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


Chronicles of a Recovering Teacher: Never Enough

I plan to write more about my teaching experience as time goes on and as I continue to recover from it (I voluntarily left the profession last year), but I wanted to react to this new teacher book, recently released.

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin

There are so many teacher books, but this one is in the category of “books I would have loved to write but couldn’t because I was too busy teaching.” This particular paragraph, (not from the book, but from an interview with the author), is prescient and painful:

Part of a system of oppression is allowing the folks who have the power to create change feel as though they’re responsible for keeping the narrative. So a lot of black teachers go into urban schools and within the first 3 months they become the king or queen of discipline. Why? Because the system sees a black face as a person who’s supposed to help them meet their goals. But I don’t want to meet those goals; I want kids to feel free. I want those kids to feel what emancipation is like in those classrooms, to feel like they can be themselves, their culture to be expressed. Just a black face in the classroom helps the kids to connect, but it’s not enough if that black person feels their role is to be the enforcer of a white folk’s pedagogy.

While I worked hard on discipline in my classes, I wasn’t any sort of queen, though in retrospect I can see that I was expected to be. And I did specifically and very deliberately foster a sense of personal and cultural freedom in my classrooms. But one of the things that caused me great pain & cognitive dissonance in my years of teaching was the realization that as a black person, I was an anomaly and too small of a person to fix a system that is broken, and even more broken for children of color.

As one of a few black teachers in a white-majority district (teachers, not students), this meant a lot of day-to-day interactions where I was expected to perform blackness in ways that helped it fit into a particular narrative. Sometimes it was as the “discipline queen.” Sometimes other teachers called me “Girl” or “Diva.” Sometimes I got asked to sing at random (to be fair, I was a music teacher, but me singing while the rest of you eat lunch is a little much). I was constantly hounded for being too quiet. And sometimes the tokenism was more obvious.

One day an administrator came to my room. She said, “John’s* grandmother is in the office. She is accusing us of racism. I know you’ve documented problems with John when he visits your class. Will you come to the office and help us?” She pulled me right out of my classroom and away from my students, and I spent an hour in the office with John’s grandmother and some administrators and another teacher.

John, who was black, did act up in class, like many students did. John’s grandmother was, quite honestly, dirty and disheveled, and she was a spacey and not “all there.” But the first thing I did when I walked into that room was to smile at her, greet her, and shake her hand. The thing I noticed most was that I was the only person there who did that. No one else looked her in the eye and no one would touch her. Most of the others showed a nearly palpable condescension and disgust. Grandmother didn’t understand the school system, with its educational jargon and odd, arbitrary reward systems, and had trouble reading the reports the other teachers had given her. In fact, I don’t think she could read at all.

I wasn’t John’s main teacher, and I wasn’t given much time to speak. I knew why I was there. But I tried not to let my anger at being used as a token keep me from showing compassion to this woman, from trying to help in some small way.

After the meeting, I tried speaking to John’s main teacher, telling her the things his Grandmother didn’t understand, that a kind voice might be preferable to one full of frustration. But the teacher had been so frustrated with John, so tired of having to deal with his outbursts and behavior along with 29 other kids, several of whom had similar trouble (itself another failure of the system), that she didn’t seem to care anymore. When I saw John in my class, I always took the time to talk to him individually, even when it meant 29 other kids were hopping around. Some time later, John moved away, and I never saw him again.

Later in my teaching career I did all sorts of things to try to compensate for the futility I felt as a black teacher. I became a diversity trainer. I wrote sociologically about race and presented my articles to other teachers. I tried to speak up on behalf of my students when they were too quick to be judged by other teachers. And when I got the rare chance, I spoke frankly with my black students, and sometimes their parents, about the unfairness of the school discipline system and how, in its own sick way, it is a preparation for life as a black person in America.

On an implicit level, a subconscious level, the values taught to public school children are those of whiteness (not white supremacy, just whiteness), to the extent that in many cases, literally saying the word “black,” even when describing yourself, can be considered racist. These things shouldn’t be a surprise at all when you consider that the body of education is made up of white, middle class people (women), many of whom subscribe to colorblindness and genuinely don’t believe they are racist.

As I get used to my life as a non-teacher, I am still haunted by a pervasive sense of futility, and by the insidious expectation of “martyrism” that is woven into the profession. Every public school teacher carries these weights, and they are made heavier when you add racism.

Will I read the book? Maybe. Honestly, I’m still so exhausted that thinking about educational theory and reading a whole book detailing the racial failures of education might be too personal right now, because if you haven’t guessed it, I still take these failures personally. I think the biggest legacy of being a black person in a school system where there aren’t many others is that you are never enough to fix a broken system. It’s like I’ve internalized the “Hero Teacher” narrative.

If all that sounds like I need a therapist, well then, consider this my contribution to the personal-essay genre. There are many incidents where this came from, some that involve race and some that don’t, and I think what I most look forward to in writing them down is the idea that maybe I’ll connect with someone else recovering from these same things.

*Names changed, of course.

Movies About Slavery Are No Longer Revolutionary

I watched 12 Years a Slave, I saw the Color Purple, I watched The Butler but I couldn’t bring myself to watch The Help and I didn’t want to read the book, either.

We’ve just had the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and my fear is that the call for “more diversity” will mean more movies like those listed above. These stories absolutely need to be told and many of them, particularly 12 Years, are beautifully done. But if we want to use motion picture as a way to normalize Blackness, the problem needs to go beyond simple “diversity” and into solving the problem of “identity.”

These films haven’t helped race relations much lately, and one reason is because no one is required to identify with us in those films without attaching that identity to our race. (In fact, the only time we win Oscars is when we’re playing somebody’s #sassyblackfriend, criminals, “magical Negroes” or singers & dancers.) While they once represented a major step forward, they are not revolutionary. Mainstream America already knows us as slaves; they already know we can clean floors, they already know the surface notes of our sad and sordid oppressed history. And if I see one more romanticized lynching scene I might just run from the theater screaming.

When I get up in the morning, I don’t wake up, look at myself in the mirror, and break into a chorus of “We Shall Overcome” while speaking softly and sadly of how difficult my life is because I’m black. I get up, I take a shower, and take my dog for a walk. In other words, I’m a person; I’m not permanently downtrodden and I’m not someone’s sassy sidekick, although I have had people treat me that way.

I’m not talking about completely race-blind casting, where the heritage of the lead actor disappears. There are ways to incorporate a nod or two to the person’s culture without it being the subject of the entire movie, especially if the heritage of the person is not the central aspect of the story. Because guess what, I’m proud to be black! but it’s not the only thing I am. I’m a person.

And in case it wasn’t completely clear, I am not talking about abandoning all-Black or mostly-Black films — they are important stories that need to be told (even when they’re not directly about social justice, like The Best Man series or Love Jones). They just can’t be the only story anybody pays attention to, and it’s painful to me when the “best movie in years” is another story about downtrodden, oppressed-yet-heroic Black people. We are more than our suffering.

What would be revolutionary would be major, Blockbuster films where the principal identifying character is black. Where the generic “person” happens to be black. Can you imagine if The Martian had a lead actor who was black? What if films like The Revenant, Room, hell even 50 Shades of Gray had stars — main stars, not sidekick-stars — who were black? And if you can’t imagine re-watching your favorite blockbuster with a black star, well then… that’s exactly why we need them.

*Just as I was finishing this article the trailer for the new Ghostbusters was released, and my immediate reaction was to say, “Well, so much for extinguishing the sassy sidekick!” Because there is a sassy sidekick. And she is *sassy.* Via Twitter I also found this heartbreaking article about original Ghost Buster Ernie Hudson. The only thing keeping me from being even more pessimistic than I was when I began writing this is that I am not the only one upset about this disappointing return to the status quo: