The Surf Zone in West Africa and Hawaii

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

Does the surf zone—where sea and shore meet—provide coastal peoples with a more liminal space to transcend white hegemony regarding the body, sensuality and cultural exchange?

Kevin Dawson, an assistant professor of History at UC Merced, explored these questions during his Merced Seminar in the Humanities Talk: “Surfing and Waterscapes in Africa and Hawaii: Redefining Race and White Womanhood.”

Dawson noted that historians have been increasingly interested in coastal zones as sites of study, and have begun to consider “water people,” or those whose lives, rituals work and leisure take place not only on land, but close to the surf zone. For both Hawaiians and West Africans, such zones were “liquid and infinite,” Dawson said.

While western culture treated waterscapes as dangerous voids representing chaos as defined by Judeo-Christian texts such as the Book of Genesis, the early modern people of West Africa experienced the surf zone as a space of sport, play, and spirituality. West African parents were observed by Europeans teaching their children surfing techniques from an early age.

Swimming was revered in both Hawaii and West Africa, with both cultures teaching children to swim as toddlers. Although Europeans had once enjoyed swimming in the Greco-Roman period, the nudity associated with it led those in the early modern to Victorian period to view the activity with suspicion. When European ships arrived in Hawaii in the 18th Century, they were amazed to see Hawaiian men and women swim a mile out from the shore to their ships. In Hawaii, women surfed alongside men, and were honored as powerful warriors for their engagement with the waves. This included a royal Maui princess, whose prowess riding the waves was described as “the most graceful and daring surfer.”

When Europeans and Americans encountered the water people of Hawaii engaged in surfing and swimming, they conceptualized the activities as “primitive” and “savage”—but also exhibited a desire to assert white supremacy by mastering the sports. The descriptions used by California writer Jack London to describe Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku a native Hawaiian Olympic champion swimmer and popularizer of surfing in the early 20th century as “a young God, bronzed.” In the next sentence, London urged Anglo-Saxon whites to master surfing, and best Hawaiians at their own sport.

For white women, the surfing craze in the early 20th century offered an opportunity to escape from traditionally repressive structures regarding display of their body, sensuality and interracial romance. Dawson noted that trips to Hawaii were popular for the daughters of wealthy Americans, and young divorcees. They often were taught to surf by native Hawaiian men working at resort hotels.

One woman who visited Hawaii as a young adolescent in the 1930s, described her encounter with her Hawaiian surf instructor as awakening her sexuality. Dawson noted that biracial children sometimes resulted from interracial romances—adding to the cosmopolitan makeup of the Hawaiian population.

Women—both native Hawaiian and white—were just as well-known for surfing on the beaches of Hawaii as men prior to World War II. After the war, as Hawaiian culture was increasingly whitewashed by mainland acts such as The Beach Boys, women were more often depicted as beach bunnies. It is only in the present era, Dawson said, that women are once again rising to the same level of prominence and importance as men in the costal zone’s sports.