Our VoiceHealth & Environment

Despite Racism, Blacks Part Waters to Swim

Eric Ward • Jul 06, 2009

I’ve heard all my life that “Black people don’t swim.” “Do too!” I would respond. When I was three it was impossible to get me out of the tub, at 15 I was biking down to Sunset Beach almost every day to boogie board (I still have the scar to show for it). At 16 I piloted my first boat and at 17 I even pre-enlisted in the U.S. Navy to sail the high seas. Perhaps it is because I grew up close to the ocean in S. California, or as some of my hippy friends like to point out, because I was born under the water sign of Cancer.

Whatever the reason I’ve always felt close to water and I find it is such an irony that I didn’t learn to swim until I turned 14. Until that summer when I tenaciously taught myself to swim, I, like most Black and Latino youth, carried on a love/hate relationship with swimming pools, lakes, rivers, and the ocean.

This relationship made up of self-doubt, lack of trust, a paralyzing fear and frustration also symbolized the toll that racism has on each of us. Fifty-years after public swimming pools have been officially desegregated, Black and Latino young along with our parents are still trying to convince ourselves that we can actually swim, not only physically but mentally as well.

At age six I almost drowned. It was summer and everyone was playing in the pool. I was in there pulling myself around the inside ledge when I slipped. I can still remember the water completely enveloping me, dragging me down. It wasn’t long (perhaps 20 seconds) but it seemed like a lifetime until someone grabbed me and yanked me out of the pool.

Even today I count myself as one of the lucky ones. Children are still suffering from a legacy of racial segregation that continues to reach into the present with deadly results. As a new documentary film Parting the Waters points out, “Latino and Black children drown almost four times more often than their white peers.” Less than 1% of competitive swimmers in the United States are Black and Latino.

Parting the Waters filmmakers Jenny Levison and Josh Waletzky brilliantly illustrate not only the institutional barriers that youth of color face when it comes to swimming but also how the weight of psychological racism can drag our children down as well. The documentary follows three Latino and Black youths from Boston who courageously take the fight against racism to the water. We see firsthand the incredible influence that Maritza Correia (first black female on a U.S. Olympic swim team) and Cullen Jones (African-American world record holder) have in helping these youth expand what is possible, not only for them, but for our world.

Several years ago the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the owners of a New Jersey swim club because it intentionally “turned away ‘black’ and ‘brown-skinned’ customers and guests”. In a world that is made up of two-thirds water we have an obligation to help our children push back against the last public vestiges of racial discrimination. See Parting the Waters and share this blog with your friends and family. Let everyone know once and for all that Blacks do too know how to swim!

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