Of Water and Tears,
Towards a Healthy, Sane Society
As I flipped channels the other day, on came the announcement that Simone Manuel had won the gold medal for the 100 meter freestyle in swimming. The image of this lovely African American Sister accepting her prize, with tears running freely down her face, had me crying as well. The tears kept coming for me, and in the instant that I was trying to figure out why it was hitting me like this, Cari Champion, ESPN reporter (also a Black Sister), explained that friends of hers were calling in on her phone crying. She went through our history: African Americans had been barred from swimming not very long ago; African American children had acid thrown on them, while they were swimming, for the crime of not keeping to “their place” and entering the pool.
Michael Smith, African American ESPN reporter, originally a Boston sportscaster, offered more of this history. He unfolded the Dorothy Dandridge story — possibly the most well-known of this genre of “water stories” — the very popular entertainer often singing for large White audiences was walking by the pool in the hotel at one of her engagements when she put her toe in the water. The management of the hotel unceremoniously had the pool drained of all its water by their Black housekeeping/janitorial staff because the entrance of her toe had irretrievably contaminated the pool.
American “Strange Fruit”
The determination that water can become contaminated by this means is yet another “strange fruit” of a very peculiar social system. African Americans’ relationship to water may be distinct in the history of humankind due to the system of white supremacy. This character of the US political system, akin to fascism, predated European fascism. This kin system to apartheid, which included barring African Americans from water — pools, the ocean, drinking fountains, toilets — was in fact the model used by those who erected the settler state in South Africa.
It seems that every one of us African Americans has our own water/swimming story. A member of my church congregation explained that she grew up in Colombia Point Housing Projects in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood — separated from South Boston (then a strictly segregated Irish neighborhood) by the now infamous Carson Beach. Carson Beach had been the scene of racial clashes, highlighted for the world during the Boston desegregation/forced busing crisis in 1974. She said that at one point in the late 1960’s her brother and his friends got fed up with being banned from the ocean: They loaded up with bats, knives and hammers, and headed to the beach, with the determination that they were going to swim. She said they swam that day without a problem.
Six days before Manuel’s victory I was with my granddaughter’s camp which went to Nantasket Beach, a very popular ocean resort on Massachusetts’ South Shore. Our camp had one-hundred Black children. Next to us on the beach was a church from Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood which also had more than 100 African American children and all-Black adult chaperones. Further down the beach was yet another group — camp, summer school or church, I do not know — with over 100 Black children and an all of-Color staff. I called a dear friend of mine on my cell-phone because I was moved by what I termed “a Black takeover” of the town beach — Hull, MA, the town which hosts this beach may be 99% White American. I was not fully conscious of why this was so important to me, when my friend insisted over the phone that I watch my granddaughter very closely, that I be extremely careful in the water myself. I swim like a fish, and my granddaughter is very confident in the water, so I may have sounded like I was dismissing my friend’s admonitions. Therefore, she continued in her now semi-alarm, warning me about the dangers of the water. I offered to her that her fear was not of the natural relationship of humans — children or adults — to water; that her fear was socially engendered. Her fear for us came from a social, not biological, history that we as a people have with the water.
It wasn’t until six days later, when Manuel’s victory caused a flood of emotion to pour out through our stories that I realized why I was so happy to see this “occupation” of the ocean by African American children. And my dear friend, now witnessing the outpouring of celebration for Simone Manuel, agreed with me that her fear was possibly of social, not biological origin.
From Monroe, NC, to Skyview Acres, NY, to Rio de Janeiro
My story goes this way. I grew up in an “experimental community,” suburb of New York City, with “radical” middle class White Americans, some refugees from the Socialist Party of the 1940’s-1950’s, some ex-members of the Communist Party USA, others devoted to left-of-liberal causes. My father — early 1950’s — was a political activist attorney, and he was integrating the suburbs with his membership in “Skyview Acres Coop,”[i] as it was officially named.
While the past radicalism of the residents faded in the glow of the burgeoning White American upper middle class experience (my mother called these people the “nouveau riche”), my father was entrenched in what was now beginning to be called the Black Liberation Movement. Most people today understand this period of US history to be that of the Civil Rights Movement. I was there at the time, and I know what we called it. The Black Panther Party (BPP) was the most popular organization of African America eight years after the events I am about to describe — it would be hard to find any legitimacy in calling them a “civil rights group”…. My father would be one of the attorneys representing the New York chapter of the BBP in 1968.
In 1958 he was providing legal counsel for Robert Williams and the Monroe chapter of the NAACP, and the beleaguered Black community of Monroe. This community was engaged, among other things, in a self-defense of their neighborhood which at one point resulted in a complete rout of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan, in an open military defeat of that white supremacist organization.[ii]
A few weeks after he had returned to New York — Skyview Acres — from Monroe, we were at the man-made pond of our “Coop,” and my father and I were swimming. I was six-years-old, and my father was sitting on his towel pond-side watching me. At one point Sam Pepperman ordered me out of the pool, presumably because I was in the wrong swim section (reserved for older swimmers). My father was a very sturdy five-foot-four inches tall. He stood up chest to chest with six-foot-two, 250 pound Pepperman, and said, “Alexander, get back in that pool…” Pepperman drooled out a few words, and then recanted. At age six, I of course did not make the link at the time — that my father had just come back from Monroe, NC, where two children had a few weeks earlier drowned in the creek. They were swimming in the creek because the public swimming pool — in other words, the pool paid for with Black Americans tax-payers’ money — banned Black children. Robert Williams, then President of the Monroe chapter of the NAACP, had begun peaceful protests, but the local White government did not allow peaceful protest, so it turned into an all-out armed conflict.[iii] This history is not told to our children in public schools in their history textbooks; the “sanitized”/censored official history of today constitutes the perpetuation of the white supremacist system as it existed in the 1950’s.
At age six, I could not possibly know why my father had raised this insult to the level of possible open violence here in Skyview. From one angle, my father’s reaction could be termed an overreaction: Ultimately, Sam Pepperman was simply acting out on the middle class/property owner/rules of the pool stupidity, completely unaware of any social concern outside of this project:
1. Oblivious to the fact that he is telling someone else’s child what to do;
2. While the father of the child is sitting right there;
3. Missing that the child and the father are Black;
4. Totally unavailable to the condition that African Americans have been denied the right to experience water the way the rest of humans on planet Earth do;
5. He wasn’t being a fascist — “Nigger children can’t be in the water.” He was being ignorant.
The bottom line of this drama, and what I could not understand as a 6-year-old, was that my father was acting out of the emotions from Monroe — he transferred this anger to the current scene at the Skyview pool. My father had a way, born of the struggle of his people, of on-the-spot elimination of racist prerogatives. This style of fighting is one in the 360 degrees of legitimate ways we have fashioned to fight for our freedom. In this situation, the image of my father standing up and discarding this insult (in Skyview) with a simple stroke of his dignified countenance will never leave me.
White Supremacy and Water, Then and Now
We study and teach history, we tell our stories, because the telling informs our present; this study and teaching enables us to be better prepared for today’s challenges. According to statistics from the USA Swimming Foundation,[iv] close to 70% of African American children do not know how to swim. Many Black adults maintain a paralyzing fear which prevents them from entering the pool. An Ebony article written the day after Manuel’s victory validated the sense already stated that this fear comes from social oppression — it is a lasting trauma. The article insisted that, “Enslaved Africans traveling thousands of miles across the ocean, being deprived of food and water, while watching the bodies of their shipmates being cast away” is a nervous system distress that is not going to leave our collective bodies until the source of it is removed.[v]
Again this unique relationship of African Americans to being able to swim is historic, and it is one more element of the proof that the white supremacist system and US capitalism are identical systems, they are coincident systems, the two are one-and-the-same system. In order to understand the history and its impact on today we must see the progeny of those KKK (the KKK families and supporters were the everyday White citizens of North Carolina at that time) who support the current campaign of summary executions of Black people (men, women and children) by local police country-wide. Their progeny have graduated to trying to build walls to prevent immigration from Mexico, and to ban Muslims from the country. And we must also resurrect the pitiful countenance of Sam Pepperman if we are to understand the everyday workings of this system: Sam Pepperman was totally unaware of his role in the system — that he was benefitting from the enslavement of African Americans and People of Color around the world by the logical workings of the US economy. To him, my father, an internationally known political activist attorney at that time, was invisible. Pepperman was one of those millions of “zombies” referred to by Jean Paul Sartre in his preface to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth[vi] who are totally ignorant of their Historical Responsibility.[vii] For the white supremacist system to function, it needs not only the lunatic supporters of police murders — who would like to go back to denying folks the right to swim. This white supremacist system needs millions of Sam Pepperman’s.
Ryan Lochte is today’s Sam Pepperman. His country wins more gold medals at the Olympics than any other, and his relationship to water has been, at the very least, a natural one — he has what may be called the “privilege” to experience water in a lovely way. What kind of culture makes having a healthy relationship to water a privilege? In typical American fashion, he abuses this relationship (that is, he turns a natural relationship into an unnatural one), and his victims (the Brazilian people he insulted) are affected in a parallel way to how African Americans have been. Today, through our tears, we must use our stories, that of Simone Manuel, those of the heroic people of Monroe, NC, those of the people of Colombia Pt. Housing Project, all our stories, to inspire us to create a healthy social system, one in which our human right to water is our lived experience.
ps: I travelled this week with my granddaughter’s camp, the week following Manuel’s victory, to the Hale Reservation, deep in the woods of southeastern, MA. It was an absolutely beautiful campgrounds, with a giant pond. While the children and their chaperones were preparing for the end-of-summer celebratory presentations which they were making to their families, I went swimming. Along came a young White man who summoned me, “Excuse me sir, this pond is not open to the public; it is only for camps.” I said, “I’m here with my granddaughter and the Camp of Bird Street Community Center.” This young White man responded with, “So, you are here with your granddaughter and the Camp of Bird Street Community Center?” Sam Pepperman flashed through my mind, and I took a deep breath, and said, “Yes, we are speaking English here,” and went back to swimming.
[ii] Nelson, Truman. (2013). Negroes with Guns. Martin Fine Books.
[iii] Lynn, Conrad. (1979). There is a Fountain: The Autobiography of a Civil Rights Lawyer. Lawrence Hill & Company.
[iv] USA Swimming Foundation. (2016). “The stats: Why all kids must learn to swim.” http://www.usaswimming.org/DesktopDefault.aspx?TabId=1796
[v] Johnson, George. (2016). “Swimming’s racist past makes Simone Manuel’s win an even bigger deal.” Ebony.
[vi] “Europeans, you must open this book and enter into it. After a few steps in the darkness you will see strangers gathered around a fire; come close, and listen, for they are talking of the destiny they will mete out to your trading-centres and to the hired soldiers who defend them. They will see you, perhaps, but they will go on talking among themselves, without even lowering their voices. This indifference strikes home: their fathers, shadowy creatures, your creatures, were but dead souls; you it was who allowed them glimpses of light, to you only did they dare speak, and you did not bother to reply to such zombies. Their sons ignore you; a fire warms them and sheds light around them, and you have not lit it. Now, at a respectful distance, it is you who will feel furtive, nightbound and perished with cold. Turn and turn about; in these shadows from whence a new dawn will break: It is you who are the zombies.” (Quoted in Fanon, Franz. (1961). The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press.
[vii] “Historical responsibility transcends the categories of liberal thought; intention and act, circumstances and will, objective and subjective. It overwhelms the individual in his act, mingles the objective and subjective, imputes circumstances to the will; thus it substitutes for the individual as he feels himself to be a role or phantom in which he cannot recognize himself, but in which he must see himself, since that is what he is for his victims.” (Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (1947). Humanism and Terror. Boston: Beacon Press. p43)