Swimming history: 'Blacks Don't Swim'

The original article is posted on USMS since November 1, 2010

To be honest, I just sat there staring out at the water. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard from the woman sitting next to me.

“Look” she continued, “I’m not saying it, but my friends say that black people don’t have the buoyancy to be swimmers.”

There had been studies done in the 50s and 60s that claimed that since black athletes on average tend to have less body fat than their white counterparts, they would be poor swimmers since body fat creates buoyancy. Those studies have since been thoroughly debunked.

But nonetheless here I sat on the dock of my swim club listening to someone defending the accuracy of those studies.

At that very moment all the frustration that had consumed me over this topic came boiling to the surface. Here I am, an African-American man, an open water long distance swimmer, living in the age of Obama (and in San Francisco no less), having overcome unspeakable racism while living in South Africa during the apartheid years, here I am still having to hear these ridiculous explanations on why blacks can’t swim.

“So,” I responded, trying to measure my words without invoking profanity, “If your logic is to be believed, then explain to me why Cullen Jones is such a phenomenal swimmer. Shouldn’t he be sinking like a stone?”

No answer. I continued:
“What about Charles Chapman, the first African American to cross the English Channel back in 1981 and did it with the butterfly stroke no less? What about him? Surely he should have drowned after swimming for over 12 hours, right? Maybe the water can tell the difference— maybe it knows who’s black, white, Asian, or Latino. Do you think the water knows?”

She looked on and tried to explain herself again, stumbling to say that she was not racist (I never believed so), that I had misunderstood her intent, but by then I had heard enough and excused myself and walked off to cool down.

It is because of this story that I was asked to write a bit about black people and our relationship to water.

A Brief History Lesson
While it is true that many African Americans do not connect with swimming, we do have an amazingly rich swimming history that dates back to pre-slavery days in Africa. And the impact of swimming on the Civil Rights Movement toward the demise of the Jim Crow laws of the South was enormous.

Before the slave trade began, Africans living in coastal communities were observed by early European explorers to be excellent swimmers.

Bruce Wigo, Director and CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been chronicling the origins of swimming and blacks. Wigo, in a video entitled “A History Lesson,” found on the website diversityinaquatics.com, speaks about a picture drawn in 1884 by a European settler that depicts an African doing the “Australian crawl.” But as Wigo points out in the video, “The only difference between what that African is doing in the picture and the Australian crawl is that the Australian crawl wasn’t invented yet.”

Lee Pitts, Jr., in an article entitled, “Black Splash: The History of African-American Swimmers,” wrote about a number of remarkable achievements by blacks in swimming. Pitts writes of one that is truly striking to think about:

“In 1679, when a slave ship wrecked off Martinique, an African slave whose name is lost to history, reached shore after swimming for sixty hours, an aquatic feat of survival that rivaled Homer’s Ulysses and was a record of endurance swimming that was not matched by white men for almost 300 years.”

Let that sink in for a moment. No pilot boat, no food or drink, choppy water, and swimming in a predatory environment, yet this person managed to reach shore.

In the same article, Pitts expounds on another piece of history that most people are unfamiliar with. Most of us remember reading about Harriet Tubman and her famous Underground Railroad. But how many of us know where that title originated? Pitts writes:

“The Underground Railroad got its name when a slave named Tice Davids escaped from Kentucky in 1831 and swam across the Ohio River to freedom in Ripley, Ohio. According to legend, Davids’ owner was chasing Davids in a boat when he lost sight of his swimming slave. Thinking Davids must have drowned, he remarked to his companions with a sarcastic smirk that his slave must have taken an ‘underground railroad.’ The comment was reported in the press and the term has been with us ever since.”