“Do you know how to swim?” is an age-old question that carries a heaviness it shouldn’t for many Black Americans every summer. The stereotype that Black people can’t swim is a myth, but it speaks to larger discourses of race as old as America itself. The transatlantic slave trade held Africans captive on hordes of ships—about a thousand of these ships sank—with enslaved Africans jumping to free themselves from a life they didn’t choose. The sea became an unmarked grave for an estimated 1.8 million of our descendants, and with that came a collective grief, unspoken trauma, and strained relationship to water that many cannot name.
As a child of Caribbean immigrants, my parents’ experience with the water was contentious. My Guyanese father could share a lifetime of stories about growing up near the ocean, but my Trinidadian mother wouldn’t go near it and still won’t. Growing up, I spent every Sunday taking swimming lessons at a recreational pool an hour away. I was encouraged to join the swim team, but couldn’t make the after-school practices, which were also an hour away from where I lived. Swimming quickly taught me about access: There were some kids who had pools in their backyards—or at the very least, in their neighborhoods—and then there were kids like me, who had to travel to reach one. Just like a person’s proximity to an adequate school system and healthy grocery stores dictate their quality of life, swimming pools are indicative of status. The privilege to swim is a story about who is worthy of not only relaxation in America, but also survival.
Over the past 20 years, my relationship with water has shifted dramatically. Growing up in Far Rockaway, a predominantly Black and Latino coastal community notorious for beach drownings, hearing about fatalities was a regular occurrence, and, despite my dad’s best efforts, I stopped swimming altogether out of fear and alienation. This year, I decided to try again, and my journey to reclaim the space for myself mirrored other swimmers—some of whom had never thought swimming was possible for them, either. And, as for many others who’ve taken to the water late in life, it was liberating. “It becomes this sort of celebration as well as a grieving moment that we get to now be on the water voluntarily,” said New York Times staff writer Jenna Wortham on a recent episode of the Still Processing podcast. “We get to float on it. We get to have this entirely new experience of this body of water that those before us did not have the privilege of experiencing.”
RECLAIMING THE WATER
Last July, jewelry designer Malyia McNaughton posted a TikTok in a swimming pool captioned, “Why are you at the pool? You don’t know how to swim.” At the time McNaughton, who was standing waist deep in the pool, didn’t. “Going in the pool during the summertime and just standing there wasn’t something I wanted to do anymore,” she told VICE.
Growing up in the Bronx, McNaughton didn’t have access to a pool, and on the sporadic occasions that she did, there weren’t many adults around her who could teach her. When she was five, an uncle taught her how to float one summer when she was visiting family in Jamaica, and when she started learning to swim last summer, in her early 30s, floating was the foundation that she carried with her as she began her swim journey at the start of the pandemic. “Right around the pandemic, I had a lot of ‘aha!’ moments,” she said. “There were all these things I was telling myself: You didn’t have time, you didn’t have access. All of these things that were barriers were no longer issues.”
The other thing that nearly stopped McNaughton from swimming: her hair. For the uninitiated, Black hair and chlorine don’t exactly mix. For Black women with relaxed hair, chlorine can have a negative reaction to the sodium hydroxide found in relaxers. For people with natural hair, water can cause your curls to decrease in length, or shrink up. Either way, getting your hair wet repeatedly can undo a style that might have taken hours to maintain—yet another reason why many Black women avoid pools. After hearing years of horror stories about how damaging chlorine is, McNaughton sought out advice from a stylist, who told her to invest in a great deep conditioner. “If my hair continues to be a reason why I don’t swim, I will never do this,” she said. “There will always be a barrier.”
After taking a lesson at New York City’s Swim Gym, McNaughton asked her instructor to film her progress and uploaded it to TikTok. In her first swimming recap, which has now gotten over 50,000 views, she urges other hopefuls to try. “If you’re an adult and you’re watching this, this is your sign to learn how to swim,” she says in a voiceover.
Today, swimmers like McNaughton have the autonomy to decide what barriers to access they want to tear down, but when municipal pools first began to spread throughout the country, Black Americans were up against the law. In the early 20th century, communal swimming pools were meant to cater to working-class citizens nationwide, but were relegated to predominantly white areas. If pools did open in Black neighborhoods, there were fewer of them and they were much smaller in scale.
By the 1930s, these spaces were segregated—whether through official order or racist violence—reinforcing the idea that Black Americans did not deserve a decent place to swim. When Highland Park, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh, opened a community pool, Black residents tried to gain access because it wasn’t legally segregated at the time. A 1931 issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette detailed the brutality against Black swimmers that took place at the opening: “Each Negro who entered the pool yesterday was immediately surrounded by whites and slugged or held beneath the water until he gave up his attempt to swim and left the pool.”
Violent incidents like this kept happening at Highland Park in the weeks that followed. They were rooted in a general fear of Black Americans—namely, that white women needed to be protected from Black men. Black residents who wanted to use the pool were also asked to provide a certificate proving they had a clean bill of health. (Ever since the time of legalized slavery, there was a persistent belief that Black people were medically different than whites and more vulnerable to diseases and other illnesses.)
As racial unrest continued across the country, swimming pools remained a place of disruption. On June 18, 1964, a photo was taken of James Brock, owner of the Monson Motor Lodge, a former whites-only hotel, pouring acid in a pool where young Black activists were participating in a swim-in to protest segregation at the hotel. The next day, photos from the protest ran on the front page of the New York Times. That report illustrated the painful push and pull of America’s unsteady lurch toward progress: The news ran alongside an announcement that the Civil Rights Bill would be passed by the Senate after an 83-day filibuster. Former president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law on July 2—exactly two weeks after the violence at Monson Motor Lodge.
Although public pools were legally desegregated after the Civil Rights Act, white residents’ attendance declined. As swimming shifted from a public to private act, there was less of a priority to maintain the community pools, which led to closures. Instead, a different type of white flight emerged: White swimmers gravitated toward private pools, creating swim clubs and building pools at their homes. The privatization of swimming was designed to keep Black people out of pools: To maintain exclusivity, swim clubs priced membership high or enforced zoning rules to regulate who could access their facilities. This legacy of exclusion was put on full display in 2015 when a 15-year-old girl was violently thrown to the ground by a Dallas police officer, who pulled his gun on other Black teens at the party, after residents called about a noise disturbance.
For McNaughton and for many other Black people who decided to face their generational fears about drowning, swimming is about liberation. “I went to Ghana, and you get to see how our ancestors were brought over,” she said, referencing the “Door of No Return,” a former port for the slave trade. “A lot of them jumped without knowing how to swim. The water represents liberation from that. It can be self-care; it can be exercise. It was really important to me to take that back and own it.”
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Paulana Lamonier started swimming at nine years old. In college, she revisited her skills on the CUNY York College swim team, and after she graduated, she worked as a swim instructor at a local YMCA in Jamaica, Queens. When part-time work was no longer cutting it and she needed to transition into a more sustainable career, Lamonier found herself putting swimming on the back burner for a second time so she could focus on other work.
Growing up in a multicultural enclave in Long Island, Lamonier didn’t grow up around a shortage of Black swimmers. “I have that duality: I am Black and I know how to swim,” she said. “My friends know how to swim, but not everybody has that luxury.” Joining her college swim team opened her eyes to the racial disparities of the sport. Competing for York College, a predominantly Black school, Lamonier noticed one major difference between her team and her competitors: the number of competitors. Predominantly white teams would have over 25 swimmers, while York College was about half the size. “They’d have more members because the sport is popular and a rite of passage in their communities,” she said. “It’s not a rite of passage in ours.”
Lamonier used her skills to teach family and friends how to swim until she decided to broaden her network. In 2019, she set a goal on Twitter: She was determined to teach 30 Black people how to swim before the end of the summer. The tweet got nearly 5,000 retweets from interested hopefuls across the country. The bad news? Lamonier realized she couldn’t teach everyone. Instead, she set her sights locally, enlisting the help of her sister and cousin to train would-be swimmers based in her area of Long Island. But the demand proved to Lamonier that there was a void to fill: That year, she founded Black People Will Swim, a small business she created to help make swimming accessible for all.
Lamonier said the business was inspired by niche groups dedicated to other underserved pursuits the Black community has reclaimed for itself, like Black Men Run or Therapy for Black Girls. “It’s not whether we can or can’t—it’s whether we will, despite the obstacles,” Lamonier said. As of last year, she said Black People Will Swim—which employs four instructors—has taught 50 students how to swim. The pandemic, along with the seasonal nature of the business, has made it difficult to rent pools, so the group uses pools owned and volunteered by local residents until it can fulfill Lamonier’s dream of opening a luxury aquatic center.
Teaching clients allowed Lamonier to hear their stories about what stopped them from swimming. Some were first-hand fears, while others some were inherited. Many were lies that had been passed down from generation to generation. “I had a client who told me, ‘I can’t swim because my bones are too dense,’” Lamonier said. Colloquial terms like “big-boned” propagate the misconception that bone density varies based on one’s race or body size—a lie that originated during slavery. Lamonier realized the nature of her business had to change, and her new vision for Black People Will Swim was a service that was equal parts training and education. “During the time that I was coaching her, I realized: If that’s her truth, how many other people will take a false stereotype as their truth?” she said.
Much of Lamonier’s job extends to her impact beyond the swimming pool. “As a swim coach, a lot of it is acting as their therapist,” she said. “I had a client tell me once, ‘Because of you, I vacation differently.’” By teaching people how to swim, Lamonier has changed their quality of life.
Looking back at my own relationship to swimming, I see that time spent with my father in the pool was his way of giving me a different narrative. What neither of us understood at the time was that our will to try could not fully eclipse the history of a will to keep people like us out. The desire to swim didn’t change our address or our income, and it certainly did nothing for the hours it tacked onto my wash days, which kept me out of the water once I got old enough to do my own hair. Eventually, all of those barriers my dad hoped to dismantle for me were rebuilt. Years went by without swimming and my anxiety around water—and whether I could still swim—grew.
After speaking with Lamonier, I challenged myself to get reacquainted with the water earlier this month during a trip to Miami. They say learning to swim is like riding a bike—that once you’ve acquired the skill, you won’t forget it. But navigating through the water with my grown-woman body was different terrain. I didn’t have the agility or the stamina to do what my brain was telling it to do. But I did trust myself enough to float.
And just floating was enough to give me a sense of connection. To float is to be neither of the land or the water. It’s a tension as familiar as feeling like you don’t belong in the country you were taken from, or the one you were taken to.
Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer for VICE.