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Black Hands, White Sails (Coretta Scott King Author Honor Books) Hardcover – October 1, 1999
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From Library Journal
Grade 6-9-A well-researched and detailed book chronicling the contributions of African Americans to the whaling industry. Many were drawn to jobs on whaling ships throughout the 1600-1800s, for while conditions were difficult, they were preferable to slavery. The authors go to great lengths to draw out the roles of African Americans, and while many of these connections are eye-opening, they are sometimes tenuous. The first half of the book, an introduction to the whales and the business surrounding their hunting, features significant men such as Prince Boston and Paul Cuffe, but also some who were less directly involved. Frederick Douglass did briefly work as a ship's caulker but many pages are devoted to describing aspects of his life that are irrelevant to whaling. Midway, the emphasis shifts to interesting aspects of life aboard ship, explaining phrases we use today that derive from whalers, superstitions of the seas, sailing songs and shanties, the story of the famous Essex, and the role of whalers in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. While the story becomes much more engaging at this point, the role of African Americans seems to have diminished importance as race is only occasionally mentioned. Overall, though, as an important and under-explored aspect of both African-American and nautical history, this book merits a place on the shelves in larger libraries and in African-American collections. However, for a more fascinating look at whaling, and one that integrates the African-American story along with the many other participants, look to Jim Murphy's Gone A-Whaling (Clarion, 1998).
Andrew Medlar, Chicago Public Library, IL
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
This fascinating look at the convergent histories of whaling and the abolitionist movement weaves seemingly disparate threads into a detailed tapestry. The authors trace the whaling industry from its colonial New England roots through the end of the nineteenth century, establishing it within a strong political, social, and economic context. The connections they describe are illuminating, including the use of whaling ships as vehicles on the Underground Railroad and as weapons in the blockade of two Confederate harbors. Whaling was a harsh profession that offered, if not equality, at least greater opportunity for African American men. Drawing heavily from primary sources, the McKissacks celebrate the accomplishments of such sailors, captains, shipbuilders, and inventors as Lewis Temple, the blacksmith who designed the first barbed harpoon. Less-skilled readers may have difficulty following the expansive narrative that pulls in details from several different angles, but history buffs and researchers should find the book's complexity rewarding. Appended is information on whale species, a time line, and a bibliography. Randy Meyer
Top customer reviews
Joining the crew of a whaling ship, with extended voyages at sea and Northern home ports, was a risk worth taking for fugitive slaves and unemployable black freedmen. The men gained prestige and confidence as they worked side-by-side with white sailors and whalers from many nations. A man was judged by his work, and many black whalers gained skills for success aboard whalers. Of course, the work was dangerous, dirty, and ill-paying; the book explores that, too.
As a collection of anecdotes and seagoing trivia, this book is a winner. It seems like a collection of short essays on various nautical topics. As a history of blacks in the New England whaling communities, the book is disorganized almost to the point of unreadability. Frequently, a term is used without explanation, only to be defined and communicated much later in the book. Those errors can be shaped up in later editions -- there were many instances, but two that really stood out were "grog" and "greasy luck."
The best section of the book recounts the whaleship "Essex" disaster. The writing in that section is clear, quick, and entertaining.
The writers' assumption that the reader is unfamiliar with modern English idioms and their nautical origins seems mistaken. A reader old enough to manage the choppy style of the book will be able to handle idiomatic expressions (possibly better than the authors, if their etymology of "ringleader" is an example).
We set the standards for our children; if we accept inferior writing and give it high honors within the black community, how can we then expect more from our children than mediocrity and underachievement?
The book includes two sections of photographs and illustrations -- very helpful and interesting visuals. Those sections improve the book quite a bit. If your travel takes you to the whaling ports of colonial New England, this will be a good book to read before you go.