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


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