Reviewed by Daphnee McMaster
Ivorian-French writer Serge Bilé’s Black Man on the Titanic: The Story of Joseph Laroche tells an unexpected and often neglected story. Joseph Laroche, a young and well-educated engineer, was atypical among the era he existed. For starters, he was one of three Black passengers aboard the ship (the other two being his daughters).
Bilé’s book navigates Laroche’s upbringing through his involvement with one of the most historical tragedies of the 20th century: the sinking of the Titanic. Personal anecdotes and imagery fill out Bilé’s nonfiction to tell this peculiar narrative.
For the most part, Bilé’s text remains linear, except in its opening chapter. Readers are brought to Le Cap, Haiti, the birthplace and hometown of Laroche, where they are introduced to his parents: Euzelie Laroche and Raoul Auguste, brother to Haitian president Tancrede Auguste.
Laroche’s mother plays an integral role in Bilé’s use of foreshadowing and foreboding. A successful businesswoman, she sought prestigious educational paths for her only child and sent him to France to study at Institution du Saint Esprit. This education contributed to his participation in the construction of the Parisian railway and his path for engineering success. However, this accomplishment becomes a catalyst to him boarding the Titanic.
In regard to narrative structure, Bilé moves his readers through Laroche’s political family tree, struggles of Haitian politics, his move into French culture, and the dynamics of the world around him. This book is not a memoir; rather, it goes through an expanse of information to not only showcase the major conversations in the world at the time, but also to help readers understand Laroche’s decisions based on his beliefs and the cultural climate around him.
The casual omission of Black people aboard the ill-fated ocean liner allows this book to offer a new perspective on historical Black figures, who are too often viewed only through the lens of strife. The story navigates the life of a wealthy and well-connected Laroche without the heavy hand of racial injustice at its helm as a plot device. Oftentimes when reading, the omission of his race can feel like a detriment or glaring issue in the scope of what is common knowledge, but Bilé delicately shares the playing field with a well-rounded narrative of Laroche.
For context, Bilé is no stranger to uncovering the forgotten stories of Black and Caribbean people involved in shaping history. His telling of Laroche’s story is in accordance with much of his other works, such as The Blacks in Nazi Camps, “Quand les Noirs avaient des esclaves blancs”, and “La legende du sexe surdimensionne des Noirs” to name a few.
This book was written to stylize personal letters, oral history, and cultural milestones into a narrative format. Although this approach helps with the flow of reading, the timeline used in this retelling leaves much room for disinterest, as it is difficult to understand why certain information is contextualized outside the realm of Laroche’s journey on the Titanic. Ultimately, the overuse of historical explanation leaves little room for the story of Laroche’s time aboard the ship, as one may hope from the book’s titling. It feels as though this book could have been strengthened with a simple retitling such as, The Story of Joseph Laroche: Black Man on the Titanic.
A notable quote from Joseph’s wife, Juliette Laroche, ironically speaks most poignantly to the shortness of Laroche’s documented life on the Titanic, as well as the overall foreboding theme. She says:
“Then the lifeboat was once and for all lowered onto the sea… I heard his voice, above the rumble, yelling: ‘See you soon, darling! There will be space for everyone, don’t worry, in the lifeboats… Take care of our girls… See you soon!”
The story of Joseph Laroche is important for centering Black people in the frame of views not rooted in destitution. Readers may find themselves asking for relevancy to the Titanic or even to Laroche himself, but the text does its best to navigate a familial tree with historical context in a way that builds information about Laroche’s decisions.
For readers looking to explore the political dynamics of Haiti, and the family that dominated its political landscape in the late 19th to early 20th century, this book gives wonderful foundational insight. However, this book is ultimately for those interested in discovering how Joseph Laroche, a 25-year-old Black engineer, navigated his way from Haiti to France to a second-class seat aboard the Titanic.