Thursday, June 4, 2009

REVIEW: Black Hands, White Sails

McKissack, P., & McKissack, F.L.  (1999).  Black Hands, White Sails:  The story of African-American whalers.  New York:  Scholastic Press.




Black Hands, White Sails considers the history of whaling in the United States with special attention to the experiences of African American and in relation to major events that have shaped American history.  For example, did you know one of the five killed at the Boston Massacre was a mulatto man named Crispus Attucks?  That’s a detail I don’t remember being included in my grade school history textbooks.


In this Coretta Scott King book, the McKissacks patiently give accounts of multiple escaped slaves, free blacks and supportive whites famous or otherwise and their experiences with whaling.  Among those stories included, is a partial account of the famous orator Frederick Douglass.


Black Hands White Sails extends out to emphasize the experience of a new sailor or greenie (due to all the sea sickness), where they’d sleep, the jobs they and other crew members would have, the shanties they would sing, the terms and superstitions common etc.  While there is a description of the layout of a general whaling ship, a diagram would have been nice. (There are a number of old photos included, however)


I found one of the most amusing part of the book was the list of “whalemen’s commandments”:

1.     “Steal but not from a friend
2.     Lie but never about anything important.
3.     Fight anytime you think you can win.
4.     Run when you think you can’t win.
5.     Cheat before you get cheated
6.     Swear but never in front of a good woman.
7.     Drink as much as you can hold.
8.     Love as many women as you can catch.
9.     Never tattle.
10. Never volunteer” (pp. 90-91).

I don’t know how I feel about number eight there, but other than that I’m pretty amused.  Turns out whalers are just as cool as the old school pirates.



Activities to do with the book:


This information book can help give a new more minority-friendly perspective on American history.  It includes information on the Underground Railroad, the slave trade, the civil war, etc.


For young adult students, it could be paired with lessons of Moby Dick, especially since the book spends a number of pages giving accounts of real whaling ships that had experiences that most likely inspired Herman Melville.  It could also be paired with some of Frederick Douglass’s writings.  For younger ships who are still hooked on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the vocabulary and superstition section will probably hold a lot of appeal


This would be a good recommendation for students to go through when working on research projects.


Fun projects that a teacher could use if they assign students to read this book include researching and making a list of other groups/cultures ‘ superstitions, write their own sea shanties,


Favorite Quotes:


“There is no evidence that the Indians ever endeavored to make whaling a business venture.  But the colonists did right away.  And black men were a part of the process from the beginning—first as slave laborers, then as freemen” (p. 2).


“When someone wanted to describe a man who was bold, strong, and wildly daring, they referred to him as a “Nantucket Whaleman”” (p. 15).


“It didn’t matter what color the hands were that handled the sails or pulled the oars.  The rules were clear.  All men had to work together if they were to survive.  This reality is what earned blacks respect, or at least they were tolerated, even though they were not always accepted” (p. 16).


“It wasn’t likely that a man who had hunted a creature 400 times his size would not have a sense of self-pride.  He usually held his head a little higher and pulled his shoulders back a little farther” (p. 26).

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