There is something in the Negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one's person...There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment, with a marvellous, noiseless, gliding briskness, not ungraceful in its way, singularly pleasing to behold, and still more so to be the manipulated subject of. And above all is the great gift of good humour...When at ease with respect to exterior things, Captain Delano's nature was not only benign, but familiarly and humorously so. At home, he had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of colour at his work or play. If on a voyage he chanced to have a black sailor, invariably he was on chatty, and half-gamesome terms with him. In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to Negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.

Race is perhaps the most significant issue of our time—as it has been throughout American history—and dealing with older texts is always a thorny issue. The above passage from "Benito Cereno" is easily read as being incredibly patronizing toward Black people, and claiming that they as a race are particularly fit to be servants and have a "good humor" that makes them pleasant to be near reeks of common 19th- and early 20th century white American attitudes. It can be argued that Melville having Delano equate Black people with "Newfoundland dogs" was intended to show Delano's exceptionally good opinion of Black people, but the patronizing nature of the comment and the fact that it compares human beings to animals is offensive to modern readers. The question to be asked is whether Melville was using Delano to convey attitudes that he himself held, or if the author's thinking was instead more in line with modern day attitudes and thus mocking Delano (and those who thought like him).

If we believe that Melville's thinking here was like that the modern day, the use of such an obviously degrading metaphor as "Newfoundland dogs" was likely intended to be ironic. Melville may be ridiculing those who think that comparing Black people to dogs can in any way be a compliment. As much as a modern reader may want to believe that Melville thought like a modern person and unlike the vast majority in his time period,  ultimately the passage is ambiguous—like much of Melville's writing. Without any real insights into Melville's opinion of Black people at this time, Melville's intentions with such a metaphor cannot be determined with certainty.

The reader should be wary of associating the views of Captain Delano, the narrator, with those of Melville the author. But both men do have similar backgrounds: both are from Massachusetts and have spent time on whaling ships. Much of the tone of the story is taken from the autobiography of the real-life Amasa Delano. However, Delano makes no comments like the passage above. Melville has added enormous amounts of detail to Delano's bare-bones account. Some critics have claimed that while Delano is the voice for most of the story, the last section—after the court deposition—is entirely Melville's, and it is there that the story gives its most interesting impressions of race.