What is it about swimming and Black people?


There is an historical myth/stereotype about swimming which says that ‘black people don’t swim’. Partially true that myth is, but do we know why? Most of us do not or have never endeavored to give it much consideration. So, it just lingered in the hearts and minds of many. This is my somewhat abbreviated explanation:

The truthful aspect of the stereotypic presumption stems from the notorious passages by which large groups of Africans were first shackled for future ‘slave’ labor and imported into North America and the nearby Caribbean islands. First, an internalized fear of water developed out of the trauma of capture and the horrific voyage across the seas. Upon these ships were very afraid humans, who were being taken somewhere strange, aboard a strange vessel, and traveling along a waterway far from home. Imagine that association! Along the voyage, many experienced or witnessed others being tortured, beaten, killed and thrown overboard, prey to the creatures of the deep and the elements. Many times, they weren’t dead before being thrown into the water. Imagine that imagery and the future negative association with water! So, swimming?? No way.

They then landed at places unknown, and in places where they were not only  viewed as sub-human, but treated as though un–human. As beautiful and as peaceful water is widely perceived, there was an already present fear, which was surely in contradiction with their desires to depart this land and return to their homelands where they were once free people. Water was the highway to freedom, yet they didn’t know how to get there, nor did they possess the wherewithal to get there.

Access to water, lakes, rivers, etc…, forbidden, except under watchful eye of whites, to whom they were ‘traded’ like livestock. There were no ‘inalienable’ rights, not even the right to live or breathe. All privileges were inaccessible, except for a few chosen persons. That is not to say that some of the enslaved blacks did not secretly learn to read, write, count, or swim, because some did. They risked their safety, life and limb to do any of these things. Access denied. As we progress into a post-slavery era, many people fought to continue to withhold certain privileges and limit access to that which would and should have been considered an American and human right.

Access and opportunity became a central theme of restriction as it pertained to black people, in the U.S. , both the north and south. Privilege described white people’s unrestricted rights in this country, and it was by design. Even into the 20th and 21st Centuries, access to a neighborhood swimming pool for people of color was few and far between- still largely inaccessible. At one time, pools were either restricted to whites only or they were segregated, as were drinking facilities, etc…. Whites had pools in their backyards, and people of color were lucky to have one in their entire community.
As black people migrated into the north and other places, many of which were inhabited by whites, whites moved out. They moved, took their wealth, privilege, and amenities with them. Stores closed, as did movie theaters, and pools.

Communities of color began to take on a generalized look of desolation, and disrepair, limited job opportunities and little chance for upward mobility in this nation. Strategically, there was a social and political denial of access and privilege to African-Americans and among other things, were there any existing fears of swimming, they were exacerbated by limited access.

Today, things are better, and now we see an entirely different mindset and new policies characterize a more humanistic landscape of the socio-political climate in this country. Access to what some may call the ‘creature comforts’ afforded to Americans, has improved for many blacks whose ancestors were strategically denied such access. Descendants of the original enslaved peoples now see a turnaround. Government officials, city planners, and businesses are  working to ensure equity in this society, and in NYC, which includes ensuring access to public pools, as well.

This young nation of ours is growing up, little by little. Some decision-makers recognize the necessity of targeting those communities which continue to resemble the objectives of a former discriminatory mindset.  We have been called to replace, rejuvenate and repair the fragmented services, opportunities and access once mostly denied or removed from the reach of people of color. It, change, must start somewhere and a neighborhood pool is one step along the way to a more equitable and purely democratic society. Time to teach people of color to swim! What do you think?

These were the depths of my thoughts after reading a recent article published in the New York Times. In their Race/Related series, this was definitely a good read. To read more, follow the link below:

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