The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina (Review)

The Waterman's Song, by David Cecelski (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

Return to issue

The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina (Review)

by William Stott
Southern Cultures, Vol. 8, No. 1: Spring 2002

University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

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.