Smmertime is here, which means that pool parties and beach days are bound to be had. However, while many of us may be sporting a two-piece on the sand, very few of us will be jumping off a diving board anytime soon. Why? Because, according to research from the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis, 70 percent of African Americans do not know how to swim.
So what’s to blame for this alarming statistic? Of course there is the obvious issue of chlorine and the effects it has on our hair; but the true origin of our underrepresentation in the water is attached to deeper historical and generational roots—historically, segregation; generationally, fear.
As University of Montana professor Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, puts it, “It is because of discrimination and segregation that swimming never became a part of African-American recreational culture.”
Put differently: Lack of access to swimming pools and public beaches meant that many black Americans were denied the opportunity to learn how to swim; and intergenerational fear of the water stops their descendants from learning now.
In fact, recreational swimming only became popular in the U.S. during the 1920s and 1930s. It was then that many municipal pools began to pop up across the nation. By the time swimming became recognized as a sport in the 1950s and 1960s, segregation in the U.S. was also recognized, widening the racial and economic divide that left many African Americans to drown—literally and figuratively.
This leads us to today’s reality: If your grandparents weren’t able to learn how to swim, then they didn’t teach your parents. And if your parents didn’t swim, then you might not know how to swim, either.
In fact, the USA Swimming Foundation study shows that “if a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that a child in that household will learn how to swim.”
“My mother didn’t know how to swim and had a bit of a fear of the water. That fear was pushed on us, so we didn’t learn how to swim,” says Ty Alexander, author of Things I Wish I Knew Before My Mom Died. On the other hand, “My son knows the basics just because he’s a millennial … they are more daring and willing to jump in the water without fear,” she adds.
Then there is the opposite: black parents who did know how to swim. Parents like former University of Texas at Austin competitive swimmer Kelley Robins Hicks. “I never remember learning to swim … as far as I know, I’ve been able to swim my whole life,” she says. Her parents both swam in high school, and her father also swam in college. “All of my cousins, aunts and uncles swim, too,” she adds.
This “family business,” as Robins Hicks puts it, ultimately afforded many other black children in Houston the opportunity not only to swim but to swim competitively during the late ’80s. Her father teamed up with both her godfather and the city’s commissioner to create a swim team for inner-city kids that would be free. A major inclusion, since, despite its racially divided beginnings, swimming was and still is an expensive sport.
Despite both historical and current impediments, many young black people love being around water. And to circumvent the constraints of a racist society—from segregation to affordability and accessibility—some black parents took their children swimming in local lakes, rivers or oceans. The negative side to this is the danger that these bodies of water can present.
Take the six African-American teenagers from two families who drowned in a single incident in Louisiana in 2010, for example. Sadly, the teens’ friends and family, who watched in horror as they drowned, couldn’t save them because they couldn’t swim, either.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. has more than 3,500 accidental drownings every year. That is almost 10 a day. And among these alarming numbers, this: The fatal-drowning rate of African-American children ages 5 to 14 is three times that of white children.
So while discrimination may have played a significant role in our lack of water skills in the past, and fear is an undeniable factor, we will need a change in our mindsets toward swimming in order to tackle this disparity in our culture today.
Unlike in the United Kingdom, where learning to swim is embraced within the national curriculum, the ultimate responsibility for this mental shift in the U.S. often lies with parents.
“I would love to make it a rule like they have in the U.K.,” says Cullen Jones, a gold medalist in the freestyle 100-meter relay in Beijing, and a spokesman for USA Swimming’s Make a Splash campaign. After he nearly drowned at a theme park at the age of 5, his mother immediately enrolled him in swimming lessons. By the time he was 8, he was swimming competitively. Today the Make a Splash campaign is geared toward all nonswimmers and their parents, but there is a particular focus on ethnic-minority families.
So if you have children, the key is to start them young. Are you grown and can’t swim? Well, it is never too late to learn. “I’d love to be able to swim about freely with my friends who have learned how to swim. I’d also like to be prepared in the event an accident happens and I need to save my own life,” says Alexander.
Ultimately, there is room for us in the swimming community, both recreationally and competitively. So it is time that we dive in, black people.