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by Naji Ali

November 1, 2010

To be honest, I just sat there staring out at the water. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard from the woman sitting next to me.

“Look” she continued, “I’m not saying it, but my friends say that black people don’t have the buoyancy to be swimmers.”

There had been studies done in the 50s and 60s that claimed that since black athletes on average tend to have less body fat than their white counterparts, they would be poor swimmers since body fat creates buoyancy. Those studies have since been thoroughly debunked.

But nonetheless here I sat on the dock of my swim club listening to someone defending the accuracy of those studies.

At that very moment all the frustration that had consumed me over this topic came boiling to the surface. Here I am, an African-American man, an open water long distance swimmer, living in the age of Obama (and in San Francisco no less), having overcome unspeakable racism while living in South Africa during the apartheid years, here I am still having to hear these ridiculous explanations on why blacks can’t swim.

“So,” I responded, trying to measure my words without invoking profanity, “If your logic is to be believed, then explain to me why Cullen Jones is such a phenomenal swimmer. Shouldn’t he be sinking like a stone?”

No answer. I continued:

“What about Charles Chapman, the first African American to cross the English Channel back in 1981 and did it with the butterfly stroke no less? What about him? Surely he should have drowned after swimming for over 12 hours, right? Maybe the water can tell the difference— maybe it knows who’s black, white, Asian, or Latino. Do you think the water knows?”

She looked on and tried to explain herself again, stumbling to say that she was not racist (I never believed so), that I had misunderstood her intent, but by then I had heard enough and excused myself and walked off to cool down.

It is because of this story that I was asked to write a bit about black people and our relationship to water.

A Brief History Lesson

While it is true that many African Americans do not connect with swimming, we do have an amazingly rich swimming history that dates back to pre-slavery days in Africa. And the impact of swimming on the Civil Rights Movement toward the demise of the Jim Crow laws of the South was enormous.

Before the slave trade began, Africans living in coastal communities were observed by early European explorers to be excellent swimmers.

Bruce Wigo, Director and CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been chronicling the origins of swimming and blacks. Wigo, in a video entitled “A History Lesson,” found on the website, speaks about a picture drawn in 1884 by a European settler that depicts an African doing the “Australian crawl.” But as Wigo points out in the video, “The only difference between what that African is doing in the picture and the Australian crawl is that the Australian crawl wasn’t invented yet.”

Lee Pitts, Jr., in an article entitled, “Black Splash: The History of African-American Swimmers,” wrote about a number of remarkable achievements by blacks in swimming. Pitts writes of one that is truly striking to think about:

“In 1679, when a slave ship wrecked off Martinique, an African slave whose name is lost to history, reached shore after swimming for sixty hours, an aquatic feat of survival that rivaled Homer’s Ulysses and was a record of endurance swimming that was not matched by white men for almost 300 years.”

Let that sink in for a moment. No pilot boat, no food or drink, choppy water, and swimming in a predatory environment, yet this person managed to reach shore.

In the same article, Pitts expounds on another piece of history that most people are unfamiliar with. Most of us remember reading about Harriet Tubman and her famous Underground Railroad. But how many of us know where that title originated? Pitts writes:

“The Underground Railroad got its name when a slave named Tice Davids escaped from Kentucky in 1831 and swam across the Ohio River to freedom in Ripley, Ohio. According to legend, Davids’ owner was chasing Davids in a boat when he lost sight of his swimming slave. Thinking Davids must have drowned, he remarked to his companions with a sarcastic smirk that his slave must have taken an ‘underground railroad.’ The comment was reported in the press and the term has been with us ever since.”

Drastic Times Call for Drastic Measures

But these great swimming feats came at a price for black swimmers.

Knowing that they were losing “valuable product” due to their slaves’ propensity to swim, slave owners began taking drastic steps to protect their property. One of these steps was to instill a fear of the water by dunking disobedient slaves in water until they nearly drowned and by creating fear through stories of creatures living in the water. Thus it didn’t take long to excise or destroy the West African swimming tradition from African- American culture. The Jim Crow laws that were enacted after The Civil War prohibited blacks from the popular seaside resorts in places like Atlantic City, N.J. and Revere Beach, Mass. And by the 20th Century, as the swimming pool began to gain in popularity in the United States, the color line prohibited blacks from enjoying this pleasant recreational skill.

In addition, self-segregation also played a role in limiting those of African ancestry from getting in the water. I remember my Aunt saying to stay away from the pool because, “black folk don’t swim.”

What my Aunt told me made sense to a lot of black folk, if you steered clear of the water you wouldn’t drown. Right? Sadly this attitude is one of the principle reasons for drowning deaths amongst African-American children. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the drowning rate in the African-American community amongst children between the ages of 5 and 14 is 2.6 times higher than their white counterparts. Overall, nine people per day drown in the United States; six out of the nine are people of color.

But fear is not the only factor keeping black people out of the water – financial consideration has made things challenging. Consider that even if a child wants to learn to swim and doesn’t have a fear of the water, many of the most vulnerable do not have parents that can afford lessons, swimsuits, gear and transportation. And even though we now have a black president, it doesn’t mean that we’ve moved past the issue of racism. I get a lot of comments from folks at my own swim club asking why more black people aren’t members or swim in open water. I always reply that we never felt welcomed. And we don’t feel welcomed simply because no one ever took the time out to invite us. Why would we come? We need look no further than the events that happened to a group of camp kids from Philadelphia who were denied entrance into an all-white country club this last year to know how far we have to go.

Do I sound bitter? Perhaps, but its not like these issues just sprang up overnight. Its impressive that USA Swimming is putting money into teaching swim lessons to kids of color in low-income communities with their Make-A-Splash Program, but where were they all those years during Jim Crow, or the 70s, 80s, and even 90s?

Why is that of the hundreds of thousands that are members of USA swimming, less than three percent are people of color?

Simple, we don’t feel welcomed. And as long as this is the perception that drowning rate figure by the CDC will remain constant, and possibly grow.

So What Can We Do?

When I speak truth to power about the disparity of drowning in the African-American community I always get the same question, “So what can we do about all this?”

One obvious thing to remember is that we need to stop looking at swimming as a sport first. We need to approach it as a life skill much the same way as eating, reading, writing, walking or any other thing we take for granted is. When I speak to parents about the need for their children to swim I emphasize that not only is swimming a great sport, but also a valuable life-skill. This is usually when eyebrows are raised and I say, “Did you know that the Earth is two-thirds water? Did you know that if your child learns to swim he/she is not only preventing another drowning, but also has access to employment in fields such as lifeguarding, the military, swim coaching, firefighting, law enforcement, SCUBA diving, underwater photography and a host of other jobs that require swimming skills?”

Another thing that I feel is important is to have more role models in swimming. Cullen Jones is a good start for the younger generation, but they should know about folks who have contributed mightily to swimming that come from our community.

Jim Ellis, the coach of the PDR swim club based in Philadelphia (Whom the 2007 movie “Pride” was based on) has been churning out national and Olympic swimmers for nearly 30 years.

Annual swim meets like the Black Heritage Championship Swim Meet held in North Carolina over Memorial Day weekend brings together some of the finest age group swimmers in the country to compete. The meet has grown from 10 teams and 104 swimmers in 2003 to 29 teams and 758 swimmers in 2009. While all are welcomed to compete, the meets emphasis is to reduce the drowning rate of black children and encourages children to swim competitively.

The Josh Project, founded by Wanda Jean-Butts, whose son drowned in 2006, offers free swim lessons to low income children and is planning on building a center in the not-to-distant future so that those who wish to swim competitively can be in an environment that fosters their potential.

These are just a few of the folks that I know who are making a difference in their communities. We’ve come a long way to dealing with this issue, but we still have a long way to go.

Often when I talk to parents about the value of their children learning to swim I hear this common refrain, “Swimming is a white folks sport; we got basketball, football, tennis, and even golf now!” And I always smile and respond, “Yes you’re right. But – as far as I know – no one ever died not knowing how to make a lay up, throw a tight spiral, volley at the net, or shoot three under par.”

Naji Ali is a long distance open water swimmer based in San Francisco. He and his business partner, Ron Chism, are planning on introducing young African American and Latino youth to open water swimming in the spring of 2011. In 2013 Ali will be making a solo attempt of The Cook Strait.