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by Jane Hartsock

April 28, 2016

The ability to swim is often tangled up in a history of racism

The names of the people in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

In the summer of 1977, my half-brother Henry was living in Bloomington, Ind., having moved there a couple years earlier after his parents’ divorce and our father’s marriage to my mother. I was not yet born, but would be by the end of the summer, and I imagine Henry was spending that summer like most 13-year-old boys do: mowing the lawn, swimming at pools, and talking excitedly about music and movies with our other brother, Greg.

One day that summer, Henry was called into the house from wherever he was running around, sweaty-haired and shirtless in the humid, southern Indiana heat, to take a call from his mother in Indianapolis. She’d called to tell him that his friend David had drowned while swimming in the White River.

Before their parents divorced, Henry and Greg had attended school with David. Henry recalls that the two didn’t hit it off at first—something about David being a show-off who talked too much. But after a grade-school airing of grievances, the two sorted out their differences and became tried-and-true friends. David was the only child of his two parents, Lydia and Robert, and enjoyed many of the privileges that came with being the son of a successful businessman.

However, on that fateful summer afternoon, those privileges didn’t help him. David had been invited by another of his friends from school to be his guest at a local, private pool. David was denied entry to the pool because he was black. Determined to go swimming anyway, the two eighth grade boys went down to the White River, a short walk away. There, as my brother recalls his mother telling him, while playing on a log that was floating in the river, David was carried out into deeper water where he couldn’t touch the bottom. And he drowned.

Thirty-six years later (David would be almost 50), I’m preparing to meet my swimming students, part of a U.S. Masters Swimming initiative to teach adults to swim. I sit quietly on a bench breathing in the familiar, sharp scent of chlorine and examining the happy, modern mosaic of tiles, windows, and steel enclosing Butler University’s pool, less than a mile from where David drowned. I think about the history that led to this moment. Or I think about as much of it as I can in the 10 minutes I have before my students start to arrive, which is to say, I think about an infinitesimally small fraction of the careless and intentional moments and movements that led to this point.

As one black woman approaches me and strikes up a conversation, I ask her if she’s a teacher or a student. “Listen,” she says playfully, “You see some black middle-aged woman in a bathing suit wandering around here, she is not teaching. She does not know how to swim.” She knows, too. Of course she does. And I feel more than a little embarrassed at my conspicuous attempt to be color-blind. Her friend laughs with her and says something indicating the inarguable truth of the assertion and I laugh nervously with both of them, muttering, “We had a family friend drown” before trailing off. What can I say?

I know what I want to say. I want to say that I knew what the racial makeup of these lessons would be when I signed up to teach them. I want to say that I know that the legacy of racism is as obvious in the pool as it is in our schools. I want to tell her that the bone density of blacks does not prevent them from being able to swim— that’s a cruel lie white people made up to keep black people out of pools, private beaches, and country club hot tubs. 

But mostly I want to tell her that I am so very sorry about David. That my heart breaks when I think about his mother. Because now, a generation later, I too have a son. And when he grows up he wants to be Luke Skywalker. Or a pirate. But if he’s a pirate, he wants his boat to have wheels. And he wants a light saber in either case. And if I do nothing else perfectly in this world, I want to be able to perfectly remember his tiny almost-3-year-old voice at bedtime saying, as I go to kiss him good night, “Stay. Stay a little while. Stay again and again.”

But then I think, that is not the narrative of this event. This is not even my story. Or theirs. This is the sad story of another mother and I don’t honor it or her by turning a swim lesson into a wake to absolve my guilt and resolve my sadness. So later, when we’re standing together in the water, I say, “Breathing when you’re swimming is not like breathing on land.” I say, “Everyone is so worried about breathing in, they forget to breath out and then when they do, they act like they’re blowing out candles, which isn’t actually exhaling. Exhaling, when you’re swimming, is like this.” And I demonstrate, “It’s like a sigh.”


  • Human Interest
  • Adult Learn-to-Swim