The distant relationship between Black Americans and water is still as prevalent today as it was in the early 20th century.
Swimming pools grew popular and began to expand across the United States in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s as Americans were looking for more ways to socialize according to National Geographic. However, when one thinks about the history of swimming, Black people typically don’t come to mind.
One of the longest-running stereotypes about people of color is they “don’t like to swim,” which isn’t true. The root of this commonality stems from slavery and racism, and as Blacks gained more freedom, other roadblocks were put in place that contributed to them not being quick to partake in water activities.
Unfortunately, a prominent time some were the most fearless to plunge into a body of water was when they were being transported across the ocean to America from their homeland in slave ships. They believed jumping overboard and dying on their own terms was better than becoming someone’s property.
Despite the progression of the Black community’s civil rights, beaches, and public swimming pools were harder to access, which caused a generational domino effect within the collective. White Americans, determined to prevent their slaves from having multiple methods to escape and remain superior, did not teach enslaved people how to swim and kept them away from water, which was one of the core reasons Blacks are unable to swim.
A couple of centuries later on January 1, 1863, African Americans were elated when news that the Emancipation Proclamation finally passed, freeing all slaves living in Confederate states. Despite this ruling, it wasn’t until June 19, 1965, that an estimated 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were declared free when Union soldiers arrived to share the executive decree, which was the origin of Juneteenth. Emancipation was only implemented when the 13th Amendment passed to end slavery nationwide, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
These decisions were met with resistance from many White Americans, especially in the South as this took place during the Civil War, which essentially was a fight about the “moral issue of slavery.” Determined to keep their leverage and continue suppressing Blacks, they used systematic and structural racism to keep things in their favor. It wasn’t until nearly 100 years later that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin according to the U.S. Department of Labor, but racism is still the stain America can’t seem to wash away.
Below are several common reasons why Black people don’t swim in pools and the ocean. While some pertain to the history of North America, others are light-hearted personal decisions.
Effects of Racism
Jim Crow Laws & Discriminatory Acts
Although Blacks were legally free, White Americans, especially White elites, used segregation and discrimination tactics to hinder Blacks from using community swimming pools among many other things like water fountains, restrooms, and restaurants to name a few. This was due to the false beliefs that minorities were dirty and carried infectious diseases so they would taint the water. According to the Black Information Network, they would even go as far as assaulting, putting bleach, acid and nails in an effort to keep Black people from feeling welcomed and swimming at local pools. Since going swimming usually resulted in chaos, this deterred Blacks from wanting to go to public swimming pools unless it was a pool where people of color congregated.
“In the Marines, we do swim qualification at basic training and biennially throughout our career. It is very common that Black Marines struggle,” said Steven Gonzales, Staff Sergeant of the United States Marine Corps. “From my observation, it’s either because they have never been in a deep, large body of water or fear.”
Lack of Access to Community Pools or Unable to Afford
The majority of the marginalized group did not have recreational access to swimming pools. Most lower-class and middle-class neighborhoods in urban areas don’t have neighborhood pools or community centers with one for the residents living in the area. If there was a pool nearby, it may have been overcrowded, underfunded and had a membership fee. And if lessons were being offered at a community center, affordability was an issue due to low income or the number of children in the household. Due to water activities being out of reach or prices being costly, swimming lessons were not often an option.
“We didn’t have a community pool growing up, or a public pool that was free. Also, swimming lessons were too expensive for our family back then. My parents had four kids and no government support,” Kiara Bowers, an operations manager and interior designer, told Blavity. “My parents were concerned about school clothes, shoes and stuff like that. Now that I have a child, he’s at his grandparent’s house every other weekend flapping around in their pool learning how to swim. The level of access is just different.”
Parents Don’t Know How to Swim
It’s been reported that if a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 19% chance that a child in their household will learn to swim. Since many of today’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents never learned how to swim, it isn’t important in Black families, especially if they aren’t going on summer vacations. And if they do travel, it may have only been a couple of times a year.
“Generational trauma/ignorance made it difficult or impossible for our great-grandparents to teach their children how to swim. It was then passed down from generation to generation. Some of us had people in our lineage to break the cycle, others did not,” Lauren Hoskins, a news producer at Memphis’ WMC Action News 5, disclosed.
Experienced or Witnessed Traumatizing Water Incident
There have people who have or know someone that’s been involved in a scary encounter while swimming. If they didn’t have a near-death experience, they witnessed or lost a friend, relative or stranger have one or lose their life because of it. According to USA Swimming, drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death in the United States for children ages 1-4 and the second leading cause for children under the age of 14. Of that, African American children ages 5-19 are nearly six times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than their Caucasian peers.
In addition, sometimes playful games or jokes like picking someone up and throwing them in the pool unexpectedly unintentionally produced a fear of water. And since the day that happened, it’s lived in the back of their mind when the topic of swimming comes again. In turn, these people just go to pool parties and festivities for the good vibes.
“I don’t [swim] because a white boy tried to drown me in preschool,” graphic designer Desiree Thompkins explained. “Water ain’t no b**ch!”
Post-Swimming Hair Care
Hair maintenance for women of color isn’t the easiest task and can be time-consuming, especially if you’re natural since the process can take a tad bit longer than for someone whose hair is relaxed. For most Black women attending a function, getting in the pool typically depends on what stage their hair is in. If it’s freshly done, she’ll just be eye candy and engage with other guests compared to someone whose hairstyle is at the end of its ropes. The latter woman has nothing to lose, so getting it wet doesn’t matter since they likely have plans to do it or a hair appointment within the next couple of days. But at a minimum, Black women will put their feet in the pool.
“Who wants to go through the process of handling hair after being in the water/pool. It’s not a functional activity unless we plan for it. Hence us having protective styles when we go to beach vacations,” said Chelsea Hill, a Project manager from Houston, Texas.
“Black women for sure, we don’t swim at functions, because of our hair. Getting [hair] messed up means there’s an entire process that follows, often a costly and time possessing one,” Kendrea Rubin, a talent & leadership development specialist, agreed.
There isn’t always a deep-rooted reason behind not getting in the water. For some people, it’s pretty simple, they came for a good, not long time, with intentions to look good, eat good, fellowship with friends and/or family, network and enjoy themselves, which aligns with the reason swimming pools initially gained notoriety, to socialize.
As the relationship with swimming continues to be a slow burn, many are breaking the cycle by helping others swim. Check out some organizations below that are assisting in changing the narrative through cost-effective and free swimming lessons.