race!”

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

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

            Shine spent all of his money, fucked his 25 women.

            His dick got sore. Went to the doctor.

            Doctor said, “Shine, I’m gonna have to cut yer dick off.”

            Shine said, “Doctor,” Said, “You better cut it off down to the muthafuckin’ bone,

            Cause if you leave any meat I’m gonna fuck right on!

            If I should die, have my balls soaked in alcohol, lay my dick on my chest

             And tell all these good cock bitches that ole Shine has gone to rest.

             Shine died and went to hell.

             The devil said, “All you bitches, you better climb the wall,

              Cause ole Shine done come down here to fuck us all!

Moore, from Dolemite (1975)

          One beautiful day in the merry month of May,

            The great Titanic sailed away. 

            The captain and the lieutenant was havin’ a few words

            When the great Titanic hit that mighty iceberg. 

            Shine was in the boiler room eatin’ some peas, black-eyed peas it was,

            The water come damn near up to his knees. 

            Before Shine could take a bite of bread,

            That water come darn near up to his head. 

           Shine run up on the deck, say “Cap’n cap’n, Cap’n, that water’s damn near up to my neck.” 

            Captain say, “Shine, go back, and start stackin’ sacks,

            We got enough sacks to keep this water back.” 

            (Shine) you stand up here, steady bullshit and drinkin’,

            But can’t you see this raggedy hunk of junk is slowly sinkin? 

            Say “Cap, I’ll be in New York unpackin’ my trunk

            When the news reach the world this junk done sunk.”

            The cap’n say “Shine, go back and fear no doubt,

            ‘fore I take this two-by-four and wear your black ass out.” 

            Shine say “Captain, the shit you talkin’ might have once been true,

            But this is one time yo motherfuckin’ talk ain’t gon do.” 

            Shine run and jumped over in the ocean,

            With his black ass doing a back flip in motion. 

           After that, all these rich broads run and jumped up on the top. 

           One broad hollered, “Shine – stop!  All this good stuff I’ll give if you make it possible for me to live.” 

            Shine said, “Biiiitch – I like your shape and I like your plan,

            But you should have been offering me your stuff when we was on dry land. 

            If I was in Mississippi and I’d asked you for a trim,

            You’d a had my black ass hangin’ from the highest limb.” 

            Here come another broad out hollerin’, “Shine, Shine, Shine, I’m the captain’s wife. 

            Why won’t you help me to save my life? 

            I’ve been through the cotton fields,

            And I’ve waded through the mills,

            And I’m a soul sister, baby, and we from the same blood.”

            (Shine) you can talk so sweet, and you can sing so fine,

            But you shouldn’t have brought your high-yellow ass across that color line. 

           Now, I’m the one you called that boiler-room flunky, now keep your ass on this ship and go     on with these honkys.”

            When the news got around the world that the great Titanic had hit this big iceberg,

           Shine was in Chicago on Cottage Grove and Sixty-Third, down on his knees, “Every nickel I  shoot and a dime I hope to pairs,

            I left 2,000 rich motherfuckers swinging on they ass.” 

           Everybody wondered why Shine didn’t drown. 

            He had a cork stuck up in his butt and he couldn’t go down.

One of Jackson’s main arguments was that toasts have become less visible in popular culture because society has changed since the period when most toasts were created.  Developments in the black community have changed the status of the toasts’ protagonists, who are usually hustlers or other characters whose goal is to trick someone for their own personal gain.  The role of the hustler, once viewed as a legitimate way of coming to terms with an intolerable situation, is not generally accepted anymore because there are other ways for blacks to be successful.  Changes in racial attitudes led to more opportunities for blacks to enter the middle class and assimilate themselves to middle-class values.  Jackson also observes that American culture, in general, shifted away from narrative performance.  He cites the age of the toasts as evidence.  Most toasts were composed prior to the 1950s, which indicates that the number of new toasts decreased in the second half of the century.  This is a possible indicator that the frequency with which these toasts were performed decreased as well.

Perhaps one of the most likely reasons that the story of Shine has not reached mainstream prominence is Americans’ reverence for European culture.  Jazz and other vernacular forms that are distinctly American are typically put aside as nothing serious or particularly meaningful. Neglect by the mainstream allows practitioners of American vernacular forms to perform their art outside of many of the rules and restraints that govern more formal art, which also frees artists from heavy self-consciousness.  This outsider status also comes with its own risks, however.  The risk of the dismissive attitude is that American mainstream society will ignore the uniqueness of vernacular and, therefore, miss large portions of America’s historical narrative that are best relayed through vernacular art.


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