Black History Month: African-American Swimmers- Why the Disparity?

by Dr. Phillip Whitten//Guest Blogger

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 three Stewart kids.

For Maude, it was a lovely, enjoyable summer’s afternoon in the Deep South. It was a time to reconnect with old friends and reinforce neglected friendships, some of which dated all the way back to grade school. 
So engrossed was she in sharing the latest scuttlebutt, that she failed to hear the first scream. But she heard the second one an instant later, and it sent a cold shiver up her spine.

“Help me. I can’t swim!”

The voice was familiar. It belonged to Dekendrix Warner, her 15 year-old nephew. There he was, about 10 or 15 yards from shore, panicked, churning the water with his arms, trying desperately to keep his head above water, but not having much success. 

He couldn’t swim. Not even the short distance between himself and safety. But he was too panic-stricken to think rationally. His head dipped under the water, then bobbed up again. “Help me. I can’t swim,” he beseeched his family and friends

By this time, all the adults at the gathering – about twenty – were at the water’s edge. But none dared brave the now lethal waters to reach the boy, who was weakening fast. Not one of them could swim. Twenty healthy, middle-aged adults and not a swimmer among them.

By now, everyone was screaming but no one was stroking. Finally, DeKendrix’ two male cousins – 17 year-old JaTavious and his 14 year-old brother JaMarcus – plunged in, waded to the end of the slippery rocks, in water that was four feet deep. Then they, too, slipped off, and found themselves in serious trouble, 15 feet above the bottom of the treacherous Red River. Gone was any thought of rescuing their cousin.

Little Takeitha Warner, just 13, tried to help her big brothers, but wound up a victim just like them. So, too, the Stewarts – Litrelle, LaDarius and Latevin. Each made a valiant, but futile, attempt to save their friends.

It was a horrifying scene. When first responders finally arrived, it was too late. All they could do was pull the bodies of the six African American teenagers from the river. Ironically, the only survivor was DeKendrix Warner, who was rescued by a passer-by.

As terrifying and tragic as these multiple drownings were, variations on this theme play out with alarming regularity nearly every day, and African Americans are the victims far out of proportion to their numbers. According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year, drowning is the second-leading cause of death among children from 1 to 4 years of age, and the third leading cause in every other age group through adults 29 and over. 

At every age, African American children are the victims of drowning far more than white children. Among young people age 5 to 19, blacks drown in pools at a rate 5.5 times that of whites. When all age groups and venues are combined, the ratio is 3.2 to one. That means that for every 100 white kids who drown, 320 black kids drown.

(It is very rarely acknowledged, but there is also a humongous gender gap in drownings: four times as many males drown as females.)

You don’t have to look very far to find an explanation. According to studies conducted by researchers at USA Swimming and the University of Memphis, as many as a staggering 70% of black people cannot swim at all, while for Caucasians, the figure is still alarming at 31%.

Another facet of the same phenomenon can be seen by considering the makeup of the US Olympic swim team. The first African American to make the US Olympic team was Anthony Ervin in the year 2000; he took home two gold medals. In 2004, Maritza Correia became the first black woman to make the US squad. 

At the 2012 London Games, just three of the 47 members of the US Olympic swim team were African American. That’s not surprising, considering only three percent of the members of USA Swimming are black. And though there are some phenomenal black kids coming up through the age group ranks, they still are disproportionately under-represented.

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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