Undercurrents of Power
Aquatic Culture in the African DiasporaUniversity of Pennsylvania Press The Early Modern Americas
360 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in, 29 illus.
- Published: May 2021
- Published: March 2018
- Published: February 2018
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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
"Kevin Dawson's masterly synthesis goes beyond filling a gap in maritime history: it reconfirms and expands a discourse on maritime traditions of Africans at home and abroad, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries."—The International Journal of Maritime History
"This is an important book in a number of ways. It displays the ways many enslaved Africans used the knowledge they brought with them to expand the space available to them. It gives us a picture of how aspects of slavery in one of the most coercive slave societies ever created were negotiated. It is also a contribution to aquatic history and culture informed by Kevin Dawson's passion for and understanding of aquatic life. In making his arguments, Dawson uses a wide range of sources and uses them well. Most important, he gives us a picture of those enslaved as agents, who used their knowledge and their skills to push the boundaries of their enslavement."—Early American Literature
"Kevin Dawson's Undercurrents of Power is important. More than perhaps any study in recent memory, it brings the existence, value, and meaning of water in the African diaspora to the forefront of Atlantic cultural, social, and economic development. In a broad,sweeping narrative, Dawson covers remarkable ground, crisscrossing the Atlantic as he draws together hundreds of examples of how water defined the pre-slavery lives of Africans forced into the Atlantic slave trade and how it helped diverse peoples and cultures identify themselves, individually and collectively, in the whirlwind and trauma of enslavement. The work explores the complexities of honor, warfare, social status, youth, sex, technology, and leisure and how each interacted with, and indeed structured itself around, water and aquatic spaces."—The Journal of Southern History
"Stunning . . . Undercurrents of Power brings to light the various aquatic traditions of Africans and Diasporans working, cultivating, and negotiating the riparian, oceanic, lake, and swamp biomes both in the context of Africa and in the environments they encountered throughout the Atlantic and into the Americas . . . In the process of opening various kinds of waterscapes to historical analysis, Dawson fundamentally reimagines the cultural dynamics shaping the Americas."—Black Perspectives
"Kevin Dawson offers the remarkable untold history of the significance of aquatic culture in the African diaspora. Undercurrents of Power opens up a new and exciting aspect of slaves' experience, providing a crucially important piece of the history of slave life and labor in the Americas."—James Sidbury, Rice University
- Winner of the Lapidus Center's 2019 Harriet Tubman Prize