Last spring the Washington Post published an article by Gregory White, an ex-convict whose life was changed by a book we published in 1997. After reading a review of Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, the then-incarcerated White began to think of the sea as his chance to do something with his life that he’d consider worthwhile.
White, who’d served in the Navy as a young man, contacted the book’s author, Jeffrey Bolster, who assured him of the possibility of an ex-con becoming a merchant marine. Soon after that exchange, White obtained a copy of Black Jacks and read it over and over:
The story of African American seamen left an indelible impression on my heart and soul. I identified with the story of those who had been imprisoned or enslaved and had plied the maritime industries as a means to survive or to be liberated. The trying conditions of slavery far outweighed the handicaps of my modern incarceration. The men and women storied in Black Jacks became my inspiration. I made a willful and deliberate decision that I would change my attitude and redirect the course of my life. Going to sea became the central passion of my life.
As he detailed in the Post, White maintained a relationship with Bolster, whose brother eventually gave White his first job at sea. White went on to become a documented U.S. Merchant Mariner, travelling the world over.
The story told in Black Jacks that so captivated White presents the rich history of African Americans at sea from the late 1700s until Emancipation. Indeed, seamen wrote the first six autobiographies of blacks published in English before 1800, a fact that both indicates the opportunities then offered by life at sea and illustrates Bolster’s contention that seafaring men “fired the opening salvo” of black abolitionism. But their story has been largely eclipsed by the myth that black seafaring in the age of sail was limited to the Middle Passage:
In lieu of these politically astute and worldly black sailors, an image of manacled ancestors crammed together aboard slave ships has triumphed as the association of African Americans with the sea. It reinforces whites’ belief that blacks were acted on, rather than acting; that blacks aboard ship sailed as commodities rather than seamen. Yet until the Civil War black sailors were central to African Americans’ collective sense of self, economic survival, and freedom struggle—indeed central to the very creation of black America.
Bolster himself spent a decade as a commercial mariner, and Black Jacks was inspired by his search for a bridge between the many black West Indian sailors he met in those years and historic slave sailors like Olaudah Equiano, whose Interesting Narrative Bolster read at sea. “How,” he asked, “could one understand early black America without recognizing that plantations were connected to a larger world of black people, as well as to world markets, by black seamen?”
This Tuesday, February 5th, the Boston University African American Studies program will host White and Bolster for a discussion of White’s life and the book that changed it. “The Odyssey of Gregory White” is open to the public.