From the Atlantic seaboard to the gulf of Mexico to the West Coast, the maritime world had by [the 1940s] developed into a vital political arena in which the global anti-colonial perspectives of interwar black radicalism and the labor politics of the CIO mixed and fused. As primary contact zones within the history of racial capitalism, southern port cities like New Orleans, with their motley gatherings of sailors and vast international traffic in humanity, had long been places where insurgent black political aspirations met up with a proscribed interracialism. Even the Atlantic world ships that took Africans into bondage in the Middle Passage had been resignified by maritime black radicals and intellectuals from Olaudah Equiano to Fredrick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, and Langston Hughes as spaces of individual self-making, class struggle, pan-African engagement, and global citizenship. Like generations of black sailors before him, Hunter O’Dell found that the six years he spent traveling the world’s seas provided him not only with an unprecedented sense of worldliness but also with formative lessons in participatory democracy and interracial solidarity that proved indispensable for the work that lay ahead of him.
A five-month trip in early 1945 on the Sir Walter Raleigh across the Atlantic; into the Mediterranean; through the Suez Canal, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean; back around the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Town, South Africa; and up the west coast of the continent was particularly eye-opening. “On that trip,” O’Dell recalls,
I read Black Reconstruction and Du Bois’s Black Folk Then and Now, which is a history of Africa. And I’m in Cameroon, and I said, “Whoa, what an expedition this is.” You didn’t work but five hours a day, so you’re on the ship nineteenth hours with nothing else to do: play poker, and the rest of the time you read.
Discussions with his shipmates – several of them CIO commmunists – revealed the “economic motive” in history, something that O’Dell “had never considered before.” In Calcutta, a place he had dreamed of since childhood, when the weekly radio program Omar the Mystic first captured his boyish imagination, he encountered a scene that shattered the cartoonish orientalism of Walt Disney’s America: an army of workers – wicker baskets piled high atop their heads – loading freighteres lettered, like his own ship, with names of slave traders and imperial adventures. This began to crystallize an understanding consistent with Du Bois’s own in which race became visible as part of a comparative history of capitalism and colonialism – the color bar a mechanism that depressed the cost of labor power, disciplined and divided labor as a social force, and advanced capital accumulation and uneven development on a world scale.
Nikhil Pal Singh, “‘Learn Your Horn’”: Jack O’Dell and the Long Civil Rights Movement,” Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O’Dell, pg.13-4