“I have to confess that my own aquatic skills came about through a mix of parental responsibility and federal desegregation.”
I rarely see any African Americans swimming in my gym pool in Knoxville, Tennessee. I always imagine that other members of the gym are amazed to see me doing laps. Most of them probably believe that black people can’t swim and I’m just a cultural anomaly. I say this because just recently I caught another article in the news about the high number of African Americans who acknowledge not being able to swim—a number much higher than other racial groups on national average. My gut twisted when I read it in that way that most people experience when they realize they have risen above a statistic but know that this does not make the statistic incorrect. I have to confess that my own aquatic skills came about through a mix of parental responsibility and federal desegregation.
A Held Breath
I came to understand the importance of learning to swim when, as a youth, I was thrown into the deep end of a community pool by an older cousin’s boyfriend. The only reason I can figure he did this was because he had a sick sense of humor. After all, no one in our little group knew how to swim at the time. From the bottom of the pool, I looked up through rippling waters sharply illuminated by a summer sun and watched the horrified face of my cousin contort with fear as she screamed to anyone listening, “She can’t swim!” When no one immediately came to my rescue, she bravely walked the two steps she could—before sliding down into the deep end herself—grabbed my wrist and tugged me back into shallow water.
I don’t remember my cousin and this particular boyfriend dating too much longer after that incident. I do remember in those few seconds on the bottom of the pool, during which I contemplated the death that would surely come as soon as I took a deep breath of freshly chlorinated water, I had an epiphany that learning to swim was a good skill to master.
Pushing Off the Wall
My journey toward swimming competency began when my family purchased a house with a pool in Coral Gables, Florida. Like most people with pools, my parents did not think it wise to have one with a houseful of kids who could not swim. My dad knew how to swim, and he volunteered to teach us. At the time, I was the only one who trusted him enough to learn. After a brief demonstration of the dog paddle, he simply swam out to the center of the pool and told me to swim to him. He waited expectantly, water weighing down his large afro into bangs and waved come on with his arms in encouragement. I was young enough at the time to think it was a cute game and mimicked what he had done, and voila! From then on, I showed off my dog paddle to anyone who asked if I could swim.
My parents’ migration from South Florida to a predominantly white New England suburb in western Massachusetts in the late 1970s was supposed to be a privilege. My siblings and I were often told how lucky we were to be in such a good, northern school system. My parents had lived through segregation and still had vivid memories of old second-hand schoolbooks inherited from the nearby white schools in their respective rural Florida hometowns. In their minds, the Little Rock Nine of high school integration fame had fought the battle of walking the gauntlet of jeering white faces and racial epithets barked from angry mouths. Our rambling colonial home had been bought with a price, and that price had already been paid. Racism, however, can cross regional borders. I often wondered if they would have been shocked to know that when I walked the streets of our quaint town to my ballet class or home from school, I could count on hearing a rebel yell and the n-word emanating from a car full of white teenagers. While I faced rampant racism in my school and town, I was able to capitalize on at least one aspect of attending a school in a community with money: an indoor pool.
I give my New England high school the lion’s share of credit for ensuring that I avoided aquatic statistical profiling. Our school had a standard requirement that no student be allowed to graduate without first passing a swim and lifesaving water safety test. The only way to avoid this requirement was a dire medical excuse. In fact, the only time you would see students warming the bleachers during gym class at the pool was when girls had their periods coupled with cramps. I can still see them draped on the bleachers and filing their nails with feigned boredom. They acted like they didn’t feel the envious glances sliding their way as the rest of us plunged into frigid pool water while the snow fell outside during a typical northeastern winter. Of course the rest of us hated them, knowing that our hair would still be wet when we stepped gingerly across the icy pathways to the waiting busses after the dismissal bell, trying desperately to get on the bus before our hair had time to harden against the cold.
The goal of the swim program was not only to ensure that every graduating senior knew how to swim but was also proficient enough to save the life of someone who didn’t. With only a dog paddle under my belt, I was immediately thrown into the novice group where I spent my time going across the width of the pool and mastering the required strokes: freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and sidestroke. I did this until I was able to complete a lap of each stroke, in proper form, along the length of the pool. This, however, was not the end of the proficiency
A “pass” for the high school graduation requirement included a series of hoops to the tune of swimming twenty laps alternating strokes. Not only was the pool of high school regulation competitive length, it was also competitive diving depth. In order not to flounder at the halfway mark, I had to seriously pace myself to meet the challenge. I did it, but there was not even enough time for a pat on the back before I had to dress up for the final requirement.
The life-saving component of the test required that students jump fully clothed into the deep end of the pool and turn the clothing we wore into flotation devices. Who could have known how tight jeans get when they are wet, or how difficult they were to peel off and then fling overhead until they filled with air to prove you could stay afloat atop the now bloated legs: ditto for a long-sleeved button-down shirt. After this herculean feat, I had no problem treading water for five minutes to finish out the requirement; in fact it was a relief.
Now, I understood what it meant to know how to swim. I was proud of my achievement, but didn’t really think much of it at the time beyond the fact that I would no longer be hindered from graduating.
A Fish Out of Water
The hair. In one way or another, swimming for those with genetically challenging coifs always ends up being about the hair. Over the years I have learned how to work my black-girl hair to accommodate my love of the water. When long, I can handily manipulate it into a smoothly gelled ponytail or bun. When short, I simply use the same gel after a swim and immediately wrap it in a scarf for 30 minutes to fix in nice water waves. Think Duke Ellington.
Alas, black mothers often pass on their fear of the water to their daughters via the upkeep of their hair. I remember in my youth my mother trying a multitude of swimming caps to keep our hair dry. She had three girls, and doing hair could end up consuming half a day. The caps, of course, never worked. No matter how snug, the pool water would always sneak beneath the taut rubber, converting our straight locks back to curly kink. The average chemical relaxer (aka hair straightener) at a hairdresser can cost anywhere from $65-$100 including tip. A flat-ironed hairstyle is not much cheaper and only lasts as long as water and humidity are kept at bay. Mothers are loathe to pay those prices and then let their kids go swimming on Saturday and have nothing to work with on Sunday morning before church. It may sound superficial and unbelievable, but this is the reason more than a few black women shun both the pool and real gym workouts that make one sweat profusely. I can honestly say, I never questioned nor regretted my desire for health over hair.
A Fish in a Bigger Pond
In my post-high school life, I was amazed by the number of contexts in which knowing how to swim gave me access to all kinds of possibilities just because I was no longer seen as a liability as a non-swimmer. I could readily accept invitations to go swimming in lakes without having to touch the murky bottoms as a wader. When I was invited to pool parties, I could actually swim instead of merely sitting on the side of the pool and dangling my legs into the water. Thankfully, I was not one of those girls trapped into trying to look nonchalant after a visit to the hairdresser and praying that no one would splash a new hairdo into an afro.
Knowing how to swim even helped my dating life, once I reached adulthood. Once on a weekend Caribbean getaway to the Bahamas, I met a local guy at a bar. I wasn’t much into hitting the casino, so he promised to take me boating and snorkeling around the island. My new tour guide said he would pick me up in his boat after he got off work.
Waiting on the beach later, I wondered how close he would come to shore to pick me up. I imagined myself running along the sand in my chic string bikini until I completed a shallow dive into the waves, emerged like a sea nymph from below and lightly treaded water to get my bearings before I glided into a competent crawl toward the boat. When my date pulled up quite a few yards from shore, I was easily able to make the swim out to the boat. Later he took me deep-water shelling for conch, and I didn’t have a care beyond running into a shark in the crystal clear waters. None of this would have been possible without learning to swim.
After I gave birth to my oldest daughter, within a few months I made sure she had her first ocean experience. At the time, I was advised that the salt water at the beach would make her newborn skin peel. One look at that gummy smile when my child saw her first waves break onto shore made me ignore that warning. Feet tapping wavelets as I held her hands, I saw her laugh with delight for the first time.
At the age of three, this same daughter requested that I teach her how to swim. Feeling completely empowered, I worked with her until she mastered the trick of simultaneously holding her breath and floating motionless atop the water, her dreadlocks spread out like a fan around her small head. I then demonstrated the powerful cupped palm that was the secret to the water-liberating dog paddle. From there, I watched her refine her technique until she mastered the underwater breaststroke that became her credentials to attend pool parties and enjoy luxurious swims in water over her head. I felt an amazing sense of achievement in teaching my daughter how to swim. In truth I had given her a second gift of life; like learning to ride a bicycle, she would never unlearn her ability to navigate through water.
A couple of years ago I went swimming at the community pool in our Knoxville suburb with my 5-year-old stepdaughter. She was excited that there was another child in the pool and smiled at him to encourage a greeting; however, we were both stunned when he turned to his grandmother and said, “She’s brown. Why is she here?” Millennials may not know that public swimming pools were once segregated. There is a scene in the biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), based on the life of the African American actress, depicting Halle Berry in the starring role dipping a toe into the segregated pool of the Las Vegas Frontier Hotel. Apparently the actress did this as an act of resistance after being told that management would have to drain and clean the pool if she, being a black woman, got into it. This took place in the 1950s, yet here was a four-year-old in 2014 asking why a brown girl was in his community swimming pool. While the desegregation of public pools might not be widely taught as a part of race history, certainly discrimination had been introduced to this young man’s consciousness from somewhere.
Standing beside the floatie-encased arms of her grandson, the boy’s grandmother had the decency to blush at his indiscretion. If I had been quick enough, I might have responded in that sickly sweet voice people adopt when really pushed to the edge that “We are here because our housing association dues afford this black family the right to be here.” Instead, I diplomatically proceeded to talk to the grandmother about the importance of young people learning how to swim. I then turned away to teach my stepdaughter how to cup her palms and pull them through the water as she stood on the second stair of the pool, her damp, neatly braided hair glistening under the penetrating sunlight. Metaphorically, I imagined the motion becoming a way for her to transcend all of the stereotypes and historical baggage that proclaimed she did not deserve the right to be there.