By Sierra Brown
Two women bop up and down, holding on to the ledge of the pool. “Head up, chin on top of the water…trust me,” says their 19-year-old instructor. The instructor patiently takes them around the perimeter of the pool, swimming from the shallow to deep end. “Ready?” says the instructor. One of the women lets go of the edge, though never straying more than a few feet away. Her face stiffens with concentration as she quickens her paddling to keep herself afloat. “Relax,” the instructor says, floating nearby.
The women were taking part in the YMCA’s annual Splash Week, an initiative to educate families about water safety. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically African-American neighborhood, the lessons are especially important: A 2008 study conducted by USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, found that 58 percent of African-American children cannot swim — more than double the percentage of white children. Historical and socioeconomic factors, coupled with cultural fears and the narrow appeal of swimming among blacks as a choice sport has lead to the distressing figures.
Now, advocates say swimming needs to be viewed as a life saving activity, not just a sport. Lee Pitts, an African-American swim instructor who has sold 500,000 copies of his instructional home videos and runs the Lee Pitts Swim School in Fort Myers, Florida. said that fewer people would have drowned when Hurricane Katrina hit mostly African-American parts of New Orleans in 2005. “If they had some advanced swimming skills, just a basic dog paddle, they could have survived,” he said, “Just enough to get to safety”. USA Swimming’s study also found that children with parents who could not swim or held fears about the activity were far less likely to swim. In fact, in households where the parents did not know how to swim, 91 percent of the children could not, either.
“Black people just can’t swim — it was a running joke,” said Pitts.The joke is so funny that New York City cab riders were recently entertained with a skit by the comedian Jimmy Kimmel, in just his swim shorts, with a crowd of adult African-Americans at a pool — most hugged by floating devices, one man with a duck-themed float and another in a scuba suit for kicks. Movies like the 1997 film B.A.P.S. (New Line), further satirize the issue. Starring Halle Berry as a bling-covered, weave-crowned aspiring hip-hop dancer, she and her co-star freak out when their hair gets wet at a Beverly Hills pool.
Too many black parents, Pitts said, “have passed down the fear of swimming to the next generation.” But for some parents, now is the time to break the cycle.
“Many participants at the Splash Week are mothers,” said Adeson Seales, aquatics director at the Bed-Stuy YMCA. Jennifer Threat, 36, said that despite the lack of swimming in her youth, she is making the time to learn. “It’s something that’s been on the back of my mind,” she said. After taking the lesson, Treat said she wanted to continue with lessons, and hopes her 4-year-old will pick up the activity. “Now that I told my daughter she wants to come with me,” Treat said.
For many non-swimmers in the African-American community, the possibility of drowning is a discouraging reality. Black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. In the summer of 2008 10-year-old Akira Johnson drowned off Coney Island. Her cousin, also 10, narrowly escaped.
“I’m learning how to relax that fear — fear that you are going to drown in the water,” said Deborah Thomas, 42, the second participant. “For my kids’ sake, if I go with them on vacation at least now I can do something with them.”
At the program, participants were encouraged to get comfortable with the water, blow bubbles, kick, float and — an inaugural leap for many — go to the deep end of the pool. “It becomes an ice-breaker for swimming — a tester for them to get over that fear to learn how to swim,” Seales said.
But despite the YMCA’s effort to promote the week — mentions on popular Brooklyn blogs, on their website and an inviting sign in front of the facility — only two of the 10 registered participants — the maximum registration — showed up for the day’s session on April 1. Attendees varied for events throughout the week. “Fear could set in,” said Storr Todd, a swim instructor. Splash Week events had 178 people signing up.
The attempt to get more people of color in the pool doesn’t stop at the YMCA. At Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the country’s best known historically black institutions of higher learning, admired for getting its students into top law, medical and business schools, the School of Arts and Sciences addresses the gap by requiring its students take beginning swimming — and pass, according to Red Cross guidelines. Students already possessing aquatic ability may take advanced courses. Also tackling related weight, health and access disparities, students must also take one health and two activity courses.
Like tennis and golf, swimming is viewed by administrators at the school as helping students as they move forward in their careers. “They need to know how to swim in order to enhance the type of activities that would allow them to network from a professional perspective,” said Dr. Doris R. Corbett, chairwoman of the Department of Health, Human Performance and Leisure at the school.
“Many of our college students have parents and grandparents and historically could not access public pools and beaches,” said Corbett, a situation that has lead to a lack of enthusiasm that has been passed from generation to generation.
There was a time when more blacks than whites took to the water. Bruce Wigo, chief executive of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, estimates that before the Civil War 80 percent of blacks and 20 percent of whites knew how to swim. “Europeans observed that Africans and Native Americans could swim like animals,” he said. Wigo said that Europeans also associated swimming to Roman baths, which was considered decadent and erotic in contrast to popular standards of piety and suppressed sexuality. African peoples, like many others living along the equator, always swam, he said. Water was intrinsic to their culture. “Mothers would give birth near the water and acclimate their children to it,” he said.
During slavery, though, swimming was banned. “All of the slave masters thought of swimming as a means of escape from bondage,” Pitts said. “Moving forward toward the 20th century public facilities such as beaches and swimming pools were off limits for blacks,” he said, “It was taboo for a black man to be swimming in the same water as a white woman.”
From the 1910s to the 1950s there were major public health campaigns to get white people to swim, Wigo said. In the ’30s and ’40s public pools offered free swimming lessons, many to whites only. MGM starlet and competitive swimmer Esther Williams, featured such films as “Bathing Beauty,” “On an Island With You” and “Million Dollar Mermaid” popularized “aquamusicals,” which featured sophisticated diving and synchronized-swimming. Williams made swimming seem like an attractive activity, Wigo said. Eventually swimming became a popular pastime. When pools became integrated in the 1950s, many whites started going to country clubs. Post World War II suburban sprawl led to more homes with backyard pools.
Many blacks, on the other hand, often did not have the same encouraging experience. Even an African-American star like Dorothy Dandridge, best known for her leading role in “Carmen Jones” (1954) faced obstacles attempting to use a pool. As chronicled in the 1999 HBO film “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” the actress, played by Halle Berry, put her toe in the white-only swimming pool at the Riviera in Las Vegas to later find that the pool had been drained and cleaned in response.
During the summer of 2009, the national media was enthralled when 60 campers from northeast Philadelphia, all of them children of color, were asked to leave Valley Swim, a club with open membership, due to concerns that they would “change the complexion” of the mostly white facility, John Duesler, president of club, said in a statement.
“Back in the ’50s and ’60s you had to be affiliated with a gang or they would mess with you,” said Rick White, a Brooklyn native who was the first African-American to swim the English Channel. White said that though he and his multiethnic swimming buddies were able to skirt imposed segregation with their entertaining aquatic tricks and diving skills, most of the Brooklyn pools were unofficially for sole use of the predominant ethnic group: Greenpoint was German and Polish, Metropolitan was Italian and blacks and Puerto Ricans occupied Bed-Stuy pools, he said.
Though limited access due to segregation or implicit racism may now be the exception rather than the rule, many African-Americans and Latinos — 56 percent of whom cannot swim — still may not have access to pools to learn proper swimming techniques. “I had not learned how to swim even though I lived in Far Rockaway and went to the beach all the time,” Jose R. Sanchez, , associate professor of political science and chair of Urban Studies at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus, said in an e-mail. Sanchez said that despite the presence of a pool in his mostly African-American and Latino community of East Elmhurst, Queens, the seasonal operation failed to sponsor active swimming among community members. “There is a public pool that opens only from after July 4 until Labor Day and for limited hours during the day,” he said. “The pool is, however, always full of young people splashing and playing. They don’t worry about their hair but they don’t get any lessons either. They will probably grow up not knowing how to swim.”
Though Sanchez said he was required to learn how to swim to graduate from high school, that isn’t the case for most Brooklyn students where few schools even have access to a pool. The Public School Athletic League’s high-achieving swim teams include few or no African-American or Latino students. In the fall, the PSAL title went to Stuyvesant, the specialized high school that is 2 percent black.
Awareness is a key position of USA Swimming’s Make a Splash initiative, which partners with grassroots learn-to-swim programs and reaches thousands of children through wide-reaching in-school materials. Learn-to-swim providers try to offer low or no-cost lessons to at-risk and economically disadvantaged youth, according to program literature. The organization has also secured 180 local partners in 37 states in the program. More than 214,000 children have gone through these programs and are now more water safe according to an e-mail sent by Erin Greene, the organizations manager of cause and community marketing.
And even though there are limited swimming facilities in New York City, access has improved over the years.
The Bed-Stuy YMCA Piranhas Swim Team, which includes mostly African-American children ages 7 to 17, is also stroking ahead. Last year 19 of the swimmers qualified for the New York State YMCA Championships and three went on to medal at the National YMCA Meet.
But beyond the national prizes is the fact that swimming, at its core, is about life or death. “You won’t get a second chance it you can’t execute the fundamentals of swimming if someone pushes you under the water that is over your head,” Pitts said. “You drown.”