Oh Captain, My Captain!

In the 20th century, one job that was available to black men was being a sailor and traveling the world on British ships.

In this black and white image, we see a brick building with many windows, three small balconies, and a door with a sign above that reads “British Sailors Society”. There is also a sign to the right of the door that says “West Indies House: Sailors Hostel.” On one of the balconies, two men are standing, wearing suits, and looking down to the street. The front door of the hostel is open, and three men are approaching. The first is carrying a guitar, the second holding a suitcase and tipping his hat to the men above, and the third is simply looking up with his hat on his head. All three of these men are also wearing suits. The sun is shining because we can see the shadows it creates, and these men seem to have generally contented expressions on their faces.

This image is a good representation of colonization in the 20th century. We see that this is a British building, housing black sailors that were most likely working on a British ship. African Americans at the time often didn’t believe that “black” existed outside of the US. When in fact many African Americans were very well traveled. In fact, the black experience was very diverse. Some people never left their hometowns, others traveled the world, like the seamen we see in this photo.

In John Killens‘ novel, The Cotillion, the character Lumumba has lived his life as a sailor. He is unique from all of the other characters because he has seen many different countries around the world. He is viewed in different ways because of his travels. The girl who loves him, Yoruba, considers him to be very impressive and cultured because he has actually experienced many different cultures. When Yoruba’s mother first encounters him, she asks if he is cultured. But by cultured, she means  educated, sophisticated, white. At first she was not impressed by Lumumba at all.

For a black man to sail around the world would certainly be a unique experience. It somewhat disconnects men from society because after being everywhere, how can you really belong in any one place? After all of his traveling, Lumumba find it difficult to fit in in America. He refers to this as not being able to get his land legs back. He is more like a drifter who simply floats from group to group. Killens portrays these drifter qualities when Lumumba is able to simply change his appearance and behavior to please the people around him.

The experience of the black middle class is very complex. On the surface, Lumumba is all natural black and beautiful one minute, and the next he is dressed to the T in a “white” impersonation and speaks with an English accent. . On the surface, it may seem simple. The black sailors in this image may be having a great time living their lives in a carefree way. But eventually they must return to shore, and that is where it gets more difficult.

Source:

WEST INDIES MERCHANT SEAMEN’S HOSTEL, NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, ENGLAND, 1941. iwm.org.uk. Web. Accessed 3/21/13.

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