by Herman Melville
Moby-Dick Race Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a negro church; and the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there. Ha, Ishmael, muttered I, backing out, Wretched entertainment at the sign of "The Trap!" (2.6)
In this early chapter, Melville briefly gives us what seems like a little throwaway scene: Ishmael mistakes a black church for an inn, goes in, and has to back out in embarrassment when he sees the evening worship service. Even though this moment doesn’t advance the plot at all, it does set up the nineteenth-century racial stereotypes that the novel will deal with (and overturn) in later chapters.
This accomplished, however, he turned round – when, good heavens! what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark, purplish, yellow colour, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares. Yes, it’s just as I thought, he's a terrible bedfellow; he's been in a fight, got dreadfully cut, and here he is, just from the surgeon. But at that moment he chanced to turn his face so towards the light, that I plainly saw they could not be sticking-plasters at all, those black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man – a whaleman too – who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooneer, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure. And what is it, thought I, after all! It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin. But then, what to make of his unearthly complexion, that part of it, I mean, lying round about, and completely independent of the squares of tattooing. To be sure, it might be nothing but a good coat of tropical tanning; but I never heard of a hot sun’s tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one. However, I had never been in the South Seas; and perhaps the sun there produced these extraordinary effects upon the skin. (3.54)
Ishmael’s ignorance about racial difference, and his lack of knowledge about other cultures, mean not only that he’s horrified by the sight of skin unlike his own, but that he can hardly believe the man he’s seeing isn’t a white man who had a terrible accident. He shows both signs of being ready to think differently about race – "a man can be honest in any sort of skin" – and signs that he’s still prejudiced – such as describing Queequeg’s appearance as "unearthly."
I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself – the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. (3.69)
It’s interesting to think about what makes Ishmael change his mind about Queequeg at this moment. We’d like to be able to say that he realizes you can’t judge a man by his race and that common humanity is more important than racial difference. But it seems equally likely that Ishmael, ahem, liked the look of Queequeg as he got undressed and fancied a cuddle. Or that he just got tired of worrying about it and wanted to go to bed.