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  • Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora by Kevin Dawson
  • Andrew N. Wegmann
Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora. By Kevin Dawso. The Early Modern Americas. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. Pp. viii, 351. $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8122-4989-7.)

Kevin Dawson's Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora is important. More than perhaps any study in recent memory, it brings [End Page 142] 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.

Dawson plies the entirety of the African diaspora, arguing, rather convincingly, that waterscapes allowed Africans and African-descended peoples to forge "similar communities of practice and meaning" throughout a system of forced removal and disconnection; Africans, both in Africa and in the diaspora, Dawson roundly asserts, "wove terrestrial and aquatic experiences into amphibious lives, interlacing spiritual and secular beliefs, economies, social structures, and political institutions—their very way of life—around relationships with water" (p. 2). It is around this larger claim that Dawson's narrative takes form, exploring nearly every aspect of water's value and place in diasporic Africans' lives. This approach, one hopes, will guide future research in a remarkably valuable direction, taking scholars' collective gaze away from the landed roots of the African diaspora's vast historiography and placing it squarely on a realm with roots previously unrecognizable, as Dawson makes clear.

As much as it guides future study, however, Undercurrents of Power fails to define exactly where and how that study should progress. In opening a new, relatively underexplored area of African and African diasporic experience, Dawson's treatment reads more like an encyclopedia of suggestions than a guided study that reaches a clear conclusion. As with many treatments of diasporic peoples, sources here tend to be rather one-sided, often silencing those very subjects the study seeks to liberate and project into the public mind. Indeed, across nearly every chapter of the book, the accounts of white sailors, travelers, and chroniclers hold sway, leaving just a handful of African and diasporic voices to be heard in the narrative, even then rarely branching far from the most well known of the field. As a result, many of Dawson's examples and conclusions require certain modifiers—"probably," "likely," "perhaps," for instance—suggesting the possibility of the universality of an action rather than explicating and evincing the continuity and meaning of a given practice, tradition, or skill across generations, decades, and continents. One can only take the words of white outsiders—foreigners to the practices under study, some even writing for profit, popularity, and political influence—with a certain amount of trust before wondering what the other side(s) of the story would say.

This critique should not take away from the work's larger value. Indeed, Undercurrents of Power renews, and ultimately reinvents, the place of water in the African diaspora. It is not a case study and never really claims to be one. But it does stretch too wide, covering the surface of a subject far too vast to explore in a single volume, often jumping between examples isolated by thousands of [End Page 143] miles and sometimes hundreds of years in a single paragraph. That is, perhaps, both its chief strength and its greatest weakness. The reader is left thinking and overwhelmed, wishing for a more focused, conclusive narrative but fully aware of the new world left in the wake.

Andrew N. Wegmann
Delta State University


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pp. 142-144
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