2019 Harriet Tubman Prize Winner: Kevin Dawson’s Undercurrents of Power

The Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is delighted to announce that Dr. Kevin Dawson is the winner of the 2019 Harriet Tubman Prize for his book Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). The Harriet Tubman Prize awards $7,500 to the best nonfiction book published in the United States on the slave trade, slavery, and anti-slavery in the Atlantic World.

A jury of prominent historians including Drs. Christopher Brown, Sharla M. Fett, and Tamara J. Walker, selected the winner from three finalists chosen by a committee of eight librarians and scholars from across the United States.

Undercurrents of Power “moves us beyond the agricultural fields and plantation households that long have served as sites for studies of New World slavery by drawing our attention to the diverse waterscapes that Africans and their descendants expertly navigated for four centuries,” the jury said.

“Although the importance of black Atlantic sailors has been established for some time, Dawson brings into focus a vibrant diasporic aquatic culture created by a wide array of participants such as West African marine crocodile hunters, Pearl Coast freedivers, and fleets of skilled canoewomen paddling their boats to market. This eloquent account showcases the ways in which water functioned as an economic, social, cultural, and spiritual space, thus demonstrating that water was not just a site of brutality and labor but a potential space of refuge and freedom as well. In moving across vast regions and time periods, highlighting references to Africans and their descendants’ swimming, diving, and canoeing abilities across a multitude of sources, Dawson’s generative work opens up new ways of studying Atlantic History and the African Diaspora.”

“I am honored to receive the Harriet Tubman Prize,” Dr. Dawson said. “Through my scholarship, I seek to recreate the experiences of and give voice to the dispossessed, enslaved, dishonored, and largely voiceless sea of humanity whose lives and unrequited labor transformed the Western Hemisphere. To receive an award celebrating the accomplishments of such a courageous, determined, impactful woman who refused to be relegated or silenced is both humbling and inspiring.”

“I could not put Kevin Dawson’s Undercurrents of Power down,” said Michelle D. Commander, associate director and curator of the Lapidus Center. “Undercurrents of Power is a thoughtful and rigorous account of Atlantic water culture reveals so much about the complicated lives, dynamic cultures, and range of experiences endured by enslaved persons in the African Diaspora. I am thrilled for Dr. Dawson and look forward to introducing his fascinating work to the Schomburg Center community during our upcoming conference and a future Lapidus Center Presents evening program.”

Dr. Kevin Dawson is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Merced.

The Harriet Tubman Prize will be presented to Dr. Dawson on Thursday, October 10, 2019, during the second biennial Lapidus Center Conference at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

For more information about the 2019 Lapidus Center Conference, please visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/2019-lapidus-center-conference-tickets-68525173639.