Trauma and the American Swimming Pool
This week protestors in McKinney, Texas have marched to the Craig Ranch North Community swimming pool because of what transpired at an end-of-the-school-year pool party. The celebration, which took place on Friday, was initially disrupted by a White woman who saw the Black children in attendance and told them to go back to ‘Section 8 [public] housing’ and to ‘get used to the bars outside the pool because that’s all they were going to see [in jail].’ A Black woman approached the White woman about these comments, an altercation ensued, and someone called the police. The police arrived and forced the Black children to the ground in handcuffs. A widely circulated video from the night shows officer Eric Casebolt (who resigned on Tuesday) sitting on top of a fifteen-year-old Dajerria Becton, handcuffed and sobbing with her face pressed into the dirt. On Monday, protestors carried signs that read ‘Black lives matter’, ‘White silence = White consent’, and ‘don’t tread on our kids.’
In 1961, the president of the local NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina had grown tired of Black children being denied entrance to a local swimming pool. Robert Williams had been petitioning the right to use the federally-funded and taxpayer-maintained facility for five years. It remained exclusive to the White community, even after separate-but-equal policies were overturned. After several Black children died swimming in local creeks, Williams offered a compromise out of desperation: let black people swim in the pool one or two days a week. Let my children know the joys of summer without the possibility of death. The city replied that this compromise would be too expensive because “each time the colored people used the pool they would have to drain the water and refill it.” After being told that a pool would eventually be constructed, but that it might not be for another 15 years, Robert Williams and other community members changed tactics. Williams grabbed two pistols and a rifle and went to the swimming pool to protect his community’s right to swim. Bearing arms, Black adults faced down the barrel of the responding guns and said to the local White community — let our kids be kids.
I read about Williams in Oxford, England while completing a master’s degree in history. While this story fits into the broader racial history of swimming pools, it also sheds light on what Black people have needed to do to protect their children from harm. Separated from McKinney and Monroe by an ocean, I sometimes feel distanced from the realities of Black American life. But Williams’ story struck me. Williams and fellow civil rights organizers made gains during this time, a time when my parents were Black children, but the logic that Williams fought has remained ingrained, pervasive and largely the same: Black lives matter less. When I saw the video of Black children tackled by Texas law enforcement — scolded, shamed and traumatized — I felt this way again. History embeds and repeats itself.
I grew up in suburban Iowa. My family hosted an end-of-school-year party at our house. We were one of the few families of color in our upper-class neighborhood, and I was rarely allowed to have friends over. But once a year my mother meticulously reviewed the guest list and my Dad would fire up the grill and we’d have hamburgers, hot dogs, popsicles and capture the flag games. I never understood the concerns about the guest list or my parents’ general strictness. Now my childhood memories make more sense: when my brothers and I would go over to friends’ houses, we were generally treated kindly and with respect. Still, there were odd glances and comments about how “well-behaved” we were. Why would we be otherwise? We were treated differently and nobody explained why. Mom picking apart that guest list was a tactic – my parents were playing damage control before any damage had been done. They wanted to prevent even one second of worry in the minds of other parents. My parents didn’t expect anything to go awry — they never imagined the police being called or slurs being shouted at any of the kids, but they wanted to convey that they cared about the community’s children and that the community should care about theirs.
My parents let my brothers and I have a party, but according to their rules. They protected our right to childhood — to be understood as young, silly and growing young boys. My parents knew that the country in which we lived often ignored that unwritten rule. We might be lucky enough to avoid too many interactions with the police, but other forms of policing would pervade our lives: the store clerks who would follow us, the employers who would meet us and be surprised because we didn’t ‘sound Black on the phone.’ My parents didn’t pick up guns, but they employed strategies to ensure that their black children could be children in a world that wanted to deny them that. White families can generally expect the systems of our country to treat their children with dignity and respect — and like children.
The videos and vines of McKinney have made this incident real to most Americans. Without this documentation, most Americans could envision something like this happening only in the distant past. Yet, for Black people, this is familiar not because it happened long ago, but because this incident is indicative of the everyday. For Black people, the present world is one in which, as historian William Cronon said, “past and future meet and reshape one another.” I constantly worry that this reshaping will mean for me, as a young Black American, that I am denied recognition of my full humanity: my dreams, my aspirations melded with my flaws and anxieties. The message we receive, instead, as we did last Friday, is that we do not belong in public places but that we do belong in public housing and in prison. When law enforcement is allowed to chase us with guns, push our skulls into the ground and call us “motherfuckers” regardless of what we’ve actually done, the message we receive is that our entire existence is subject to brutal force against our bodies and societal disregard for our lives.
We could dismiss the White woman at the pool as racist and backward. We could look at the majority of my childhood in which I was often treated with kindness and respect. But the logic that the woman at this Texas swimming pool articulated — that Black children are not equal to White children — is the logic of mass imprisonment and modern segregation. It is a logic that places racism in the past, acknowledges a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ part of town and doesn’t question how towns became that way. It is a logic that means Black children are never fully seen as children and Black adults as fully human. It is the logic that undergirds America: we know it is wrong to let Black kids drown, but we still think the pool has to be drained if the Black kids swim.
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