Black Swimmers Overcome Racism and Fear, Reclaiming a TraditionWatch the video
PAULANA LAMONIER (FOUNDER, BLACK PEOPLE WILL SWIM): When I’m in the water I feel at ease. I don’t have to worry about anything. I don’t have to worry about how my body feels or things like that because I’m free.
Black People Will Swim, we are a Black woman-owned and operated initiative simply created to smash the stereotype that Black people don’t swim.
PAULANA LAMONIER (TO A STUDENT): And you’re kicking your feet, and stand. Yes!
PAULANA LAMONIER: There is a need for this in the community that a lot of Black people, they don’t know how to swim, but why? It’s important that we are populating and getting more people in the water. And I want people to see and know and understand that you can do anything at any age, no matter what.
ARCHIVAL (SPECTRUM NEWS, NY1, 4-19-19):
NEWS REPORT: If you’re looking for the fountain of youth, just ask these swimmers to direct you.
AARON MITCHELL (MEMBER, HARLEM HONEYS & BEARS): In the water, there is no such thing as arthritis. It’s like heaven. There’s no restriction.
Being a part of the Harlem Honeys & Bears makes me feel proud. Swimming with them has been a new experience for me.
I went to Canarsie High School in Brooklyn. I used to hang out with the guys on the swim team. But I never had the nerve or the idea to go and swim. I didn’t learn that until I was 60. A lot of stuff didn’t get passed on because of the way we were treated.
GERTERLYN DOZIER (MEMBER, HARLEM HONEYS & BEARS): I’ve been swimming a long time. I was born in New York, 88 years ago. Right here, along the waterfront. East Harlem. And I’m still here.
There’s a pool on 112th street called Jefferson. When I was a little girl, I couldn’t go past 106th street. If you attempted to go, you had to run for your life.
JEFF WILTSE (HISTORIAN, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA, AUTHOR, CONTESTED WATERS): Prior to the 1920s swimming pools in the northern United States were gender-segregated. In the 1920s, cities begin allowing males and females to swim together. And it’s at that point that white swimmers impose racial segregation at public pools through violence and the threat of violence.
AARON MITCHELL: A lot of the Black schools in Brooklyn didn’t have it. It’s a shame that we didn’t grow up with these types of activities.
JEFF WILTSE: Swimming became a broadly popular and common recreational activity among whites, precisely because they had access to these thousands of appealing swimming pools, but much less so for African-Americans because they were far more restricted in their access to pools.
In the mid 20th century, the cultural perception develops that swimming is something that white people do. Swimming is not something that Black people do. And so we didn’t know, but during the 19th century, people of African ancestry had vibrant swimming cultures.
KEVIN DAWSON (PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA MERCED, AUTHOR, UNDERCURRENTS OF POWER): Africans believed water was a spiritual place. By immersing one’s body in water, by swimming, you’re actually connecting to deities and to ancestral spirits that are in that water. Prior to the 1880s, most Black people were much stronger swimmers than white people.
And slave owners actually began to target Africans with diving skills, and brought them to the Americas where they served as pearl divers. They dove to salvage shipwrecks. While enslavers were forcing enslaved people to do this, enslaved Africans were still recreating African aquatic traditions.
ARCHIVAL (THE ORIGINAL GOSPEL HARMONETTES):
SINGING: Wade in the water, wade in the water, children.
KEVIN DAWSON: If you look at African-American culture, if you look in African-American literature, all of these references, to water being this kind of sacred, spiritual place. Black Americans kept using waterways as recreational spaces after slavery was abolished.
JEFF WILTSE: What caused the ancestral knowledge of people of African ancestry to largely be broken, was racial discrimination.
GERTERLYN DOZIER: My father, if he ever swam, I don’t know about it. My mother can’t swim. She didn’t want us in that water at all. Black kids die every year from going in the water.
KEVIN DAWSON: These perceptions of Black people not swimming have actually discouraged African Americans from swimming and the result of that then is that you have this disproportionately high drowning death rate.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Black children age 5-14 are six times more likely to drown in swimming pools than white children the same age.
JEFF WILTSE: In many African-American families what has gotten passed down from one generation to the next has been a very, very well-founded fear of water because they had children, or they know of Black children who drown from swimming in natural water.
GERTERLYN DOZIER: We don’t have the facilities in the city like people have out there.
AARON MITCHELL: Not all the schools, especially the schools in the Black neighborhoods have swimming teams. Where there’s no swimming, it’s not taught. Nowadays, these kids, they want to learn. And a lot of people are making sure they learn.
KRISTIN GARY (TO STUDENTS): Swimmers take your marks. Go!
KRISTIN GARY (CO-FOUNDER, TRIDENT SWIM FOUNDATION): We started the Trident Swim Foundation about 15 years ago. We decided to create the foundation to remove those barriers to access. This is a learn-to-swim program for the community. We’re waterproofing the children, teaching them how to swim, teaching them how to be confident in the water.
And I love sharing my joy of the water and my passion for my sport and for aquatics with kids that would not have had access had we not had this program.
KRISTIN GARY (TO STUDENTS): You have all the skills you need. Have a little more eye of the tiger and just do it.
KRISTIN GARY: It’s profoundly rewarding to see the progress the kids make. It’s not just about swimming. It’s about all the things that swimming gave us in life. Like, that’s why I’m pushing these kids to learn how to jump into the deep end. Hopefully, I will impart the passion of the water.
PAULANA LAMONIER: Swimming is an act of resistance because a certain group of people didn’t want us to swim. I feel great teaching the next generation how to swim. Especially when you start them young. We’re helping them form a fresh new relationship.
It’s that type of sport where you’re always learning something new about yourself. Just feel the fear and do it anyway. Life tends to get us down, but you gotta get back up.