An ubiquitous trope, prevalent in many in an epoch and one that engenders disquiet in the life of many black people. Its cultural equivalent might perhaps be ‘white people can’t dance’, but it doesn’t quite capture the nuance and unease of this historically entrenched misconception. Its roots can be traced back to the Transatlantic slave trade, thousands upon thousands of slaves trapped in tight wooden ships, barely able to breathe, the sea thus water as metaphor for both freedom, and death. Yet it, like many the neurosis of the contemporary black person, still permeates, interwoven with a history and identity entwined within slavery. My black mother never learnt to swim out of her own mother’s prohibitions and fear, despite being from the tiny Caribbean island of Barbados, enclosed by miles of coast.
Swimming, or rather the inability to do so, has been an act of mass resistance against slavery. White supremacy has oft been reinforced through this act not only through socially-formed opinion, but also through the science community.
‘“Look” she continued, “I’m not saying it, but my friends say that black people don’t have the buoyancy to be swimmers.” There had been studies done in the 50s and 60s that claimed that since black athletes on average tend to have less body fat than their white counterparts, they would be poor swimmers since body fat creates buoyancy.’ (Ali, 2010)
Although such claims have now been thoroughly debunked, the strained relationship of black people and swimming still holds precedence. Black people, just like everyone else, are natural swimmers simply by virtue of being human. One can argue that Mauss’ notion of ‘body techniques’ is what has hindered blacks inability to swim, but throughout history swimming has been enjoyed as a leisurely pastime in African communities, swimming is not bound within white cultures. Thus the habitus of black people has not prevented them from learning how to swim, rather it is the social and political environments of slavery and segregation that has bolstered such prohibition. St. Simons Island, in the southern US state of Georgia, was the site of the 1803 ‘Igbo Landing’. The legend goes that a group of Igbo slaves revolted and took control of their ship, grounding it into the island. One by one they processed into the water, singing in Igbo, drowning themselves in turn. This very act of mass suicide was more favourable than the horrors of slavery. In Lee Pitts, Jr.’s article, Black Splash: The History of African-American Swimmers, he cites this case of a slave: ‘In 1679, when a slave ship wrecked off Martinique, an African slave whose name is lost to history, reached shore after swimming for sixty hours, an aquatic feat of survival that rivalled Homer’s Ulysses and was a record of endurance swimming that was not matched by white men for almost 300 years.’
This theme continues, slave owners knew that they were losing ‘valuable product’ due to their slaves’ propensity to swim. So begins a generational fear of the water by dunking in disobedient slaves to the point of almost drowning and weaving tales of terror by creating fables of creatures that lived in the water. Thus a tradition and enjoyment of swimming was obstructed from being borne in African-American culture. Much of the history of black people’s ability to swim is built upon myth and folklore than fact, it is an ability driven out by white supremacy and upheld by fear. Tales of African slaves’ ‘water walking’ or ‘flying’ back to the freedom of their homeland are ubiquitous in African-American culture. Even long after the emancipation of slavery in the United States a mass embargo on swimming was still perpetuated – Jim Crow-era America legislated the prohibition of blacks from seaside resorts in places like Atlantic City and Revere Beach, and throughout the 20th century the ‘color line’ forbade blacks from entering public swimming pools. The notion of Mary Douglas’ ‘social dirt’ and matter out of place reverberates this cultural bias of blacks in water, of course it is wholly unfounded but it is so deeply ingrained it feels inherent.
On Thursday 11th August 2016 Simone Manuel became the first African-American to win an individual gold medal at an Olympic swimming event. Statistics from the USA Swimming Foundation state that nearly 70% of black children are unable to swim, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that the drowning rate of black children between the ages of 5 and 14 is 2.6 times higher than their white counterparts. A history and culture permeated with notions and prohibitions of blacks and swimming accounts for this. A famous story of Dorothy Dandridge dipping her toe into a hotel swimming pool, later to see it being drained due to complaints from white guests, is why Simone Manuel’s win is so important. Myths sprung out of fear that blacks are contagious, carrying diseases that can be transmitted through the water is why Simone Manuel’s win is so important.
Dr. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, has conducted research into epigenetics and the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Her research deduces that when one experiences trauma, serious trauma (i.e. the Holocaust, slavery, etc.) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, this can be passed down through generations in shared family genes. Sociologist Dr. Joy DeGruy created the phrase Post Traumatic Slave Disorder to address the specific trauma experiences by the descendants of black slaves. If this trauma is still perpetuated in the black community in relation to swimming then the resistance to the activity could perhaps be biologically explained.
Swimming pools have long been contested spaces in the US. Many may ask ‘why don’t black people swim?’ Because they were never welcomed? Because a history of slavery, racism and cultural norms dictated so? Swimming pools are unique spaces, they are spaces where one becomes socially and physically intimate with another. They are spaces of trust wherein nearly-nude bodies are entwined in recreational engagement, where prejudices should be checked at the door for we are all the same here, a community occupying in collective activity. But, of course, this is not so.
Ali, N. (2010). ‘Blacks Don’t Swim’. [online] U.S. Masters Swimming. Available at: http://www.usms.org/articles/articledisplay.php?aid=294 [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].
Owning-my-truth.com. (2016). Beyoncé’s “Love Drought” Video, Slavery and the…| Owning My Truth. [online] Available at: http://owning-my-truth.com/post/143569446582/beyonces-lovedrought-video-slavery-igbolanding [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].
Bourdieu, P. (1980). The Logic of Practice. Stanford, Stanford University Press.
Brown, R. (2012). African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.140-141.
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
Mauss, M. (1973), ‘Techniques of the Body’, in, Economy and Society, 2:1, pp. 70-88
Pitts, L. (2007). Black Splash: The History of African- American Swimmers. 1st ed. ISHOF, pp.1-4.
EBONY. (2016). Swimming’s Racist Past Makes Simone Manuel’s Win an Even Bigger Deal. [online] Available at: http://www.ebony.com/entertainment-culture/simone-manuel-racism#axzz4Ysq9RSTx [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].
Wiltse, J. (2015). America’s swimming pools have a long, sad, racist history. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/06/10/americas-swimming-pools-have-a-long-sad-racist-history/?utm_term=.bb2ae7a49731 [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].