Was a Black Man on the Titanic?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The making of a legend named Shine, after the demise of a real person.

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Langston Hughes captured the oral tradition surrounding Shine in his piece for the Chicago Defender on July 18, 1953, noting that the Titanic was hot again with the release of a new Hollywood film (called Titanic, it starred Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck). In Hughes’ column, which he titled “When the Titanic Went Down Legend Says a Negro Was There,” he recalled how he’d been but a boy in Kansas in 1912 but “remember[ed] the old folks talking about it and how, ‘Thank God, there were no Negroes on that ship,’ since they drew the color line and the white folks wouldn’t let them ride, so they said.” But, Hughes quickly added, “folklore has it otherwise.

“For most of my adult life,” Hughes explained, “I have been hearing every now and then among the joke tellers, some long-rhymed version about the Negro who saved his life, not by jumping into a life-boat, with the women and children, but by swimming ashore.” And, “[l]ike all folk things,” Hughes wrote, “this story varies in the telling from place to place and person to person.” Which was why Hughes asked his readers to send him their versions. To melt the ice, Hughes printed what he’d already collected.

“It was 1912 when the news got
    around
That the great Titanic was going
    down.
Shine came running up on deck
    and told the Captain, ‘Please,
The water in the boiler room is
    up to my knees.’
Captain said, ‘You better take
    your black self back down there!
I got a hundred fifty pumps to
    keep the boiler room clear.’ ”

When he was up to his neck in water, however …

“Shine said, ‘Your words sound
happy and your words sound
    true.
But this is one time your word
    won’t do.
Because I don’t like chicken and
    I don’t like ham –
And I don’t believe your pumps
    are worth a damn.’”

Swimming away, Shine refused to turn back for even the most lucrative offers from those on board, including the captain, who, by then, knew he’d been wrong.

“When all them white folks went
    to heaven
Shine was in Sugar Ray’s in Har-
    lem drinking Seagrams Seven.”

Hughes did a good job of giving the Shine toasts a bath for the Defender’s middle class readers. For the authentic, canonical versions of the toast, check out the 10 that the folklorist Bruce Jackson collected in his 1974 book, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me. These are the classic X-rated renditions of the toast, especially one from Ellis Tom, that Jackson recorded on March 25, 1966. 

The basic arc of Shine’s escape is similar in the various versions of the toasts that Jackson collected, but with lots of play in who on board the Titanic is doing the begging for Shine to save them, and what they offer Shine in return, ranging from sex to marriage to fabulous wealth. In Mack’s version, recorded in Jefferson City on June 24, 1964, for example, we see an allusion by the captain to the founder of the Rockefeller dynasty:

"Shine jumped in the water and commenced to swim,
four thousand millionaires watchin’ him.
Captain say, ‘Shine, Shine, save poor me,
I’ll make you richer than old John D.’
Shine turned around and took another notion.
Say, ‘Captain, your money’s counterfeit in this big-assed ocean.’ ”

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