Melvin Tolson's poem “The Sea-Turtle and the Shark” is highly symbolic and can be read in many different ways depending on the reader's situation and perspective. The sea-turtle and the shark both stand as symbols, or even allegorical elements, and stand for multiple things. Let's look at some possibilities for each.
The sea-turtle seems to be the weaker element. It is swallowed up whole by the shark, and with its head tucked inside its shell, it appears helpless. Yet the speaker tells us that this turtle has “rapacious claws” that can kill even a rhinoceros or a crocodile. This sea-turtle is wise, however, for inside the shark, it starts clawing and gnawing its way to freedom, slowly, persistently, patiently. It destroys its enemy from the inside out.
The sea-turtle can stand for anyone or anything or any group that appears weak but is actually clever and that uses its cleverness to work inside the system to produce a desired effect. An oppressed group or weaker country, for instance, might beat an oppressor or stronger country at its own game through patience, persistence, and wisdom.
The shark, on the other hand, thinks that it has won. It is so hungry that it is not cautious. It swallows the sea-turtle whole, believing that it is merely weak prey, but it underestimates the sea-turtle. In the end, the shark gets eaten up from the inside out. Its prey escapes in the worst possible fashion, and the shark learns too late what happens when it acts before it knows the full power of its victim.
The shark, then, can stand for any powerful person, group, or country that is too confident in their power, too arrogant and complacent. Such individuals or groups typically underestimate those who appear weaker, failing to notice the special talents and abilities of those they see as beneath them. But this arrogance can easily backfire when the apparently weaker one turns around and defends itself, cleverly getting the upper hand and giving the so-called strong opponent a taste of reality.