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Was Ishmael black? Facts behind Herman Melville’s fiction
Journal of African American History (2017)
  • Robert J. O’Hara
The narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) famously calls himself Ishmael, and literary scholars have traditionally connected this name with the outcast of Genesis 16–17, “whose hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.” But the Ishmael of Genesis was also “the son of the bondwoman” (Gen. 21:13), and a survey of the early vital records of Massachusetts shows that this was in fact the name’s principal historical connotation. Prior to 1850, when the state’s black population was below two percent, fully fifty percent of the Massachusetts men named Ishmael (17 of 34) had African ancestry. The Ishmael of Moby-Dick is usually seen as white, and as a fictional character he can of course be whatever readers imagine him to be. But the historical distribution of the name Ishmael in early New England is a matter of fact rather than fiction, and the fact is that prior to the publication of Moby-Dick, fully half the men in Massachusetts who bore that name were black.
  • African-American history,
  • American literature,
  • Herman Melville,
  • onomastics,
  • race
Publication Date
Summer 2017
Citation Information
O’Hara, Robert J. 2017. Was Ishmael black? Facts behind Melville’s fiction. Journal of African American History, 102(3): 380–386.