Simone Manuel, The Joy of Swimming, and My Mom

“If I were an athlete, and I could choose any Olympic sport, what sport do you think I might be good at?” My husband said, “Swimming.”

I’m not athletic at all, but I do love to swim. In fact, “love” is an understatement. When the summer comes around, I start referring to myself as a fish. I can be in the water for hours and hours, flipping, turning, swishing, enjoying an advantage in the water that my plus-size body isn’t afforded on land.

We watched the Olympic “prime time” coverage, and while Michael Phelps is certainly deserving of the attention, he’s all anyone talked about for days. My husband and I tried to think of other jobs Mr. Phelps would be especially good at, with his long arms.  We came up with “librarian.”

So I was tired of the breathless coverage of Michael Phelps. Aren’t there other things you can do in a pool besides swim in a straight line? Why don’t they show any water polo in primetime? When does synchronized swimming come on? And isn’t there a black swimmer in there this year?

And then there she was, as soon as I asked the question: Simone Manuel, onscreen, winning an Olympic gold medal. Unsure at first whether she was even a winner, her joyful surprise endeared her to everyone and the post-race interviewer wasted no time in reminding her of her accomplishment as the first African American woman to win a gold medal (or any medal) in swimming.

Black people have a long and uncomfortable history with water. From a great article by Joe Passan:

The history of black Americans and swimming is a microcosm of the institutional racism that held back the United States for so long and still percolates in society today. The perception that black people can’t swim is ignorant; the reality that black people don’t swim is closer to the truth – USA Swimming estimates 70 percent of black children don’t know how to swim and the CDC says they’re 5½ times likelier to drown than white kids – and it’s a symptom of the errors of our forebears. Errors that someone like Simone Manuel is going a long way to erase.

The city I live in has its own swimming pool history to atone for. The swim club at the end of my block was built in response to the public desegregation of the pools. I live in a subdivision that was built in the 60s, and it has a “neighborhood pool.” It was intended to be one of several unofficial “white” pools throughout the city. These pools escaped desegregation laws because they were private clubs, intended only for residents (all of whom “happened” to be white). While whites enjoyed their escape, blacks swam in pools that were underfunded, too small, poorly maintained, or not there at all.

Children swim at the Hampton Road Negro children’s swimming pool in August 1955. (From the collections of the Dallas History & Archives Division, Dallas Public Library)
Children swim at the Hampton Road Negro children’s swimming pool in August 1955. (From the collections of the Dallas History & Archives Division, Dallas Public Library)

We all know segregation laws were generally intended to oppress and devalue. But there was something more at work when it came to pool segregation.

When I was a in the first grade, I had some classmates who refused to touch me or anything I’d handled. They said they would “turn brown,” and barring that, they thought there was something awful about my blackness that would transfer to them.

This proximal sense of disgust is a large component of American discrimination. Today, we see this disgust most clearly when we look at discrimination against the LGBT community. In fact people who are more easily disgusted are thought to make up a significant portion of modern conservatives.

But the other reason whites felt so protective of their swimming space is America’s long and fraught relationship with the Black body. Perceived to be threatening, hyper sexualized, “super human,” and foreign, the bodies which built this country make people very uncomfortable in their natural state. America has long used a system of brutality, from slavery to redlining to the police, to keep our bodies away, to make them docile, to break and plunder them.

The idea of being contaminated by the mere presence of someone who alternately frightens, titillates, and disgusts you is magnified when you consider the water, how it flows uncontrolled from one person to another, and the forced intimacy of public swimsuit-wearing. It magnifies whatever scary thing you think “those people” might do.

Just like so many things, casual swimming was one more thing black people didn’t have a chance to learn to know and love. What this created in my family, and in too many other Black families, was a legacy of avoidance and fear.

When I was 2, my mom decided to take me to swim class. My mother says that she was motivated by this history of fear in our family — my grandmother is terrified of water, for instance — and by the stereotype that “black people can’t swim” (there is an unfortunate factual basis for this). Most importantly, she viewed it as a safety issue — she wanted me to know enough to be able to keep myself from drowning, particularly since a few of our friends, also black and middle class, bought homes with beautiful manicured lawns and installed sparkling pools of their own, a deliberate confrontation of this same history.

It took three tries, because at age two, I already had my own fear of water and screamed my head off for the entire class. We were kicked out of the first two classes, and finally my mom found a no-nonsense teacher who was strong enough not to put up with my screaming, and patient enough to repeatedly reassure me that I had nothing to scream about. It was a mommy-and-me class, and I still remember my mom’s lavender suit and the purple one she sewed for me.

Once, when Grandmother came to visit, I said to her, “You don’t know how to swim?! I know how to swim, Grandmother. And I can dive.” After five years, the swim lessons I once protested just seemed like a natural part of summer. At the end of my last class, it was time for the children to have a little diving competition with their families as an audience. In the teacher’s backyard, we lined up to show off our skills. My father, whose initial reaction was less than positive (“Maybe you shouldn’t be taking her to swim lessons?! She hates it!”), brought his big camera. In the photos, you can see in my 7 year old arms the muscles I’d developed from all that swimming. My mother beamed.

I didn’t keep up with lessons, but I do love water and swim every chance I get. But Mom doesn’t swim anymore. When asked why, she said she was too self conscious to wear a swimsuit. Finally, in my 20s, I got her to go into the water, and a friend and I watched in horror as she had something like a panic attack. I didn’t know what was the matter with Mom, until she told me her secret.

My mom is afraid of water, too. It didn’t make sense — the stories of high school swim lessons, the mommy-and-me classes? Turns out, she was terrified the entire time. “But I had no fear in the water with you, because I didn’t want you to be afraid. I wasn’t scared then, because I had to be there for you.” I cannot write that sentence without tears. For 24 years, I had no idea the depth of her fear, and I’d had no idea of her extraordinary courage.

One incredible woman, swiping away 300 years of a racist legacy in her family in one fell swoop. By definition, this is the exceptionalism that makes racism so unfair — but it’s also what we mean when we say we are proud to be black. Because when you are black, you know that every single success we have, from reading a book to becoming the President, is a defiance of gravity; it’s the result of someone’s fight, someone’s venture into the unknown, someone who was willing to drive across town or risk their lives or do some small thing that ended up being extraordinary. One person looked down from the slave ship at that water, and as terrifying as it was, she reached in because to her it meant saving her daughter — me.

Whether Simone Manuel comes from a family that has always loved swimming, or whether she had someone in her family who, like my mom, made a conscious choice to approach the pool, she represents this exceptionalism too, and her victory and international visibility mean that many young girls will get from her what I got from my mother. Via Twitter:

My mom gave me something beyond the joy of swimming: she gave me the confidence to face my fears, to know that I could learn to love something even if no one else that I know has done it before. She taught me what it means to step outside the bounds of past experience, and find something new.

Additional Reading:

Hoping Olympic Gold Might End a Racial Divide

Why Most African-Americans Can’t Swim (Dallas Morning News)

Gone Swimmin’: From Oak Cliff creeks to aquatic centers of the future

McKinney, Texas, and the Racial History of American Swimming Pools

Serena Williams is Constantly the Target of Disgusting Racist and Sexist Attacks

Living with Racial Battle Fatigue: Why Fighting Microagressions Can Feel Like Treading Water

The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates


I met a good cop once

I worked in a building that had one local police officer assigned to it. When I came to work there, he seemed nice enough but I wasn’t going to go out of my way to say hello. I was one of a handful of black people in the entire building and I just came to do my job the best I could, work late when necessary, and go home.

Over time I noticed something interesting about this particular cop: he was an introvert. I’m a proud INTJ myself, so I could see that he was incredibly observant, not raising his voice unless he had to, and that his strength was in knowing what everyone’s usual patterns were. Anytime I saw him, he was watching us.

goodcoponceOne night I was working late after an event with the students, waiting out front for some late parents to pick up their kids. It was dark out and my husband was with me. He was also a teacher, but in a different school, and he came to help volunteer at the event. We were chatting with the kids and my husband turned to one student and complimented her on her performance. As he turned & walked towards her, I noticed that the officer was standing in the background, eyes trained on my husband, hand within reach of his weapon, looking very tense.

I rushed over and introduced my husband to the officer and explained that he was also a credentialed teacher, and that the kids were safe. In fact, whenever my husband came to help at my school I encouraged him to wear his teacher identification just for situations like this.

What made this interaction remarkable was that I am black and my husband is white. Between the two of us, I would normally be perceived as the threat or even asked again whether I work at the school.

You would think that recognizing one’s own coworker wouldn’t be such a big deal, even more so a police officer who should know everyone in the building. But in my career to that point I’d occasionally been asked, by teachers I worked with, if I was someone’s mother or a substitute. Sometimes I was just flat out not recognized by peers. Once I had been given a faulty key, and I stood outside the doors of the school while person after person looked at the window and kept walking. “Oh, was that you?” If that was how teachers reacted to me, I couldn’t imagine what a police officer might have done.

But this unusually thoughtful officer accurately recognized me as a legitimate presence, and my unknown (to him) husband as a potential threat. The significance of that cannot be overstated.

In the current political climate, the Black Lives Matter movement has been treated by many, including politicians, as something to be erased. At the Republican convention, the various speakers wasted no time in letting the audience know that black people are to be feared, that we are dangerous, that we are “roaming the streets.” (And if you aren’t well versed in code words, you won’t realize that Trump has been denouncing black people just as loudly as he has Muslims, Mexicans, and women.) At the Democratic convention, great care was taken to acknowledge black lives and the damage of racism, but it couldn’t have been coincidental that even one of the Mothers of the Movement made sure to mention that “the majority of police officers are good people.”

The Mothers of the Movement speak out against police violence at the Democratic National Convention, 2016. Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage
The Mothers of the Movement speak out against police violence at the Democratic National Convention, 2016. Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage

Thanks to Micah Xavier Johnson and his deadly admirer in Baton Rouge, the Black Lives Matter movement is inextricably linked with the deaths of police officers. No matter that neither of these crazy brothers were meaningfully associated with the movement. In fact, the only thing they really seemed to belong to was the unfortunate “Assassin personality profile” club, of which race is a very small part. Now until the end of time, whenever we honor black lives, we must revere the police. We cannot say that we are proud to be black without reassuring everyone that we do not want to kill them. “I’m black and I’m proud! (But not a murderer, I promise!)”

The problem here is not only the immediate conflating of blackness with violence, but also that the onus of nuance is, once again, on black people, and we are the ones who must prove to everyone else that we understand the difference between good and bad. To be taken seriously, we must repeat it often, like a mantra.

This upsets me. I would argue that no one understands nuance better than black people, the people who’ve had to grow up seeing themselves through the eyes of others. Who better than a black person understands the difference between Micah Johnson and Martin Luther King? No one understands the difference between “good” and “bad” cops better than someone who lives in a community where the police are both the problem and the answer. No one understands nuance better than someone who must repeatedly conflate the life experiences of others with her own, in books, film, television. No one understands nuance better than someone who sees her own people constantly depicted as sassy best friends and Magical Negroes, only to look around her living room and see a “normal” family.

We are the ones who go to work and school daily, have good friends and good teachers who are white, and even when some of them are racist we let them into our hearts anyway. We understand the continuum of people, from “bad” to “good” and everything in between. We have to sort it out every day.

We aren’t the ones painting everyone else with a broad brush — both because we don’t own the brush, and because life as a black American requires nuanced thought. We learn it earlier, and better, than anyone else.

Officer Tommy Norman, whose undeniable sincerity breaks through my cynicism
Police officer and Instagram star Tommy Norman, whose undeniable sincerity breaks through my cynicism.

There is a dismissive element to the current craze of “good cop” videos and photos going around the Internet. On an individual level, I believe these officers are sincere. But there is something that makes me uneasy about the videos of smiling white cops surrounded by happy black kids. I’m torn; as a black woman, it is unsettling to watch men with guns ply our children with toys and candy. At the same time, I see the sincerity in many of these videos (and no matter how cynical I become, seeing happy kids always makes me smile).

But I wonder what these videos say to the public at large? How do they reinforce stereotypes about docile black children (some of these images remind me of pictures of white missionaries in Africa)?

Not only that, but these videos don’t begin to address the problem. We know not to be scared of “good” cops. Do they know not to be scared of us? The “good cop” in my example above was good because he understood how to properly assess a threat. In doing so, he unknowingly overturned what, for most Blacks, is the natural order of things. The very idea of what constitutes a “threat” and what the average police officer thinks a “threat” looks like is the heart of what Black Lives Matter is all about.

I remember one of our briefings on school violence (lockdown drills are as familiar to students and teachers as high stakes testing), and our police officer was describing what would happen in an “active shooter” scenario. At one point, he said, “Our first priority is not to help you or call an ambulance. We are trained to eliminate threats. If you are on the floor bleeding, and there is still a threat, we will go after the threat and eliminate it. If someone has a gun and they’re a threat, even if it’s a student, we won’t wait and ask questions. We are trained to shoot and we will shoot to kill.” The bluntness of his answer shocked many of the teachers, and the silence was palpable and tense. Some gasped. But I looked around, trying to find another black teacher for some solidarity. I just wanted to see someone else who understood the absurdity of the white shock in the room. Because this is not new to us. We know this. We know it every day. I almost liked the officer more, just for putting it out there, saying it out loud. The police are not your friends.

We cannot change relationships between police and citizenry with staged dances (okay, some of those are cute), cookouts, or anything remotely resembling the unbelievable abusiveness of the staged ice cream stunt (you can familiarize yourself with that mess here). The inherent imbalance of power means that these feel-good photo ops force black people to set aside their legitimate grievances so that cops can control the narrative and feel better about themselves. We need real conversations and we need to be listened to. We need to find those “good cops” and get them to hear us and from there somehow change (or dismantle) the policing institution itself. But that will take years, and I don’t have an answer for what to do in the meantime.

As for the officer in my building, I never got a chance to tell him what his thoughtfulness meant to me. One of the last times I saw him, I’d just come back to work after a painful injury, and I was trying to make my way through a crowded hallway of kids. In the corner, eyes trained on my labored walk, was the officer, watching me with a quiet concern. I was reassured by that. In those moments I finally got what most others in the building took for granted: I felt like we had an officer that valued my life as much as everyone else’s.