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Southern Cultures 8.1 (2002) 106-109

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Book Review

The Waterman's Song:
Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina

The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina. By David Cecelski. University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 320 pp. Cloth $39.95, paper $17.95

What does it mean to have a sense of place? Is it to walk the land, to recognize the particular pungency of a marsh? Is it to know the plants and fish and birds that are native to a place? Surely such personal experience and knowledge are part of what shapes a sense of place. But there is more to a sense of place than a catalogue of facts or a litany of personal memories: There is a sense of the limits imposed on human activity by the roll of the seasons; there is a knowledge of the rituals that mark the passage of time. The stories and songs and legends of every region tell of human freedom, but they also remind us of the restrictions on human livelihood imposed by necessity or by custom and cruel habit. Understanding a particular landscape requires looking beyond geographic characteristics and biology, recognizing that human imagination and experience have played with the surfaces of the earth and created structures of meaning. By uncovering and interpreting deep structures of meaning inlayed in the African American experience of North Carolina's maritime past David Cecelski has enriched immeasurably our sense of coastal North Carolina. His history is environmental in the fullest sense possible: not only does Cecelski know the ecology of rivers, estuaries, and sounds--he also hears in African American songs and stories the deep strains of a collective past.

Cecelski's elegant study of African American maritime history, The Waterman's [End Page 106] Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, draws on the author's own intimate knowledge of North Carolina's landscape and coastal communities. "I grew up among the seafaring and fishing people in a quiet tidewater community in North Carolina," he notes in the opening section. "A waterman's life was our greatest symbol of freedom and independence. As a child I watched my elders cling tenaciously to their boats and their poverty rather than forsake their liberty for farming or factory jobs." His study, then, is at once personal and collective, intensely committed but mindful of a radically different experience. Family memories from childhood are mingled with "the raucous songs hoisted by black menhaden fishermen as they hauled purse seines out of the Atlantic and the vibrant melodies sung by black women while they worked in Pamlico Sound crab canneries. Playful, reverent, or wistful, 'Sally Brown' and . . . more recent songs . . . brought forth joy, hope, and a faith deepened by sorrow and affliction." Cecelski has done more than merely look into "the lost past of [his] native land"; he has set the history of his home place in broader racial, gender, and political contexts. His careful research and thoughtful arguments assure his work a lasting place beside other quality studies of the black maritime world, such as W. Jeffrey Bolston's Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (1997), but his powerful evocations of the mythic and expressive potential of maritime landscapes and Carolina coastal communities distinguish Cecelski's work from other maritime histories.

Cecelski's careful research points to "common patterns in African American maritime life." These patterns include the resourcefulness and energy of black fishermen, pilots, rivermen, sailors, ferrymen, and other laborers who from the colonial era through Reconstruction plied the vast inland waters of North Carolina from the Outer Banks to the upper reaches of tidewater rivers. The vitality of this local culture is brought alive in his careful review of documentary and archival materials: oral history interviews with the progeny of the watermen; newspaper articles; advertisements for runaway slaves; private journals; and, finally, a number of published slave narratives such as the Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America (1843). Like so...


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