Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Everybody Out of the Pool

The dog days of summer are here.

When I was a kid, I always thought the summer was a loss if I didn't get a chance to go swimming at least one time. It could be at a beach, a water park or some friend's house, but if I didn't get a chance to do at least one underwater handstand I was pissed.

I remember I spent one summer at this camp that took us swimming once or twice a week at this big public pool near City Park in New Orleans. I think it was near City Park at least, but I can't be certain because as a child all I cared about was that we were going to a pool. Anyway, a whole gang of little black kids would jump in that pool and swim and piss until their hearts were content.

Yeah, I said piss because you know we did not get out of the pool when it's time to handle our business. In fact, somebody actually left another kind of surprise in the pool one day, and I distinctly remember most of us stayed in the water even as that nasty turd floated by. It was like a nasty game of tag trying to avoid that sucker.

But I digress.

During my summer sojourns to swimming holes, I was often one of the few kids in attendance that could swim pretty well. I wasn't the black Michael Phelps, but I had a passable freestyle stroke, I could tread water and I knew how to float on my back. Most black kids seemed to barely be able to dog paddle, and anytime they ventured into the deep end of the pool they were clinging to the side of the pool like it was their momma.

I thought about all those kids recently when I read an interesting article in the New York Times about black people and swimming. Apparently, black children are far more likely than white children to die while swimming. Of course, this could be due to the fact that there are very few swimming pools or structured swimming programs in the 'hood, but the article also offered another more insidious reason.

Slavery.

I'm serious. The article said that many Africans knew how to swim before they came to America, but once they got here, they were prevented from teaching their children the skill because it was seen as a boon to those slaves seeking to escape. That makes sense because a slave who could swim could more effectively use rivers and creeks to avoid bloodhounds, which wouldn't be good for master's bottom line.

Anyway, after slaves were prevented from learning to swim, white folks then started the myth that black people couldn't swim because their bodies weren't made for the water. Once slavery ended, black children were barred from sharing swimming pools or swimming programs with white children because it was believed that they would contaminate the water. Basically slavery got the ball rolling and then Jim Crow made sure it turned into an avalanche.

Typical.

You know, the longer I live the more I realize how much work it's going to take for black people to overcome our past in this country. The layers of injustice buried beneath America's soil are still contaminating so many aspects of our lives. If hatred and discrimination were pollution, America would be completely uninhabitable. We as a people not only have to overcome the normal foibles of being human, but we have to overcome a massive system designed to deny us opportunity and advancement that the larger society has never truly admitted exists.

It's amazing that any of us can tread water, let alone win races.

7 comments:

WNG said...

Or GOLD MEDALS!
But yeah - I know what you mean, I don't think that people realize just insidious Jim Crow was and what the legacy of oppression really is. They think that because there are no longer separate drinking fountains there is no longer a separate America. But there still is.

Big Man said...

I was trying to find a new way to talk about that very thing WNG. It's one of those conversations that folks don't really like to have.

MCBias said...

I love those crazy genetic rationales used to explain human behavior. By the same token, blacks should be better at, say, mining or seeing in the dark because they spent so much time in dark, crowded areas in ships to come here! Of course, that's ridiculous, but that's the type of reasoning the Times is using.

These evolutionary/genetic fairy tales always seem to be dreadfully insulting to the group being analyzed. Of course, that fits evolution's racist and eugenic roots, ahem.

Anonymous said...

Mr Raving Black Lunatic, I just want to say: I really really enjoy your writing style. Keep it comming.

OG, The Original Glamazon said...

@mcbias- I think the example you used has a hole. You compared learning how to swim a skills humans have to relearn because we loose it as we age even though we can innately swim as infants, water babies.

I'm gonna come back to that point in the end, so watch me.

You compared a learned human behavior to a genetic human evolution turn.

Therefore you are comparing apples to oranges. The evolution of human behavior and interaction has very much to do with the history of the actions taken against the person's behavior that is being studied. Take the Indian cast system that is deeply rooted and sustained bu the history is keeps and the religion and culture that justifies the prorogation of it. Big Man didn't say we couldn't learn to swim, he see our behavior was not to want to learn (relearn).

In many ways blacks can be compared to the lower level Indian cast and how they are treated, the difference being is we have abruptly stopped the propagation, but with out know where we stopped it we can not determine when or if we will ever get rid of it.

I think that all human behavior is affected by history. I mean the mere fact that we as humans now have to learn to swim when it is apparent that at birth we are more Michael Phelps and less Big Man's scared friend.

However that comment could have been directed at the whites who spread the false rumors of blacks being genetically able to swim. If so my bad.

Great post Big Man, I really enjoy your slant on giving ups to Cullen.

-OG

Gye Greene said...

Swimming stuff (coming from various sources in different eras): high plausibility. Interesting; never thought of that.

How much of it is a "culture" thing -- e.g. AfrAm kids (and adults) are "channeled" into (and, out of) certain activities because it's a "black thing" or a "white thing"?

(Ex: Getting teased for wanting to take classical-style guitar, because that's "white" -- whereas "jazz" or "blues" are "black" [and thus, o.k.]?)


For sports: was golf [pre-Tiger] or tennis [pre-Williams] seen as a ''white thing''? And, swimming...?


--GG

Big Man said...

Culture plays a big role, I think that was the point of the article. The article seemed to be saying that black people have been conditioned in various ways not to swim, and we have yet to break that conditioning.

Raving Black Lunatic