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It’s a phrase that so many of us — myself included — have sheepishly used for years, oftentimes with no plans to remedy that reality. Though lacking that particular aquatic skill set feels commonplace in many communities of color across this country, not knowing how to swim is often a trickle-down effect of systemic social disenfranchisement and trauma. It’s not just that we don’t know how to swim, it’s that a lot of us were never given the opportunity to learn. But now, it’s time to get comfortable in the water. Black people will swim this summer — Paulana Lamonier is going to make sure of it.
I was born in the fast-paced metropolis of Lagos, Nigeria to parents who grew up in Rivers State, the southern part of the country along the coast. My mom (hailing from Bonny) and dad (from a village called Odi) were water babies, raised from birth to confidently dive headfirst in any and every body of water without fear. When I was younger, my dad regaled my siblings and I with tales of living in homes precariously balanced on stilts in the water, braving the rushing currents of the local river during the summer season to catch fish to be sold at the marketplace. Water was in our blood, and therefore, swimming was our birthright. Being in the water was supposed to come naturally to us…right?
Only it didn’t. Not to me, at least. Even after moving to London, where we took weekly swim classes as part of our primary school curriculum, or later to Houston, Texas, where we frequented our apartment complex’s community pool, I never quite got the hang of floating in the water, let alone actually swimming in it. As years passed, and I morphed into a person with little to no interest in the outdoors (there’s no air conditioning outside), my inability to swim turned to an aversion and then a genuine anxiety. I didn’t want to swim because I was scared to.
At almost 30 years old, I still haven’t properly learned how to swim, and I can admit that most of that is by choice and by privilege; I’ve had access to pools for most of my life but simply chose not to work at it. For many other Black people, however, not knowing how to swim is tethered to a much harsher nuance that, like so many other realities in this country, stems from deep-rooted institutional inequality.
As Black people, learning how to swim is one of the most powerful things that you can do because it opens up your world. Poverty doesn’t want you to have that. White supremacy doesn't want doesn't want you to have that.
“People so rarely understand the nuance and the history behind why swimming is such a touchy subject in our culture,” says Paulana Lamonier, the founder of New York City-based swimming instruction and advocacy group Black People Will Swim. The organization, which Lamonier started in summer 2019 after posting a tweet about her dream to teach 30 Black people to swim. It was her second attempt at feeling out potential students — “It was really hard to find a pool before then,” she clarifies — but with the help of her sister and cousin, Lamonier was able to wrangle up a group of eager future swimmers and begin the work. Technically, Black People Will Swim is open to anyone who wants to learn, but its mission is aimed at Black people specifically because of the circumstances that have historically prevented us from easily accessing local aquatic facilities.
That terse cultural relationship with water can be traced all the way back to the 16th century, when the transatlantic slave trade first began. Europeans were ravaging parts of West Africa and kidnapped African people from their homes in the late 1500s, packing them tightly into giant ships destined for various parts of the world. The journey to these new countries was a long and violent one, marked by inhumane living conditions and brutalization onboard the vessel. In the face of these forced treks, many captured people chose the darkness of the ocean over the fate that awaited them, jumping overboard into the depths in an act of desperation and rebellion. One such documented occurrence, known by historians as Igbo Landing, famously involved a group of Igbo (of southeastern Nigeria) prisoners taking over the ship upon its arrival in Georgia. After the mutiny forced the ship to dock at Dunbar Creek, the enslaved Igbo people walked into the dark waters of the creek, singing all the while.
Centuries later, the nuance surrounding water and swimming would become even more complex during the Jim Crow Era, as government-sanctioned racism legally mandated the existence of “separate but equal” facilities. Schools, churches, hospitals, and even pools were segregated by race across the United States, and the disparities between facilities in Black and White neighborhoods were drastic. Recreational areas were kept segregated under the guise of law and order as local authorities deemed that racial harmony could only be maintained if races were physically separated in public spaces. (Curiously, there was rarely any mention of exactly which groups were known to cause the disorder in these spaces, but if you know, you know.) On the occasion that Black swimmers ventured outside their communities to try dipping their toes in the better-maintained pools in white areas, the consequences were swift and dire; during the historic 1964 swim-in protest at Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida, the hotel owner dumped muriatic acid into the pool to scare activists off.
Today’s swimming statistics are repercussions of that violent history. A recent joint study done by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis showed that 64% of Black children can’t swim, but 87% of non-swimming youth still plan to visit a beach or pool at least once during the summer. Even more frightening? A large percentage of the parents of these kids also don’t know how to swim, meaning that the odds of them being able to safely rescue their children in the event of drowning are also very slim. Clearly, the aftermath of the racially and economically-driven inaccessibility of recreational swimming spans generations and cannot be ignored.
All of society is catered to white people. It's okay if my company is not for them. This movement isn’t about putting anyone down — it's about lifting Black people up.
“All of society is catered to white people,” Lamonier laughs when I ask her about the potential white outrage at the organization’s mission. “It's okay if my company is not for them, you know? And this movement isn’t about putting anyone down — it's about lifting Black people up. Y’all see it as exclusion, but it's actually about encouraging Black people to conquer their fears and develop the agency to save their own lives. Black People Will Swim is in the business of saving lives. I think that's what people tend to forget.”
Lamonier and her team at Black People Will Swim boast an impressive instruction protocol; she informs me that students in the swimming program usually learn how to swim after just two 50-minute classes. So what goes into these lessons? It would be easy to think of swimming as a purely mechanical process, all legs and arms moving in sync, but Lamonier says it’s so much more than that. (Though she does pride herself on teaching her students a technique that doesn’t require the use of water noodles and fins so that they can swim anywhere on their own.) Before you can physically be at ease in the water, you have to be mentally at ease with it, and that takes addressing the host of traumas and fears we’ve (sub)consciously adopted around swimming. For Black students, that means acknowledging the fact that not knowing how to swim at any age can so often be attributed to the issue of access, not blatant physical inability. Water, be it within the confines of a private pool or stretching as far the eye can see, feels terrifying because many of us haven’t been able to experience it safely before. But once we’ve mastered that, anything feels possible. First your community pool, then on a canoe on the lake, then on a yacht in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a whole new world.
“As Black people, learning how to swim is one of the most powerful things that you can do, because it opens up your world,” Lamonier says. “Poverty doesn’t want you to have that. White supremacy doesn't want doesn't want you to have that.”
“That’s why it's important for us to educate not only our people, but also to educate white swimming instructors on the checkered history of swimming in this country,” she continues. “I don’t think that white people actually ever look around their local pool and think, ‘Why are there so many of us here?’ But they need to really think about it. There’s a lack of representation, funding, education, and access that makes it so difficult for the sport to be inclusive.”
For now, Lamonier is content with leading the charge herself, joined by a growing team of certified swim instructors who are just as passionate about empowering Black people of all ages and backgrounds. In addition to the upcoming slate of beginner swimmer programs that’s set to kick off in July, Lamonier is working nonstop on securing an aquatic facility specifically for Black People Will Swim, which she believes will address the issue of accessibility head on.
“The thing about swimming is that it’s not so much of a team sport; it’s based on you and what you can do in the water,” Lamonier says. “But getting people into the water is a community effort. We have to educate each other and make sure that we have the resources to continue this work.”
About 71% of the earth’s surface is covered in water, and not knowing how to swim limits our exposure to the world beyond our front doors. (Systemic racism and classism have made sure of that.) But initiatives like Black People Will Swim have a heart for the community that has been excluded from the sport, and they are desperate to prove that it’s never too late to learn how to swim — it’s just a matter of taking that first dip. See you in the water.