Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora

A decaying pier in Grand Case, Saint Martin (Photo: george.bremer, Flickr).

On Sunday April 17, 2016, my extended family in Tidewater Virginia was struck by the tragedy of a double loss. My four-year old cousin Jalen Stewart and his grandfather Alvin “Boone” Clark went fishing that morning. They set out on a small boat in the pond on their family land in Caroline County, Virginia. While the details of what transpired are unknowable, the small craft that they were using was found capsized and divers later recovered both of them from the water. They both succumbed to the water’s power.

Their passing marks a dark chapter in recent memory for my home community. To lose either would have been devastating, but to lose both at the same time left the community with a sense of unfathomable loss. Although there can be no consolation, I’ve found that a stunning new book by historian Kevin Dawson, Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora has honed my focus to the beauty and power of the moments that preceded the tragedy two years ago. The book illuminates the preciousness that preceded death as Boone and Jalen shared intergenerational wisdom and possibility stemming from the traditions millions of dislocated Africans forged anew and forwarded in the Americas around water. Like so many of their ancestors in the region and in other parts of the Americas before them, they bonded through lessons about how to fish.

As sites of livelihood, recreation, and an appreciation for the sublime, the rivers, creeks, swamps, marshes, and ponds imprint themselves as affirmative spaces of identity and self-creation around the Black Chesapeake. From major cities like Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Norfolk, and rural towns like Tappahannock and Kilmarnock, to places which rarely make the inscriptions of cartographers, like Paul’s Cross Roads, the water and its resources are vital to Black social life in the Chesapeake Basin. The products of the water like fish and crabs provide an informal currency of vitality and connection, and express a basic grammar of commensality and community that entangles human and non-human species populations in intricate assemblages of mutuality and symbiosis.

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. Dawson comes to this work, as he notes in its opening, with the sensibilities of a surfer who takes up self-fashioning and recreation through the alternative viscosity, sonics, and motion of water. This appreciation for the materiality of water is embodied in this work’s tremendous breadth and fluidity. Despite his closeness to the water, Dawson’s work is far from romantic. Dawson historicizes waterscapes, what he understands as “amphibious culturescapes,” as contested terrain. These spaces are sites of ongoing African cultural work to sustain visions of Black vitality and alternative ecological stewardship in the face of their active unmaking through the processes of capitalization and colonization.

Advanced in swimming, canoe making, and navigating the intricate ecologies of various coastal and riverine environments in the context of the African continent, enslaved Africans carved out paradoxical relationships with the watery terrains of the Americas. Dawson demonstrates how enslavers sought to colonize and permanently enslave the cultural resources of Africans and their descendants in order to develop the infrastructures of slave trading and plantations. In the context of Africa, Europeans invested in the weaponization of Africans’ practices around water to facilitate the extraction of slaves. In the Americas, traders and colonists employed African watercraft ingenuity to carve out and claim property rights from the lands of First Peoples, incentivized and commanded the denaturing of watery environments while exposing enslaved communities to the worst effects of environmental degradation, and remade water as spaces of terror through violent processes of alienation and punishment. At the same time, enslaved people grafted African ingenuity around the water by garnering respect as individuals within the communities of the barracks, cabins, and neighborhoods, remaking African spiritual and cultural traditions through swimming, water bound blood sports, making and navigating canoes in order to create unsanctioned social life, weaponizing their intricate knowledge of the water to rebel, and defying enslavers’ notions of dominion to articulate what I have described elsewhere as a Black commons. They capitalized on the water’s fluidity to give alternative shape and meaning to their own cosmological and social lives over and against the logics of captivity.

One of the most fascinating dynamics centered in Dawson’s work is the relationship between emerging and changing waterscapes and the gendered formations of identity, community, and power within African and enslaved communities in the Americas. Articulating skill around navigating and swimming in bodies of water that terrified Europeans, training inter-generationally as deep sea divers, killing alligators in their own watery environments, swimming to halt the sexual advances of slave owners, mobilizing canoes to recreate African market societies as a unique domain of power and prestige, and reimagining spiritual rights bound with the water helped express distinctive visions of masculine and feminine embodiment and an alternative axis of power for enslaved people of all genders. Despite attempts by colonial authorities and slave masters to at once colonize Africans’ knowhow of the water and to alienate them from water as a resource for their alternative figurations of power, Africans expressed complex social identities that entangled Black futures with the water.

Dawson’s method, its fluidity and breadth like the water, is instructive to historians working at the intersection of the African Diaspora and environmental history. His meticulous engagement with archival material brings fresh vantages on even commonly used sources and accounts in the historiography of slavery by reading them through the refracting prism of the water. In the process of opening various kinds of waterscapes to historical analysis, Dawson also fundamentally reimagines the cultural dynamics shaping the Americas. In his most historiographically pointed chapter, “Maritime Continuities: African Canoes on New World Waters,” (Chapter 8) Dawson provides a jolt to the field the early modern Atlantic calling for a total reassessment of the historiography regarding canoeing technology and the advance of European colonial power throughout the Americas. Dawson uses careful analysis of descriptions of canoes and critical inference regarding timing along with the various glitches in the previous historiography to suggest that the predominant crafts Europeans used to colonize the Americas were based on African boat-craft technologies. Specialists will want to engage his pointed arguments in this chapter.

May Jalen and Boone find eternal light in the land of the ancestors. May they join the force of the wind that will decolonize this land and its waterscapes.

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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.