Can black people swim?
A while back someone sent me a video talking about some of the reasons black people may not know how to swim. I thought it was an interesting topic to explore. The black women were discussing that historically their neighborhoods were so poor that they didn’t have pools close by.
This is a topic that I’ve personally thought about at different times. I worked at a summer camp many years back where we had a running joke about how many of the black staff would be in the water. Among us there is an understanding that while not everyone has the ability to swim many people do.
In researching, some interesting reasons come up for the lack of swimming in black communities. One that I had not given much thought to but made sense was that we tend to gravitate to sports that don’t need money or parental supervision. Accessibility is another big one that I had never thought about.
I grew up in a time and place where every community center had free swim times and if you wanted classes that was an option as well. Personally I’ve always had a hard time floating and while I CAN swim to save my life I wouldn’t say that I’m a good or decent swimmer. With my track background I always assumed that muscle made it harder for me to float. In questioning other athletes they affirmed that this was a major reason for the difficulty floating which means less fun when swimming and more work. I recently read something that speculated that black people genetically had denser bones. While not extensive here are a few more reasons you may not find as many black women in the pool.
Not very long ago many black people were forbidden to swim in pools and after that dealt with laws of segregation. This could have played a factor in swimming not becoming a skill in many families. If your parents didn’t swim then you probably wouldn’t either.
If someone grew up in an area that was land locked it was more likely that they wouldn’t have valued the skill of swimming or had access to areas to participate.
Some sports are just easier to be a part of. They require minimal investment initially and you can do it anywhere. Things like track and basketball don’t require special times, places or even clothes to participate when you’re just starting out so they are sports that people will gravitate to.
I know for myself and many other black women that swimming can be off putting when we think of the work our hair will need after the chlorine in the pool. Healthy hair is such an important part of our community. My hair is natural so I have no problem getting it wet all the time but after it gets wet there’s a process involved, washing, conditioning, oiling and restyling which can possibly take hours. If protection from chlorine isn’t a priority then it can result in dry hair or breakage. Many women chose to wear extensions and braids when they travel in order to be carefree. But hair can still get damaged underneath those extensions and weaves if it’s not taken care of properly. These styles are convenient on a trip because no restyling is necessary. Since I don’t wear extensions I have to consider the work involved after a swim.
Some swim caps don’t keep hair dry or may not fit if you have puffy afro hair. I’ve tried some bigger hair caps that are easier to take off and don’t rip my hair (Swimscarf)
I find myself more willing to go through all of that work on specific days when I travel if there is no chlorine involved. That’s why I prefer seas, oceans and lakes to pools.
More conversation has been had about the effects of generational trauma on black people. I remember reading the end of the book “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi and she had a curious portion at the end about water. I started wondering how many things we have internally ingrained that stems from trauma. Could it be because some of our ancestors were taken through the middle passage that many of us carry that memory and fear of large bodies of water in our DNA?
I remember when my grandmother was alive and I would visit her in Ghana. She always seemed worried when I said that my cousins, friends and I were going to the beach. She was worried that I would drown. She mentioned foreigners being taken by the waves. I always assured her that I would stay close to the shore and that I did have, at the very least, some basic survival skills and the healthy fear of what skills I lacked so I would be careful.
She lived in Ghana most of her life and at times close to the water and I don’t know if she ever ventured to the beach in her days or knew how to swim.
All of these thoughts are not to say black people can’t swim. Actually the assumption that we can not could be seen as a negative stereotype. Just because someone chooses not to swim doesn’t mean they can not. We know that many black people all over the world swim, we have olympic swimmers and many who have gained great success in this sport and pastime. But for those of us who may not be hanging out poolside this might be some of the reasons.
My mother signed us both up for swimming when I was a preteen. It was an unexpected surprise as I wouldn’t have described my mother as adventurous or athletic. She was very busy and so it felt like a special sacrifice to have that time with her. It was a time I will always look back on with fondness. We had a lot of fun and she packed snacks but neither of us got very far in our training. Since then I’ve had lifeguard friends teach me and offer to help me. I did finally learn enough to save my life one year practicing in a salt pool in Greece under the encouragement and direction of one of my friends. The salt pool made me more bouyant. It was finally fun, I was so happy with the progress I made.
Keep in mind that even though I am not a strong swimmer I’ve never let that stop me from participating in water activities and sports. I’ve had friends swim me out to sandbars in the middle of the water so I could play. I wear as many floatation devices as I can find. Even if I feel a little fear I don’t let that hold me back. I’ve been canoeing and portaging, boating, snorkeling, paddle boarding, boogie boarding and recently tried surfing. Every time I’m in the water it’s fun and I wish I was a stronger swimmer and wonder what I have been doing with my life. But I’m encouraged to forsake my hair for a while and all the annoying parts of changing and unchanging. I’m going to embrace the ashy skin so that I can be a better swimmer and live my best life.
Do you love swimming or water sports? Do you have a preference for where you swim? Have any of these issues every come up for you?