Whiteness, Blackness, and Sermons to Sharks:

Race in Melville's Moby Dick


by David Cope


            Recent discourse concerning the uses Herman Melville made of race, slavery, and ethnic difference has centered on Benito Cereno, on Melville's meditation about the "whiteness of the whale," and on Ishmael's friendship with Queequeg.  Eric J. Sundquist, for example, suggests that in its original context, Benito Cereno—a story of slave insurrection based on the Tryal rebellion and echoing earlier insurrections by Toussaint L'Ouverture and his brutal lieutenant, Dessalines, as well as Nat Turner's rebellion and the famous Amistad case*—was published during the debates over extending slavery into the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and may have served as an exposť showing the true nature of slavery or utilizing racist fears to convince Americans that slavery should not be further extended in America (see appendix for full list of slave rebellions).  Sundquist further examines Melville's exploration of the psychology of racism even as it infects a good man, noting the extent to which the American Delano recognizes that "slavery breeds ugly passions in man" (Benito Cereno 283) while "banishing from mind the significance of that realization" (Sundquist 179). 

            One may further support this claim of Delano's repressing his own awareness through his identification with Cereno as victim and his failure to fully recognize that Don Benito is an accessory to the brutal enslavement of Africans.  Delano's own racist tendencies—as seen in his generalizations about blacks as "natural valets and hairdressers" who possess "a smooth tact about them" (Benito Cereno 278)—and the exacerbation of that attitude through the recognition of Babo's cunning and the savagery of the rebellion—further display Delano's need to repress his own understanding of the institution and of the "shadow" that haunts Cereno.

            Arnold Rampersad, on the other hand, explores that "shadow" of the negro which is death to Benito Cereno, claiming that the shadow (as seen in Babo) represents that Africanist unitary consciousness which "destabilizes unitary consciousness as well as political and cultural power" among whites (169).  Similarly, the double consciousness of the subdued African—what W. E. B. Dubois called a  "veil" which "only lets him [the African] see through the revelation of the other [white] world"—functions to divide blacks from a true awareness of their real position through psychological self-denial, while at the same time assuring whites of their position.  In the social context of slavery, then, whiteness must become an ideology which allows the slaveowner to justify his position and assuage his conscience while at the same time crushing the rebellious or discontented slave.  Toni Morrison explores the ramifications of this ideology even further, claiming that in "The Whiteness of the Whale" Herman Melville was not "engaged in some simple and simple-minded black/white didacticism" or "satanizing white people," but exploring whiteness as an ideology "formed in fright" (Morrison, Unspeakable Things 16, 18; Melville, Moby Dick 169): 


for all the accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.  This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds.  (Moby Dick 164)


            In Playing in the Dark, Morrison notes that in pre-Civil War American literature, images of "impenetrable whiteness" appear "whenever an Africanist presence is engaged" (32-33), citing both The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Moby Dick as examples of this phenomenon.  Given this context, Africans may serve as "surrogate selves for meditations on problems of human freedom" (37), as an objectified "image of reined-in, bound, suppressed, and repressed darkness" in the American psyche (38-39) or, as in the narrative of William Dunbar in Bernard Bailyn's Voyagers to the West, as a "population against which Dunbar and all white men are enabled to measure . . . [the] privileging and privileged differences" of their own freedom (45).  The question, then, is how the concept of whiteness informs Moby Dick in its portrayal of race relations, to what uses the novel's non-white characters are put, and the extent to which Melville openly explores racial difference in the context of the ideology of whiteness. 

            First, however, one may object that whiteness refers only to the whale, not to race matters, but I suggest that throughout the novel the racial theme of black and white—of Africans as black and of Ahab, Ishmael, and Stubb, among others as white—recurs often enough to justify such an identification, beginning with Ishmael's inadvertent stumbling into a black church where the sermon explores the "blackness of darkness," and culminating in Ahab's taking Pip into his cabin as a fellow madman despite the fact that he is black (Moby Dick 436). Though the issues of race are not as central to Moby Dick as they are to Benito Cereno, one may observe them as important in several of the novel's chapters, as well as in Ishmael's friendship with Queequeg.  To all of these, of course, the problem of whiteness in "The Whiteness of the Whale" serves as a key.

            The first of these events occurs in chapter two, where Ishmael enters New Bedford by night and searches for a place to stay.  He is caught in the mood of "dreary streets" and "blocks of blackness," finding his way into an apparently public doorway and stumbling over an ash-box on the porch.  When he enters the second doorway, he describes the black congregation within as a "Tophet" whose preacher is "a black Angel of Doom."  His discomfort is immediate:  the service is so foreign to him that he sees the sermon expounding on the "blackness of darkness" and the cries of the participants as "weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing" and "wretched entertainment" (Moby Dick 18).  From there, he of course flees to Peter Coffin's "Spouter Inn," but the point is that Melville here establishes the initial opposition of black and white—and Ishmael's discomfort with blackness as the typical attitude of the whites, a sign of incipient racism even among those wandering Ishmaels most alienated from the Eurocentric enterprise.  Melville also establishes his fascination with the paradoxes of language, their connections to culture and the attitudes that flow from these: "blackness" has a very different meaning

to the African congregation, to whom the sermon serves as a meditation on identity, and what appears as a veritable Inferno to Ishmael is to them a religious celebration.             

In part, this scene serves as a starting point in the education of Ishmael:  his discomfort with racial difference swells when he first meets the cannibal islander, yet Queequeg's open affection for him, his "simple honest heart," his ease among strangers and "indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrises and bland deceits" all give Ishmael reasons to rethink his own attitudes about race and difference.  The change is apparent in chapter thirteen:


As we were going along the people stared; not at Queequeg so much—for they were used to seeing cannibals like him in their streets,—but at seeing him and me upon such confidential terms.  But we heeded them not.  (58) 


            This second scene, then, utilizes racial difference as the means to show a growing awareness in the white sailor, Ishmael, regarding the social prejudices he had so unconsciously displayed as he entered New Bedford.  Together, the two scenes establish the racial opposition of black (or non-white) and white whose echo resounds in the ideology of whiteness that underlies the voyage itself—not only exploring the tyranny of the Eurocentric enterprise, but the obsession with whiteness as an ideology involving social and linguistic domination.  Toni Morrison summarizes this theme as Melville's use of "allegorical formations—the white whale, the racially mixed crew, the black-white pairings of male couples, the questing, questioning white male captain who confronts impenetrable whiteness—to investigate hierarchic difference" without fully clarifying the history underlying that difference (Playing 68-69).

            A third and fourth scene explore the ramifications of that domination through the character of Stubb in his interactions with Fleece, the black cook, and Pip, the cabin boy.  Throughout the novel, Stubb is characterized as happy-go-lucky, courageous to a fault, adjusting with a laugh even to Ahab's incursions on his dignity, yet that laughter presents a different kind of face when he taunts Fleece for improperly cooking his steak.  Here we see him in a vein which, despite the humor, displays a tyrannical streak directly connected to his role on the ship and indirectly to the assumption that as a white man he may abuse blacks without repercussion.  Stubb first berates the old man for overcooking his whale steak, then forces him to preach to the sharks tearing at the whale lashed to the Pequod's hull.  Fleece begins his "sermon" by cursing the sharks, but Stubb slaps him on the shoulder, rebuking him:  "Cook! why damn your eyes, you must'nt swear that way when you're preaching" (251).  The irony of the curse embedded in an admonition not to curse should be apparent. 

            Fleece, recognizing the insult, throws Stubb's rebuke back to him and "sullenly" turns to go, but the mate's brief admonition convinces him that he should do as asked.  There is no explicit threat, yet the cook knows that he must play along, and what follows is a dialect "sermon" admonishing the sharks to "gobern dat wicked natur" despite their natural "woraciousness," because "all angel is not'ing more dan de shark well goberned"  (251).  Fleece expands on this message, and when Stubb seems pleased with its "Christi-anity," he begs that he be allowed to finish.  When Stubb assents, Fleece pronounces a benediction for which his voice becomes shrill:  "Cussed fellow-critters!  Kick up de damndest row as ever you can; fill your dam' bellies till dey bust—and den die" (252).  Stubb's tyranny over Fleece continues for two more pages of text, yet when he leaves, the cook completes the message of his sermon, muttering that  "I'm bressed if he ain't more of shark dan Massa Shark hisself" and suggesting that it would be just if the whale would eat Stubb, rather than Stubb eat the whale. 

            That this scene was intended to serve as a comic interlude should be apparent—and in this dominant mode of interpretation, Fleece is "a figure of fun . . . out of the crudest popular tradition," his curse at Stubb "an honorific tribute" (705).  The "sermon" itself becomes, according to such an interpretation, a parody of the sermons such as Father Mapple's as well as a comic omen predicting Stubb's death.  Despite this fact, however, the sermon's connection to the Africanist service of chapter two and the use of signifying as its dominant trope imply a very different interpretation, one which exposes Stubb's hierarchic power as a white man, giving him the means to coerce a black man into humiliating himself for the sake of Stubb's humor.  On one level, then, Fleece's sermon is an exposition of the meaning of blackness named in chapter two:  to bend without breaking in a racist world.  Yet there is a further implication:  the use of the sharks as metaphor for that white power gives Fleece what power he does possess:  to lecture Stubb on his shark-like nature and to invoke a curse upon him without being held to account for such an accusation and curse.  Such signifying is, as noted by Roger D. Abrahams, a typical motif in Africanist discourse:


signifying seems to be a Negro term, in use if not in origin[;] . . . it certainly refers to the trickster's ability to talk with great innuendo, to carp, cajole, needle, and lie.  It can mean in other instances the propensity to talk around a subject, never quite coming to the point.  It can mean making fun of a person or situation. (quoted in Gates, Jr. 54)


Whether Melville recognized this trope of revising and repetition as typical of Africanist discourse, especially in confrontations with one more powerful than oneself—as in the signifying monkey tales, where the monkey diverts the lion's attention from himself to the elephant and thus escapes while these two quarrel—is not the point here.  The fact is that he has produced an incident in which a black man, humiliated by a white, takes a limited verbal revenge through the very means by which he is humiliated.  While this incident does not explore the depth of the anger produced by slavery, Melville does expose the dynamics of racism in an everyday event, utilizing Fleece's signifying as a commentary on white power.  A more serious exercise of that power—and the African's inability to counter it—occurs not long afterward, when Stubb cuts Pip loose in mid-ocean.  

            In chapter ninety-three, the young cabin boy is pressed into service on Stubb's boat when the mate's after-oarsman sprained his hand.  Unused to the rigorous routine demanded in such service, Pip fouls the line and falls overboard when they have struck

their first whale, and in order to save Pip, Stubb must order Tashtego to cut the whale loose.  Stubb does so, but lectures Pip on his place:


Stick to the boat, Pip, or by the Lord, I won't pick you up if you jump; mind that.  We can't afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama.  Bear that in mind, and don't jump any more.  (346)


When Pip repeats this performance, Stubb's boat races off and leaves him—and when he is rescued later, "from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot," talking incoherently to all who approached him (347).  Later, in the chapter entitled "The Cabin," Ahab himself takes pity on Pip and allows him to reside his own cabin, exclaiming that despite the fact that he is "a black! and crazy," the captain recognizes that they have a common problem:  "like-cures-like applies to him, too."  Pip is like a rag-doll in his hands:  "use poor me for your one lost leg; only tread upon me, sir; I ask no more, so I remain a part of ye"  (436).

            This set of events is even more sketchily drawn than the encounter between Stubb and Fleece, but this too explores the theme of blackness in its relation to Eurocentric power.  First, one should note that in his rebuke, Stubb reminds Pip of valuation, the price assigned to blacks on the auction block.* Berthoff dismisses this as "speaking the world's plain truth in reminding the slave-boy that one whale is worth thirty Pips on the open market" (704-05), blindly accepting the fact that Stubb commodifies Pip's humanity as not being worth one-thirtieth of a dumb brute and utilizes one of the slave's worst fears to force him to obey his charge.  Nowhere in this novel is the racial division of black and white—and the connection between racist attitudes and economic enterprise—more clearly and coldly displayed than in this scene.  

The result of the commodifying attitude that reduces another's life to valuation—or more properly, devaluation—is that Pip nearly dies, and as a result of this agony, goes mad.  Unlike the older Fleece, he has not evolved strategies by which to deflect white racism from his inner self; an innocent, he is spiritually harpooned, and though the paternalism of Ahab's later taking him in is obvious, Pip has reached the point where he needs to cling to others merely to survive.  That he clings to the white engineer of this mad enterprise is all the more ironic.




            Unlike Benito Cereno, race and slavery are not the major themes in Moby Dick, but they form a discontinuously surfacing but always present undercurrent in the human relations represented in the novel.  In the discourse of "blackness" and "whiteness," Melville suggests that each construct—both as signified meaning and in its  social ramifications—may turn ironically from its usual associations in English usage:  in an Africanist interpretation, they revise and signify such that blackness is neither the evil invested in the Puritans' "black man" nor a disturbing omen of terror, but rather involves a variety of African responses to an unethical and unscrupulous use of power by those connected to whiteness.  Three of those responses are recorded in the race relations displayed in the novel:  Queequeg's dignity and ease among strangers persuades Ishmael to grow as a man, Fleece's signifying sermon gives him a measure of linguistic revenge against an oppressor whose sterile ethic is exposed in his reduction of the incident to humor, and little Pip goes mad when confronted with the fact that whites would let him die rather than give up a whale.  Melville explores a fourth response—open rebellion—in Benito Cereno, where the complexity of race relations forms the central theme of the narrative.  As one of the few white authors who has been willing to confront this most problematic American theme, Melville should, in the words of Arnold Rampersad, be seen as "one of the principal interpreters of the American obsession with race and commitment to racism, an artist to whose work we should turn for a fair measure of illumination and guidance" (172).  Both Benito Cereno and Moby Dick bear this claim out, though each approaches the themes in very different, if equally complex ways.




*The effects of valuation may be clearly observed in chapter eight of the narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, where "men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine" and Douglass saw "more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder."  After the valuation would come division, where "a single word from the white men was enough—against all our wishes, prayers, and entreaties—to sunder forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and strongest ties known to human beings" (282).



Appendix:  Slave Insurrections and Related Events


Note:  Source for all but the Tryal and Amistad revolts is Ulrich B. Phillips' American Negro Slavery (Baton Rouge:Louisiana State U P, 1966).  Phillips' racism is offensive, but he remains a good source of data on the institution of slavery. 



1622:  Joloff slave revolt.  Hispaniola, plantation of Diego Columbus. 


1663:  Gloucester County, Va.  Exposure of conspiracy for insurrection by white indentured servants and black slaves.


1677:  Jamaica.  Minor insurrection.


1687:  "Northern neck" of Virginia.  Exposure of planned insurrection.  Punishments unknown.


1690:  Maroon Slave Revolt led by Cudjoe.  Jamaica, Clarendon Parish; flight of the slaves led to establishment of a free rebel community; warfare and reprisals led to 1738 treaty recognizing the community.  The community was destroyed by whites around 1795, the survivors deported to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.  


1701:  Antigua.  Minor insurrection.


1709:  Isle of Wight County, Va.  Exposure of planned insurrection.  Three slaves and one free black whipped; two other slaves held as ringleaders (fates unknown); another escaped and was outlawed.


1711-1720:  South Carolina.  Disturbances by runaways led to burning, hanging, and banishment of those convicted. 


1712:  New York City.  Rebellion by 23 Coromantee and Paw Paw blacks (possibly joined by Spanish or Portuguese Indians enslaved and captured at sea) put down.


1723:  Gloucester and Middlesex Counties, Va.  Exposure of planned insurrection; deportation of seven slaves.


1734:  Raritan, New Jersey.  Slave's confession revealed conspiracy—one hanged, one escaped.


1736:  Antigua.  Minor insurrection.


1739:  Jonny's rebellion.  Angola slave revolt and attempted march to Florida.  Twenty-one whites and forty-four blacks killed.  


1741:  New York.  Conspiracy centered in the home of John Hughson, a white man, uncovered:  four whites and twenty-nine blacks executed.


1752:  Martinique and Guadaloupe.  Minor insurrections.


1765:  Grenada and Jamaica, St. Mary's Parish.  Minor insurrections.


1785:  Dominica.  Minor insurrection.


1791-1805:  Toussaint L'Ouverture's Rebellion.  San Domingo.  Toussaint was eventually lured to his death, but Dessalines, his successor, continued the revolt.  Dessalines killed all the whites and proclaimed himself emperor of his new nation, Haiti, in 1804.


1792:  Norfolk.  Arrest and release of blacks thought to be engaged in conspiracy. 


1794:  Demarara.  Minor insurrection.


1796:  Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana.  Julien Poydras plantation.  Slave insurrection with white accomplices:  "A dozen or two" blacks excecuted; whites sent to prison. 


1800:  Gabriel's revolt.  Richmond, Va.  Thomas H. Prosser's plantation.  Massive conspiracy of hundreds to "perhaps more than a thousand" put down.  Twenty-four slaves executed; ten others deported.


1802:  Virginia.  Fourteen insurgents or conspirators from six counties convicted and executed.


1803:  York, Pa.  Series of burned houses:  twenty blacks punished for arson.


1805:  Tryal Slave Revolt.  Seizure of the slave ship Tryal.  The end of this rebellion is recorded in Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and the story of the Tryal serves as foundation for Melville's famous novelette,  Benito Cereno.


1811:  St. Charles and St. James Parishes, Louisiana.  Slave revolt traced to San Domingo slaves. 


1816:  The Boxley Plot.  George Boxley, a white man, led an insurrection of slaves.  Six blacks hanged; six "transported";  Boxley escaped from jail and was never caught.


1817:   Amistad Slave Revolt led by Cinque, later the subject of Robert Hayden's greatest poem, "Middle Passage." 


1816:  Camden, South Carolina.  Plot exposed; participants executed.


1819:  Augusta, Ga.  Plot exposed; participants executed. 


1822:  Denmark Vesey's Conspiracy.  Charleston, South Carolina.  Angolans, Eboes, and Carolina-born slaves organized into separate commands, but before they could strike, two slaves revealed the plot.  130 blacks arrested:  many acquitted, but 34 were de    ported and 35 hanged.  Four white accomplices sent to prison for 3-12 months. 


1825:  Cuba.  Conspiracy revealed.


1831:  Nat Turner's Rebellion.  Southampton County, Va.  55 whites killed; numerous blacks killed, excecuted, or deported.


1832:  Jamaica,  Insurrection destroying property valued at c. $1,800,000.


1835:   Madison County, Mississippi.  A conspiracy of whites and blacks exposed; "several whites and ten or fifteen blacks" executed.


1835:  Louisiana.  Plot of two whites and forty blacks exposed; whites "and doubtless some of  the blacks" executed. 


1837:  Alexandria, Louisiana.  Plot exposed.  Nine slaves and three free blacks hanged.


1840:  Lafayette and St. Landry Parishes, Louisiana.  Plot exposed by slave woman Lecide.  9 blacks hanged.


1841:  August, Ga.  Several blacks arrested for conspiracy; one sentenced to death.


1844:  Bullitt County, Ky.  Mr. Stewart beaten to death after threatening a slave.


1845:  Arkansas:  Overseer attacked after threatening a slave--saved by armed neighbors.


1848:  St. Croix and Puerto Rico.  Conspiracies revealed.


1850:  Fugitive Slave Act.


1859:  John Brown's Raid.  Harpers Ferry, Va.  Brown, whites, and blacks raided the federal arsenal and were put down. 


1860:  Dallas, Texas.  Insurrection.  Three ringleaders hanged. 



Works Cited


Berthoff, Warner.  "Characterization in Moby Dick."  Moby Dick.  By Herman Melville.  Ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker.  New York and London:  Norton, 1967.


Douglass, Frederick.  "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass."  The Classic Slave Narratives.  Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  New York:  Penguin (Mentor), 1987.


Gates, Jr., Henry Louis.  The Signifying Monkey:  A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism.  New York and Oxford:  Oxford U P, 1988.


Melville, Herman.  "Benito Cereno."  Great Short Works of Herman Melville.  Ed. Warner Berthoff.  New York:  Harper and Row, 1969.


- - - - .  Moby Dick.  Ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker.  New York and London:  Norton, 1967. 


Morrison, Toni.  Playing in the Dark:  Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.  Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard U P, 1992.


- - - -.  "Unspeakable Things Unspoken:  The Afro-American Presence in American Literature."  Michigan Quarterly Review (Winter 1989): 1+.


Rampersad, Arnold.  "Melville and Race."  Herman Melville:  A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Myra Jehlen.  Englewood Cliffs:  Prentice-Hall, 1994.


Sundquist, Eric J.  "'Benito Cereno' and New World Slavery."  Herman Melville:  A Collection of Critical Essays.  Ed. Myra Jehlen.  Englewood Cliffs:  Prentice-Hall, 1994.