Our connection to the water as Black people is complex to say the least. For decades, oceans and rivers were used as dumping grounds for Black bodies, not only during the slave trade but also during the Jim Crow South. Now, add in the alarming statistics on the percentage of Black children likely to drown due to a lack of swimming lessons and water safety offered in primarily Black communities— Black children are 5.5 times more likely to drown compared to other children and more than 70% of Black Americans lack basic swimming skills— and one would assume that we would look to stay as far away from water as possible.
But, that’s certainly not the case.
In 2016, we saw Olympic swimming great Simone Manuel win gold in the 100-meter freestyle, making her the first Black American woman in history to do so in an Olympic individual swimming event. And the waves we’re making in water sports and water-based activities are only growing.
Today, more Black men and women are making strides to not only reclaim the water as a cultural space, but they are also working to dispel the myth that we as a culture, ‘don’t do water.’ As we continue to progress in these spaces, we wanted to highlight a few people doing the work, whether through the creation of organizations that provide a safe space for Black people in the water, or those learning skills and acquiring certifications on their own to teach and inspire future generations.
Black scuba divers going beyond the surface
According to a study released by career research platform Zippia, as of 2019 only 8.8% of professional scuba divers in the United States are Black or African American. Scuba diving isn’t just a hobby for most Black divers, it actually opens the door to careers in marine biology, commercial underwater welding, photography, archaeology, conservationism, and of course scuba instruction— all of which could use more representation.
One of the leading organizations working to increase this number is the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. Founded in 1991 by Dr. A. Jose Jones and Ric Powell— two of the first-known certified Black scuba divers— NABS seeks to provide educational and training opportunities to underserved communities, while also building camaraderie among Black divers around the world. Today, the organization has more than 2,000 members worldwide.
Additionally, Black scuba diving influencers and instructors like B.J. Scott, Ed Olu Yusuf, Zandi Ndhlovu and more are showing us that Black divers are definitely out here, and they’re opening doors for future generations, all while adding their own style and flare in the process.
“What started as a check-in-the-box bucket list item progressed into a personal journey that has led me to some of the world’s most imaginative places,” Scott told Ebony. “After finishing my open water certification back in 2015, I went on to completing my master scuba diving trainer instructor certification, making me the youngest if not one of the youngest Black Americans to do so. My mission has not wavered in my purpose to help scuba certify as many of us as possible.”
Black paddle and kayaking organizations pushing through
One of the most tenacious Black boaters in history was an enslaved man, only known by the name York, who was instrumental in the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition back in the early 1800s. Fast-forward to present day, and there are now several organizations around the country not only championing the spirit of York, but proving with each paddle stroke that we, too, can command the water.
Notable organizations include: Outdoor Afro, founded by Oakland resident Rue Mapp whose aim is to reconnect Black people with nature and the great outdoors. Each year, the organization hosts a paddle camp in collaboration with Northwest River Supplies (NRS) to provide necessary paddle skills to its volunteer leaders— in hopes that they will then share those skills with their local networks and communities.
Black Women Who Kayak+ was launched in 2018 by Tanya Walker in Austin, Texas. The group inspires and empowers women of color to break barriers and hold space in places they don’t usually see women of color, and to-date, there are 11 chapters and over 1000 members across the United States. Additionally, BWWK+ provides a fun and safe environment for the BIPOC community to enjoy and experience the water, through swim lessons provided by a partnership with the British Swim School.
Recently, BWWK+ Houston chapter administrator, Missy Wilson, set out on the adventure of a lifetime through Alaska after being named one of nine recipients of a $12,500 grant from Post Grape Nuts.
“I experienced so many emotions on this trip,” Wilson told Ebony. “I pushed my body and mind to the max and made it through. This was my first time backpacking and I will definitely do it again. I have a sense of accomplishment after backpacking through Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains, and I feel like I can do anything I truly put my mind to.”
Black surfers catching more than waves
Over the last few years, we’ve seen the popularity of global Black surf culture explode across social media. Folks like adventure travel influencer and TV host Nathan Fluellen, competitive surfer Dominique Miller, and groups like South Africa’s Mami Wata, Black Girls Surf, and Senegal’s Copa Cabana Surf Village— are proving that we excel in any space, even those once intended to exclude us.
Surf collective, Textured Waves believes that to get more Black women in the water they need to see others like them and feel comfortable in forming their ‘surf sisterhood’. The organization is hosting their 2nd annual retreat this September to provide community, surf lessons, and scholarships from brands like Vans and RedBull, SunBum and training from Ohana Surf Project.
Earlier this year, Santa Monica, California’s historic Black Sand Surf reopened under its new name, Ebony Beach Club. The rebranded club aims to shine light onto the commonly forgotten struggles that black Americans experienced in accessing beaches for centuries, and up until the civil rights movement. Community leader and surf trainer, Natasha Smith, was instrumental in helping the club’s founder learn to surf. It has always been Smith’s goal to catch as many waves as possible while introducing more Black people to the water— making life in, on and around the water attainable for everyone.
The surf enthusiast was recently a part of a three-part docuseries titled “Reclaim Your Water” created by Sperry in partnership with Claima, and shot by filmaker Faith E. Briggs, which highlighted three Black and Brown entrepreneurs connected to and inspired by water and how they each reclaim what was once weaponized to build community and create change.
You can watch Natasha’s powerful episode here.
In addition to the multidimensional “Reclaim Your Water” docuseries, Sperry has offered three $15,000 grants to initiatives that provide a more equitable environment in the water space, including Tank Proof, a non-profit organization that gives youth in under-served communities education and essentials to navigate life’s currents, alongside donations to both Slim Pickins and Ebony Beach Club to fund events that teach people of color how to surf and fish.