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Still Holding On


Here’s another image that carries forward the theme of sharks and the slave trade. (See also Watson and the Shark.) The Gulf Stream was painted by Winslow Homer in 1899, at a time when a Missouri congressman said that blacks were “almost too ignorant to eat,” and his colleague from Mississippi [click if for nothing else than the picture] made the same point only by imagining “10,000 negroes, every one of whom was a graduate of Harvard University,” who wreck their ship on a deserted island. After a few years, “half of the men would have been killed, and the other half would have two wives apiece.” (This guy was a University of Virginia graduate, by the way.)
When Booker T. Washington gave his famous Atlanta Exposition Address, he utilized an extended metaphor that compared African Americans to the crew of a listing vessel crying out, “Water, water; we die of thirst!”
Add to this context—which is offered up by the art historian Albert Boime—the fact that in February 1887 Homer illustrated a travel piece for the Century Magazine in which the author discussed “sharks as a potential risk in vacationing in tropical waters,” like those of the Caribbean. Writes Boime: “He tried to discountenance the stories of man-eaters, and at one point declared: ‘The sharks are not inviting, but there is a tradition that they do not take kindly to black flesh.'”
Here, by the way, is one of Homer’s engravings, which Boime doesn’t mention: “Shark-Fishing—Nassau Bah.”

Anyway, Boime scratches his head at the suggestion that sharks “do not take kindly to black flesh,” because quite the opposite is true. Boime argues that this is a case of deliberate irony, wherein the author slyly tells the reader that “‘sharks are as intelligent as whites,’ and therefore your friends.”
I’m not sure I buy that, but it doesn’t matter. The stories of Africans and sharks were out there, and Homer’s painting is one more, quite dramatic take. The outsized stalks of sugarcane on the boat connect the man to the centuries of plantation labor Africans had and continued to endure, but unlike in Watson and the Shark, no rescue seemed imminent.
“Water, water; we die of thirst!” If that’s what this man is thinking, all he betrays is defiance. And as for what happens to him—this time we don’t know.
IMAGES: The Gulf Stream (1899) by Winslow Homer; Shark-Fishing—Nassau Bah by Winslow Homer (Century Magazine, February 1887)

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