Saturday, July 02, 2011

Black People CAN and DO Swim, Part 1: Hansborough Recreation Center

in zipping through topics on aquatics and water safety for nablopomo's theme this month, one that popped up repeatedly was the subject of african-americans and swimming. bizarrely, it seems that there are quite a lot of people who believe that this is something that we innately cannot do. black folk have heard this so often over the years -- reinforced by every media outlet, cheezy sit-com and hack comedian on the planet, of course -- that quite a few of us believe it.

i suppose any stereotype has a grain of truth in it, but this is one that just doesn't hold water -- even when the powers that be attempt to justify it by saying that black people aren't buoyant enough to swim. the reasons why black people don't swim are deeply rooted in our oh so racist society and are every indication of how escaping our troubled past isn't as simple as most jingoistic revisionists think it is.

first of all, there is this: historically when we had aquatics as a recreational option, we have taken full advantage of it. that is, when we were given the option. usually, we weren't. in my daddy's day for example (the 20s/30s), municipal swimming pools and the free swimming lessons that came with them were all the rage. in most instances, they were for whites only.

as an african-american, it would be more than frustrating for me to watch my hard-earned city and state tax dollars pay for something that i couldn't use. but i digress. and yes, more on that later.

black folk in some urban areas had swimming as a city-sponsored recreational option in their own neighborhoods. for the most part, harlem was the exception, not the rule. hansborough recreational center is a bright shining example of this. (see the video below.) open to the public in 1925 at an estimated cost of $500,000 -- with basketball courts, an elevated track and a huge indoor pool -- they had an average of 43,000 visitors annually by 1926. those regulars included everything from church groups and boys and girls clubs to black amateur athletes. with the harlem renaissance in bloom and harlem as the unofficial capital of black america, we were hitting our stride and our stroke.

yes, i know white people lived in harlem once upon a time -- but with white flight setting in as early as 1904 with the onset of the great migration, according to the 1930 census *surprise!* harlem was over 70% black.

secondly, segregation at muncipal swimming pools continued through the 60s for the most part, until such practices were deemed illegal. there was a second wave that embraced swimming as a sport in the 50s/60s but by the time we were allowed into those pools that our tax dollars funded, white people had embraced a decades old swim culture that meant not only enjoying the water on a regular basis amongst themselves but making swim lessons a kiddie rite of passage for their children. we had no such traditions in place.

last but not least: i'm not going to get into black women who don't swim -- or excercise! -- because they just got their hair done and they don't want to sweat their perm/press and curl/relaxer out, or screw up their expensive weave. seriously. i'm not going to touch that with somebody else's hand. but i will say that a black parent who is afraid of the water quite often keeps their child from learning to swim because they're afraid they'll drown.

the facility in the video is kind of stunning, isn't it. oh, and guess what? membership is $37.50 for 6 months or $75 for the year -- and with that, you have unlimited use of the entire facility.

i love harlem.

can i swim? yes, i can.

i never took lessons as a kid. we grew up in the ATL with a swimming pool in our backyard, so we jumped in until we figured it out. but i would never swim outdoors in large bodies of water. once i understood our history with all of this -- how slaves weren't allowed to learn to swim, for example -- i decided to formally learn in college. now i can swim like a fish.

we are out there, swimming -- and loving it. we have always been out there. we are legion. we are overcoming our phobias, with grace. we are learning how to swim. we have our own swim clubs and swim meets...

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