“Toe in ocean, Mommy. Toe in ocean!”
That’s what I said the first time I ever saw the lapis blue waters of Miami Beach. I was 18 months old and an early talker, so this sentence impressed no one. But it does seem to be one of my earliest defining moments. I just always wanted to be in the water.
While some assume that my being a black surfer is a joke and laugh accordingly, it is true that black people rarely get to enjoy the water. “Get to” being the important part of that statement. The most recent statistics report that only 35% of black American children know how to swim. There is, of course, a reason for this. (The answer rhymes with “flavor free.”)
This is not history. This is Tuesday.
As writer Brentin Mock explains, the public pool has been, and remains, one of the most racist spaces in America. No matter the body of water, whether it’s a public pool, a lake, river, or public beach, black Americans have been, and continue to be, actively denied access to water.
Take the recent viral story of that racist white guy, ID Adam, who called the cops on a black woman for daring to visit a private community pool. Or do you recall when, in 2015, a young black woman in Texas attended an end-of-the-year pool party and a cop showed up and violently, wrongfully arrested her? She sued and won. Or earlier this summer, when an off-duty cop harassed a black guy for using the pool at his own apartment complex. The young black man repeatedly asked, “Why do I have to leave my pool?” This is not history. This is Tuesday.
Black bathers and swimmers were once a welcome sight. That was back when black bodies were a source of profit, with slaves unintentionally bringing skills like swimming and underwater diving to the Americas. Turns out that up until the 19th century, most whites — even sailors — couldn’t swim, and if they could, they couldn’t do it as well as the West Africans they’d stolen. It was only when public swimming became a thing — when black people wanted to be in the water for our leisure, our pleasure — that America denied us (and learned how to swim). We were and continue to be denied water in this, the Land of the Free.
Consider the work of Joseph K. Lee. As a UCLA student, he often flew into the city and was repeatedly mesmerized by the endless pools that dot the landscape of Los Angeles. In 2013, the graduate researcher compiled aerial photographs to tabulate all the pools in LA. He counted over 43,000 pools in the LA basin. Unsurprisingly, Beverly Hills had the most per capita, with 2,481 pools. But the wealthy coastal community, Rancho Palos Verdes, had Beverly Hills beat by total count, at 2,592. The predominantly black South Central neighborhood of Watts? Zero pools. Not a damn one. Well, there is one public pool — it just wasn’t counted in Lee’s study because it was closed for a decade before reopening in 2016.
To recap, Los Angeles has 43,000 pools. And in Watts, there’s one.
This is why 65% of Black children living in the US don’t know how to swim. Sixty-five percent.
So no, Carol, it isn’t because of our hair. Sorry, Timothy, it isn’t because we’re scared of the water. And no, Brad, it isn’t even because many of us don’t float. Why is it? Say it with me: Black people have been actively denied access to water in America. And continue to be. But go ahead, Phillip, joke about how black people hate to swim because it’s the one sport we’re not good at. Or whatever.