I Learned How to Swim Before I Knew The History
With the first week of the Rio Olympics coming to an end, my soul had been filled with joy and anguish. NBC’s coverage has been absolute crap but then again, I didn’t expect much from what they’ve done with previous Olympic coverage. NBC stands for Never Been Capable. However, anything that takes my mind off of the endless media coverage the orange menace and his legions of dunderheads is more than welcome.
Despite the scatter shot coverage, I witnessed some moving moments that have touched me. Zahra Nemati of Iran performance moved me. She competed in 2008 in taekwondo but was paralyzed in a car accident. She switched sports to archery and won medals as a Paralympian and qualified to compete this year in Rio. She didn’t win her round but she displayed the type of fierce competitor she is. The US Women’s Gymnastics team was of course a highlight. Simon Biles killed it. The entire team was a joy to watch even though the lack of coverage of Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian reminded me that somehow there was a NBC in TEAM.
Then there was Simone Manuel. The first African-American swimmer to win an individual gold medal. I found out she’d won from the ESPN website which was a blessing because they actually put her name in the headline. They didn’t reference her as a tag to what Michael Phelps had done with the label of ‘African-American’ with no mention to what she had accomplished. It was all about Simone, what she did, how she did it. My heart raced back to Cullen Jones in 2008 and 2012. His individual silver medal and team golds he holds, filled me with since of pride but Simone’s performance floored me. The way she’s handled the media, who’d practically ignored her until she won, has been inspiring. Then it hit me. It’s 2016 and Simone Manuel is the first African-American swimmer to win and individual gold medal in swimming?
What the fuck?
Soon the internet was flooded with stories of inspiration. How this one victory opened up the dark secret that roughly 70% of African-Americans don’t know how to swim. People joke about it. Hell, I’ve even joked about it but I know how to swim.
I started swimming at a very young age at the local YMCA that was close to where I lived in Atlanta. The school I attended had an Olympic sized swimming pool. I would swim as part of my conditioning with wrestling and track so jumping in the water and doing a couple of laps never crossed my mind as a revolutionary act. It was just something I enjoyed doing.
Then, I learned about the history after I learned how to swim. It’s hard to think how I would’ve been effected if it had been the other way around. I never thought about segregated swimming pools as a kid when I was in the water. My mind wasn’t consumed with images of slave traders tossing shackled Africans off of ships in the middle passage as a form of discipline to keep other slaves in line. All I wanted to do as a kid was to move from being a Tadpole to a Guppy and then doing my swimming certification so I could make my parents proud even though my father wasn’t a strong swimmer himself.
But soon the history of relationship to African-Americans and swimming started to filter into my consciousness. I would hear stories from relatives about Klansmen drowning black people in the South. I heard about a Las Vegas hotel draining the poole because Dorothy Dandridge put her toe in the water. (Even though this story has been investigated as an urban legend but they did threaten to drain the pool if she swam. Some hotels went as far as closing their pools to all guest when Dorothy Dandridge was staying there which is just as bad, if not worse.)
However, it’s the picture of James Brock, the manager of the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida pouring acid into the pool during an integrated swim protest that burns into my mind.
(image by Horace Cort)
The revisionist history surrounding this image doesn’t take away it’s power. To say that is was only muriatic acid, which is used to lower the pH in pools, and that with the volume of water there was no risk of anyone getting injured doesn’t take away his intent. The fact that when the police came to arrest people, they were too scared to get into the water because he poured acid in it so they just took swings at the protestors hoping to grab somebody to arrest. It was a ‘White Only’ pool. There were black people in it. Let me toss in a bottle of acid to scare them but I didn’t mean any harm?
Yet, as I got older and continued to swim whenever I got strange looks from people when I was in the pool this image would sometimes pop into my mind. It never stopped me from swimming but it always bothered the hell out of me but it never stopped me.
Then again, I was never a competitive swimmer. I never wanted to be. Swimming was something I enjoyed doing and I wanted to keep it at that and I took my ability to swim for granted. It wasn’t until I was rehabbing from my second knee surgery that I fell back in love with swimming again. I needed to break up scar tissue in a way that didn’t fatigue my leg. Since this was the second time I had ruptured the patellar tendon in my left leg in 7 months, I didn’t have the muscle mass or strength to push my knee as far as I wanted to go but the gym close by had a pool. There were a lot of African-American people swimming along with me. I hadn’t experienced that since I was a student at Howard University. As I swam, surrounded by my people, with my left leg half the size of my right one, I didn’t feel the stigma of the stares. I actually felt at peace. The only thing that bothered me was the fact there was way too much chlorine in the pool and every time I broke up scar tissue with a kick, I wanted to scream. And minus my physical pain and burning eyes, that’s the way it should be.
Pool upkeep is expensive. Having access to pools and qualified instructors it key to the enjoyment of swimming and since I learned how to swim as such a young age, I took my ability to do so for granted.
I’ve watched Simone Manuel go through interview after interview. Each time the question gets asked what does it feel like to be the first African-American to win an individual gold medal in swimming in the history of the Olympic games. She’s answered that question with dignity and grace. She has taken this moment to address the issues of the African-American community on a global stage and talks about her inspiration to reaching this amazing achievement. Each time she speaks that image of the African-American girl screaming as James Brock pours a bottle of muriatic acid in the pool behind her begins to shatter in my mind. I allow the image of Simone on that platform with the gold around her neck to take its place and feel the need to find a pool and do a few laps myself.
This time I won’t take my ability to swim for granted. I understand how lucky I am to have this skill and I also realize that 1964, the year that James Brock poured acid into the pool in Florida, wasn’t all that long ago.