It was the stuff of nightmares, a parent’s worst fears unfolding right before her disbelieving eyes, her refusing-to-believe eyes. But it was no dream. It was reality – stark, heart-rending reality.
August 3, 2010 was a typical summer day in Shreveport, La.: sweltering. So Maude Warner packed her three teenagers and a nephew in the family car and drove to a popular recreation area along the Red River to cool off, feast on some barbecued ribs and catch up on the latest gossip. The teens, too, were looking forward to horsing around in the river shallows, especially with their good friends, the threeStewart kids.
But why the disparity?Ahh, therein lies a most intriguing story. One that involves all sorts of convoluted explanations and pseudo-scientific theories. Such as: Black people can’t swim very well because they are unable to float. Or, because their musculature is too heavy; Or, because their torso is too short in relation to their legs (or is it the other way around? I forget).
In any event, the details don’t matter much, because it’s all rubbish. Pure, unadulterated nonsense. No truer than the notion that the sun revolves around the Earth.
For you see, there was a time when not only were black people competent swimmers, they were regarded by many, especially Europeans, as the best swimmers in the world. Writing in journals dating to the 15th century, European explorers speak expansively and eloquently about the aquatic skills of West Africans.
Not only were West Africans swimming, but they were using a type of crawl stroke that wasn’t adopted by Europeans until the very end of the 19th century. Ironically, during that time and up until the early years of the 20th century, it was the Europeans and white Americans who lacked swimming skills, while so-called primitive peoples were swimming proficiently all around the world, surfing and free diving to depths of 90 feet and more to collect pearls.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were skilled swimmers and took pride in their abilities. For instance, Julius Caesar was well-known and admired for his aquatic skills. But from the Middle Ages on, very few Europeans dared to swim. They were too frightened by stories of monsters, such as the Loch Ness monster, and warnings from their priests that swimming nude would buy them a one-way ticket to Hell.
Even during that period, however, there were some folks who weren’t buying the conventional wisdom. For example, Benjamin Franklin was not only a strong and avid swimmer, he also invented paddles and worked as a swim instructor in Paris while he was negotiating an end to the Revolutionary war and in London, where he served as US ambassador. Britain’s King George III also swam regularly, as did US president John Quincy Adams some years later.
Swimming was also part of the literature of the period dating all the way back to the 16th century, when the French writer, François Rabelais, had his two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel, swim over and back across the Seine River every day before breakfast.
When West Africans were sold into slavery in the southern states of the USA, they brought their aquatic-based lifestyle with them. From time to time, a master might accidently tip his boat over, dumping him into the river. Dressed in heavy clothes and heavier boots, and not able to swim at all, he didn’t stand much of a chance. But a master who treated his slaves with some measure of human kindness would, more often than not, jump in and rescue the struggling slave master. On summer days, when the slaves would finish their work before the sun had set, many slave owners would allow them a little recreation down at the river. Indeed, it was not uncommon for a master to have a young slave the same age as his son assigned to the boy to teach him to swim and to serve as his personal lifeguard. Quite often, the two youngsters would bond and become lifelong friends.
In an article entitled, “The Truth Behind African Americans and Swimming,” Maria Burzillo writes: “Slaves on some plantations participated in races and contests, often organized by their slave owners, who would then bet on the races and would even sometimes give out prizes.
“There are also many accounts of slaves wrestling sharks, alligators, and manta rays as a show of strength. These events became spectacles and often drew large crowds. These types of contests required great swimming skill and were a way for slaves, especially men, to demonstrate their power and earn distinction in the slave community. It also gave them pride to be so skilled at swimming, an activity that most of their masters were afraid of.”
As other countries freed their slaves, free black seamen became a common sight when ships would dock at U.S. coastal cities. Slaves in southern ports would talk to these sailors, who encouraged them to make a dash for freedom by swimming across rivers that served as borders between the free north and slave south. In ever-increasing numbers they did just that. The slave owners could not tolerate such rebellion and so the South Carolina legislature passed the Negro Seamen Act of 1822, which called for the imprisonment of any free, foreign, black seamen for the entire time their ship was docked in the state. Other southern states followed with similar Draconian laws.
In the years that followed, laws were passed or rules enforced that had the effect of preventing slaves from coming near any bodies of water. At the same time, the slaves were told that the measures had been enacted for their benefit, since everyone knew that black folks were poor swimmers. As time passed, more and more blacks came to believe this precursor to the Big Lie technique.
After the Civil War, African Americans could use any public beach or pool they wanted to use. Theoretically. In reality, what happened was that public facilities were abandoned or, more often, privatized. And black folks were excluded. However, after World War II, in which black Americans played a crucial role, their exclusion from swimming facilities could no longer be rationalized. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 secured their right to have the same access to swimming facilities as whites. Unfortunately, by that time, blacks had internalized the lie that claimed they could not swim.
Only now, 150 years after the Civil War, is that historic falsehood finally unraveling. Dozens of organizations across the country have developed learn-to-swim programs aimed primarily at minority youngsters. Recognizing its responsibility to swimmers of all abilities, the USA Swimming Foundation is leading the way by expanding its successful “Make a Splash Initiative.” One of its most effective tools is its annual traveling tour, sponsored by Phillips 66, in which Olympic gold medalists such as Anthony Ervin, Janet Evans and Rowdy Gaines promote the importance of learning to swim so that tragedies like the one in Shreveport, Louisiana, never happen again.
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