Swimming’s Racist Past Makes Simone Manuel’s Win an Even Bigger Deal

Swimming’s Racist Past Makes Simone Manuel’s Win an Even Bigger Deal

[Opinion] Racism and segregation kept many African Americans from learning to swim—a fact we can’t forget while celebrating Simone Manuel’s historic Olympic gold medal

by George Johnson, August 15, 2016

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Swimming’s Racist Past Makes Simone Manuel’s Win an Even Bigger Deal

Simone Manuel cries during the medal ceremony for the women's 100-meter freestyle final. AP/Michael Sohn

On Thursday, the world watched as Simone Manuel became the first African-American to win a gold medal in an individual swim event, and first Black woman to win an Olympic swimming medal period.  As she glided through the water, I yelled, “SWIM, SWIM, SWIM!” as I watched her touch the wall in first place, setting a new Olympic record in the process.  Full of pride, I immediately went to Twitter and Facebook to post my congrats, when I ran across an article about racism in swimming.  My mind quickly shifted, as I knew there were deeper implications of what Manuel had done outside of winning an Olympic medal.

The first thought that crossed my head was the powerful scene in “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” the HBO film about the actress’ life.  In the scene Dandridge (played by Halle Berry), walks past a hotel swimming pool after being told she couldn’t get in. Instead of being defeated, she defiantly dips her toe in the water and kicks it around. In the very next scene, however, the pool is being drained and cleaned by Black workers as Dandridge watches from her hotel room. Apparently, even dipping a toe in the water was too much for the hotel’s White patrons who complained. With the film and Manuel’s historic win still playing in my mind, I took to Twitter.

I woke up this morning to hundreds of notifications as the tweet has since gone viral and the world has been reintroduced to the ugly history we have faced as African-Americans in this country.  According to statistics from the USA Swimming Foundation, nearly 70% of Black children are unable to swim, and many Black adults hold a petrifying fear of even entering the water. The long history of African Americans fear of water does not go unwarranted as the trauma from our ancestors is still deeply rooted in us today.  Enslaved Africans traveling thousands of miles across the ocean, being deprived of food and water, while watching the bodies of their shipmates being cast away is still embedded in our DNA.

When we take a look over the past 100 years, our history with the “fear of water” is even more understandable.  Racist product advertisements for soap—depicting Black babies as “dirty” in the before picture and coming out “clean and white” in the after picture—still circulate on the internet today.  Images of segregated of water fountains based on belief that Black people had diseases that could be contracted if shared are still in our collective memories. Stories about Black celebrities like Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr. swimming in hotel pools (like the New Frontier Hotel & Casino in 1952), only to have them drained after they got out still get told.

Back in the 1960s, Black Americans were systematically denied access to swimming, and many saw it as a privilege for whites that was never meant to be for us.  With desegregation came the hopes that this pathology could change, but the only thing that changed was how much deeper our country would dig its heels into the racism surrounding shared water. Rather than desegregate, many public pools closed or were filled in with cement to prevent anyone from swimming.  Those that remained open were hostile to African Americans. According to the Washington Post, “White people even went as far as pouring acid in the water while Black people were swimming in the pools, and staging protests and walkouts after desegregation”

Later, country clubs became the new way to keep Black Americans out of the water. As private, often expensive spaces, these clubs created a place where white children could swim freely without sharing water with Black kids.  Even when African Americans had access to pools, they were built with shallow waters and weren’t large enough to teach traditional swimming, and by that time, many of us no longer had the desire to break through the fear that overrode our willingness to swim.

Fast forward to today, we continue to see death by drowning at alarming rates for African Americans because many of us cannot swim. The rates at which Black children drown is three times higher than our White counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  When Cullen Jones won the Olympic medal in 2008, he spoke on how swimming needs to become a requirement, especially in Black communities. Jones, who has four Olympic medals, was enrolled in swimming lessons after nearly drowning at five-years-old.  This story of “near drowning” is heard too often in our community, and that is why Simone Manuel’s win is so important.

Manuel’s historic moment is the first step in a revolutionary change needed to fix the narrative about Black folks and swimming. In a country that has so long denied Black people access to water and pools, while helping perpetuate the stigma that Black women “refuse to get their hair wet” and “Black folk can’t swim,” Manuel has now debunked both myths and given us the opportunity to create a new story.  Our history with the racist tactics and denial of our right to be able to swim, and find an appreciation for water is torrid, ugly, deplorable, but fixable.

While we celebrate this moment, let’s a take a moment to thank those for those who paved the way for Black people to claim their rightful place in the pool.

Thank you Simone Manuel for knowing that what you did was much more than just winning a gold medal.  Thank you Cullen Jones for knowing that what you have done was much more than just show out on the Olympic stage.  And thank you Dorothy and Sammy, for taking ownership of the privilege that your ancestors should have always had.

 
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