My son Nasir and I took our first Mommy and Me swim class shortly after he turned 1. He had always loved sticking his feet in the water on the beach or swimming on my husband’s back, but this was his first experience of learning to immerse himself in a body of water. And although he was a little distracted by the swimmers, squeaky toys, and trying to drink the water, he had a natural tendency to swim.
As the instructor gently focused on the mechanics of my son, who was kicking and navigating the water on his stomach, I thought of my first “learning to swim” experience in a pool. I was taught to swim when, during a family gathering, my father dropped me into the deep end of a hotel pool and told me to meet him on the other side. I was about 4 years old at the time.
I wasn’t afraid of my father’s unorthodox technique, but it wasn’t a substitute for formal instruction. Although I felt comfortable crossing a pool after this ordeal, I never felt I knew enough to save my own life or that of someone else in an emergency. When I was 28 years old, I set out to challenge myself by getting a scuba diving license. As a black woman in America and the only one in class who looked like me, it was a challenge.
The lightness of my son, who is now 4 years old, and which I feel in the water, was no accident. When I was pregnant with him, I told my husband that I wanted our child not only to learn to swim, but also not to be afraid of the water. The countless stories I’d heard about black American children drowning, including in the bathtub, focused my energy on making sure he understood the mechanics of swimming, and that water, while fun, can also be deadly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children ages 5 to 19 are 5.5 times more likely to die from drowning in swimming pools than white children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, drowning is a leading cause of injury-related death for all children and young children. But these dismal stats among black children could be the result of intergenerational trauma that surrounds blacks and swimming.
Throughout American history, blacks were not allowed to use public or private swimming pools alongside whites, which meant that many never learned to swim. Victoria W. Wolcott, a history professor at the University of Buffalo, found in her research on the subject that the popularity of communal swimming pools in the 20th century was heavily dependent on the marginalization of blacks.
“Swimming pools and beaches were among the most secluded and competitive public spaces in the north and south,” wrote Dr. Wolcott in an article for The Conversation. “White stereotypes of blacks as sick and sexually threatening served as the basis for this segregation. City guides who justified segregation also pointed to fears that if whites and blacks mix, fighting could ensue. For them, racial segregation was equal to racial peace. “
Some of the more egregious cases of whites using violence against blacks who want to swim have been pouring bleach and acid into the water and throwing nails at the bottom of pools to force blacks to get out of the water. Generations of Americans have been deprived of the ability to learn this life-saving skill.
For black Americans, water has already meant life or death in the transatlantic slave trade. According to the Slave Voyages Database, which documents voyages from 1514 to 1866, of the more than 12 million Africans who were put on slave ships, nearly two million people did not survive the voyage. Some chose to die by drowning for enslavement, while others succumbed to conditions on board and were thrown overboard. Water became synonymous with survival or extinction; in places like Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina, it was also a means for many enslaved people to find their way to freedom after escaping.
According to Mark Wolynn, author of “It Didn’t Start With You: How An Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle,” the complicated relationship between blacks and swimming could be a response to intergenerational trauma. “Recent developments in cell biology, neuroscience, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of studying at least three generations of family history to understand the mechanisms behind repetitive patterns of trauma and suffering,” he writes. “This may explain the ‘fear’ of swimming some African American children and adults alike.”
Mariel Buqué, a psychologist who focuses on intergenerational trauma, said that for black people, water represents “one of the greatest collective trauma we have experienced in the western hemisphere”.
Fortunately for me, both my mother and father learned to swim so they worked to dismantle this dangerous legacy; As a mother, I understood that it was my duty to do the same for my son.
Rapper and business mogul Jay-Z recently said on an episode of LeBron James’ HBO show “The Shop” that he only learned to swim after the birth of his eldest daughter, Blue. “If she ever fell in the water and I couldn’t get her, I couldn’t even understand the thought,” he said. Jay-Z would have been in his 40s when he learned to swim.
Paulana Lamonier designed Black People Will Swim to ensure that both children and adults are safe in the water. The group offers affordable swimming lessons and private lessons in New York and is based on an acronym: FACE or Fun, Awareness, Community and Education. “BPWS aims to bring the number of black children drowning to zero,” said Ms. Lamonier.
When a fearful person is ready to learn, he recommends seeing a private tutor if possible to help them go “from fearful to fearless” in the water. “In addition to private lessons, I encourage people to take group classes and ask a friend or family member to join them and start with your local community centers, YMCA, or something similar,” she said.
I am happy that my family is breaking the stereotypes that are put about black people and swimming. I don’t just think of my son when he’s in the water; I think of other black children and their parents, and how learning to brave the water is part of the struggle to save our own lives.