Black Swimmers Overcome Racism and Fear, Reclaiming a Tradition

New pool programs are working to overcome an alarming disparity: Black children drown at a rate far higher than that of white children

By Brandon Alexander
An image from RetroReport

In the weeks before the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer, the international body that sets rules for swimming competitions banned the use of Soul Caps, designed to protect natural Black hair. Backlash was swift, and the ban was widely criticized as discriminatory. But the fact that equipment designed for Black swimmers had risen to the level of headline-worthy debate provided a window onto changing tides in water sports. Participation by Black people is on the rise after decades of underrepresentation, and the rule banning Soul Caps is currently under review.

As a toddler, I nearly drowned, mirroring the experience of many other Black children. Drowning rates remain disproportionately high for Black children compared to those of white children, and fear acts as a barrier to experiencing the freedom that being in water can provide. It wasn't until I took a formal swimming class in my early 20s that my relationship with water shifted to positive.

A new movement across the country is reintroducing Black Americans to swimming, following decades of of segregation and discrimination. My video with Retro Report tells a story of liberation and a reconnection to a rich history of swimming, through the voices of people seeking to change the pervasive myth that Black people don’t swim.

While I am still nervous about going into the deep end, I am encouraged by these swimmers, who allowed us to watch them conquer their fears and anxieties and reclaim connection and joy in the water.

BRANDON ALEXANDER, the producer of the video that accompanies this article, is a photo and video journalist and student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s newsletter. Learn something new from history: Subscribe to our newsletter, and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.