(A review of All Brave Sailors: The Story of the S. S. Booker T. Washington, by John Beecher.)
All Brave Sailors is a war chronicle of the S. S. Booker T. Washington, a kind of personal log kept in terms of the climate of democracy that John Beecher found aboard the ship. The Booker T. Washington was the first American vessel commissioned under a Negro master; her crew consisted of veterans of the Spanish civil war and the labor movement, old seamen, ship’s officers who had long been Jim Crowed out of their professions, and civilians and refugees sent to sea by the war. And in terms of racial background her crew list reads like the catalogue of American types found in “Ballad for Americans”—some, like Beecher, being white Southerners.
One of the more interesting war books, All Brave Sailors consists of brief profiles of Captain Hugh Mulzac and his crew, accounts of the ship’s NMU local in action, descriptions of the crew’s reaction to Army Jim Crow policy in foreign ports, and anecdotes of the seamen’s adventures and friendships with anti-fascist groups in the war zones. Being a poet as well as the Booker T. Washington’s purser, Beecher saw the ship (named rather ambiguously after a Negro educator who believed that Negroes and whites should be kept “separate as the fingers of the hand”) as a symbol of a type of democracy in which value rests not upon skin color but upon human quality, intelligence and ability, and where black and white men worked and played together in harmony. On this level his book is a recommendation that such a democratic integration be effected throughout our social structure.
Beecher is impressed by that warmth of human relationships so often noted by writers when they venture during times of war among soldiers, sailors and airmen, or in times of peace, among the peoples of pre-industrial societies in which relationships are based not upon an abstract market as in capitalist societies, but upon a more direct and less complex awareness of social necessity. Thus, for Beecher, the Booker T. Washington becomes a concretefloating symbol of tranquil interracial brotherhood, crossing the seas on duty in a war of racial strife, but remaining within itself undisturbed. Here the racial storms which psychiatrists and sociologists find in the hearts of all Americans have been replaced by the warm trade winds of tradeunionism.
The result is a heartwarming but somewhat sentimentalized picture which when related back to life, whether in terms of the relationships of seamen or trade-unionists, we findomitting even that normal interracial conflict which at thisstage of historical development is the dynamic health of American democratic institutions. Despite their high political consciousness, for a mixed group of Americans a-sail on the rough seas of our race relations, Beecher’s seamen encountered an embarrassment of fine weather.
What we have in All Brave Sailors is the possibility of racial equality minus the process: the democratic dream presented in terms of a Liberty ship. But ships, unfortunately, are ships and states are states, and neither can be the other. And while the NMU has a most encouraging record for chasing Jim Crow off its boats, the CIO has yet to evolve a plan for chasing a Bilbo off the bridge of our “ship of state.”
Actually the section of All Brave Sailors which is most exciting and of really lasting value is that in which Beecher sketches the history of his family. He is a descendant of the family noted for its orators, theologians and college founders, for its Abolitionists and for Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From the Revolution to Reconstruction the Beecher family was one in which the broad, vital concept of democracy that marked the early phase of our history burned most intensely. Among those Americans whose ethical assaults against slavery made possible our industrial society, it is representative; and in its history, with the precision of a well made play, might be seen that ironic transvaluation which attended the seculariz.ition of our culture: Beecher’s father, the heir of theologians and Abolitionists, became a businessman, who, in following the economic tides unleashed by industrialization, came to harbor in Alabama—where his son was to absorb the mores and attitudes which it had been his forefathers’ most intense passion to destroy. Now, eighty years later, after working his way painfully through the distorted values of the South via jobs in steel mills and such New Deal agencies as the FEPC, Belcher has rediscovered the fighting tradition of his fathers. In these brief pages of All Brave Sailors he has given us the outline of a really important autobiography, one which should add much to our knowledge of why our society became what it is.