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Shine


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Probably the most well-known twentieth-century trickster, Shine is an epic figure in African American folklore. His name could refer to the generic nickname given to black men who shined shoes or it could indicate that his skin was dark enough to literally “shine.” In the toasts that celebrate him, the wiry-built Shine begins as the lowest-ranked employee on the ill-fated Titanic, the infamous luxury ship that hit an iceberg during its maiden voyage in 1912. Assigned to stoke coal in the ship's bowels, the fictional hero notices the encroaching water and repeatedly warns the captain. Unwilling to heed the lowly black man's advice, the captain waits too long before ordering the passengers and crew to evacuate. Shine's status has risen and many of the passengers seek his assistance in their quest for safety. Concerned only with his own well-being, Shine answers the pleas for help with his bawdy rhymes and emerges, in most versions of the toast, as the ship's only survivor. One version concludes, “When the word got to Washing'times the great Titanic was sunk / Shine was on Broadway, one-third drunk.”

Tricksters such as Shine or even Brer Rabbit appeal to African Americans for several reasons. Ostensibly, they are the least powerful characters in a given situation. But they use their cunning to undermine their larger, more powerful opponents. Their social world reflects that of many African Americans, accustomed to making their way in spite of handicaps. Also their verbal dexterity has considerable appeal.

John Roberts, From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom, 1989.

—-Patricia A. Turner

Subjects: Literature.


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