Undercurrents of Power
Aquatic Culture in the African DiasporaUniversity of Pennsylvania Press The Early Modern Americas
Long before the rise of New World slavery, West Africans were adept swimmers, divers, canoe makers, and canoeists. They lived along riverbanks, near lakes, or close to the ocean. In those waterways, they became proficient in diverse maritime skills, while incorporating water and aquatics into spiritual understandings of the world. Transported to the Americas, slaves carried with them these West African skills and cultural values. Indeed, according to Kevin Dawson's examination of water culture in the African diaspora, the aquatic abilities of people of African descent often surpassed those of Europeans and their descendants from the age of discovery until well into the nineteenth century.
As Dawson argues, histories of slavery have largely chronicled the fields of the New World, whether tobacco, sugar, indigo, rice, or cotton. However, most plantations were located near waterways to facilitate the transportation of goods to market, and large numbers of agricultural slaves had ready access to water in which to sustain their abilities and interests. Swimming and canoeing provided respite from the monotony of agricultural bondage and brief moments of bodily privacy. In some instances, enslaved laborers exchanged their aquatic expertise for unique privileges, including wages, opportunities to work free of direct white supervision, and even in rare circumstances, freedom.
Dawson builds his analysis around a discussion of African traditions and the ways in which similar traditions—swimming, diving, boat making, even surfing—emerged within African diasporic communities. Undercurrents of Power not only chronicles the experiences of enslaved maritime workers, but also traverses the waters of the Atlantic repeatedly to trace and untangle cultural and social traditions.
Introduction: Waterscapes of the African Diaspora
PART I. SWIMMING CULTURE
Chapter 1. Atlantic African Aquatic Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Comparison
Chapter 2. Cultural Meanings of Recreational Swimming and Surfing
Chapter 3. Aquatic Sports and Performance Rituals: Gender, Bravery, and Honor
Chapter 4. History from Below: Enslaved Underwater Divers
Chapter 5. Undercurrents of Power: Challenging Racial Hierarchies from Below
PART II. CANOE CULTURE
Chapter 6. African Canoe-Makers: Constructing Floating Cultures
Chapter 7. Mountains Divide and Rivers Unite: Atlantic African Canoemen
Chapter 8. Maritime Continuities: African Canoes on New World Waters
Chapter 9. The Floating Economies of Slaves and Slaveholders
Chapter 10. Sacred Vessels, Sacred Waters: The Cultural Meanings of Dugout Canoes
Chapter 11. A World Afloat: Mobile Slave Communities
Chapter 12. The Watermen's Song: Canoemen's Aural Waterscapes
Conclusion. A Sea Change in Atlantic History
- Winner of the Lapidus Center's 2019 Harriet Tubman Prize