It’s time to address the persistent stereotype that ‘Black people can’t swim’

by Christienna Fryar 

The swimming competition at these Olympics was exceptional, and in a meet of dazzling racing, nail-biting finishes, and unexpected medallists, there was no more important a finish than when Simone Manuel surged at the end of the 100 metre freestyle, tying Penny Oleksiak for gold. Manuel became the first black woman to win an individual Olympic swimming title.

While unexpected – and in the case of NBC, unplanned for – the moment’s significance sparked an outpouring of emotion. NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines’ tone shifted in recognition of the historic moment. Social media, especially #BlackTwitter, erupted in celebration.

The joy, however, was tinged with sadness. These emotions were about more than just sport.

Swimming isn’t the only sport where black athletes are underrepresented, but it is perhaps the only sport where the paucity of black athletes has a deadly corollary. According to a USA Swimming report from 2010, nearly 70% of African Americans in the study self-reported as having low or no swimming ability.

As a result, black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. Moreover, children whose parents can’t swim are less likely to learn (regardless of race). For African Americans, these are deadly legacies handed down and sustained by the still-hidden past and present of racism.

In the aftermath of Manuel’s success, black academics, journalists, and activists were educating: They shared photos of St. Augustine hotel owner, James Brock pouring acid into a pool where black and white protesters were holding a “swim-in”; they recounted how pool owners drained and cleaned pools after Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr. swam in them; and reminded us of last year’s events in McKinney, Texas, when 14-year-old Dajerria Becton was hurled to the ground by a police officer who responded to a call placed by white parents at a neighborhood pool party.

That this work was necessary reflects a pernicious truth about racism, which transforms the effects of white supremacist politics into supposedly inherent character flaws for an entire group of people. Black people don’t swim, stereotypes insist, because they can’t float, they have too much muscle or bone density, or they care too much about their hair.

All of this stereotyping conveniently hides the nasty history and continuing present in which the West Africans brought to the Americas by slave traders were stripped of their cultural heritage, while their descendants have been systematically excluded, shunned, and pushed out of aquatic spaces.

Nor is this history restricted to the United States. In 1948, Jamaican journalist Evon Blake jumped into the pool of Kingston’s Myrtle Beach Hotel, an incident detailed by Krista Thompson in her book An Eye for the Tropics. He hoped to draw a reaction from hotel staff, which he did. In doing so, he revealed what the hotel had long tried to deny: that they had an unspoken, but understood, segregation policy. During apartheid, black South Africans were also banned from beaches.

Manuel’s win was an emphatic rejection of these global narratives that black people don’t belong in the water. Last year, I wrote about my own personal history as a swimmer: about my love for the water, about the discovery that I was an unexpectedly good breaststroker, and about the fact that the sport was too expensive for me to pursue properly.

And so I cried when Manuel touched the wall (joint) first. To some degree, these were tears of sadness for Simone, who has now become the symbol of progress that USA Swimming has desperately wanted for almost two decades, which is a heavy weight to bear.

Anthony Erving

To a little less fanfare, Anthony Ervin won the 50 metre freestyle in Rio. Though not entirely a surprise, Ervin’s win was also notable. He is 35, and last won gold in this event at Sydney 2000. He subsequently retired, lost his way for several years, before slowly making it back to the top of the sport.

Yet the commentary was notably silent on an aspect of Ervin’s life that USA Swimming had been all too loud about 16 years ago. Ervin’s father is mixed-race (African American and Native American), making Ervin officially the first black swimmer to win a gold medal.

Yet Ervin hadn’t considered himself African American when USA Swimming labelled him so, due in part to him knowing little about his father’s background[1]. This is germane because the sport had so failed to address its representation problem, in its desperation, it resorted to a modern day version of the one-drop rule, and assigned Ervin an identity he did not share[2]. That he was an inspiration to black swimmers like myself doesn’t make up for the fact that he had his agency taken away from him, all for the glory of USA Swimming[3].

Simone Manuel’s circumstances are different to Ervin’s. She identifies as black, and spoke earnestly about what her win means in this era. Manuel has already inspired countless children and adults to try swimming, and she may become our top female sprinter over the next four years. But it’s patently unfair to lay the work of opening up the sport on individual swimmers.

It’s not on Manuel, Cullen Jones, Maritza Correia McClendon, Nathan Adrian (who is Asian-American), or Jamaican breaststroker Alia Atkinson to bring more people of colour into the sport. That’s for USA Swimming (and more broadly, FINA) to do.

It is their job to increase access, lower or subsidise fees, and do more outreach. Smoothing the way for children from low-income families to learn how to swim – which USA Swimming does through its Make-a-Splash program – won’t be enough. USA Swimming also needs to condemn incidents like McKinney, which, to my knowledge, it hasn’t done. It will need to insist that pools in any way affiliated with it welcome and embrace swimmers of all backgrounds.

In the hour or so after Simone’s win, I kept crying. These were not a few tears trickling down my cheek, but the ugliest of ugly cries, a mixture of joy, sadness, and relief. Friends texted, my sister tweeted, and the tears wouldn’t stop.

I wept for my younger self who had loved a sport that had little space for her and those like me. I wept for my mother, who had to tell people we were black ahead of time to try to make sure I didn’t experience any hostility, and for the families who succeeded in navigating the path to the top of the sport.

I wept for Dajerria Becton. I wept for the children of the Creative Steps Day Camp, who were told not to return to a club pool because they would “change the complexion… of the club.” I wept for those who nearly drowned and remain afraid of water. I wept for those who did drown, and for their shattered families. I wept for all those pioneers who faced racist exclusion from pools. And I wept for the countless black people who never got near a pool because they were afraid of what might happen in the water, as well as what might happen around it.

[1] – Ervin addresses this in his autobiography, Chasing Water, co-written with Constantine Markides.

[2] – This is all the worse as – according to one of Chasing Water’s passages, penned by Markides – USA Swimming was especially eager in 2000, given Tiger Woods’ exploits in golf, and had pinned its hopes on sprinter Sabir Muhammad. When Muhammad didn’t qualify at the national trials, that burden fell on Ervin.

[3] – Incidentally, he’s still listed as the first of five African American Olympians in USA Swimming literature.

 

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Christienna Fryar is a professor, historian, and pop culture junkie. She is from Virginia, lives in Buffalo, NY, and calls Durham, NC and London home. Twitter: @jamaicandale

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3 replies

  1. kudos for high lighting black swimmers. to be sure I’ve seen black swimmers but in my fifty years of dating maybe a dozen black woman non of them were swimmers. since i’m a swimmer this was always a negative, not enough to turn me off but that’s been my experience. now i’m talking of an older generation . i can’t believe when i discovered black women (not to brag but they discovered me, lol) it was only a few years after interracial marriage was legal.

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  2. I’m so naive. I knew about the segregation of the past, of course. But I would never have imagined that your mother would have to call ahead to say by the way, we’re black, to make sure there was no hostility, in such recent times. Keep on swimming.

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