I was three years old the first time my young parents took me to Skidaway Island State Park in Savannah, Georgia. I do not recall much of the event and many of the details, I enjoy absorbing as my father retells the story at my request. My mother never learned to swim. She has always been fearful of water — fighting it, rather than becoming one with it. My father wanted to teach her, but her fear was so powerful — he felt forcing her would only make her more afraid of the open waters and he decided she would learn in her own time. However, his firstborn daughter would learn at an early age. He made good on that goal for himself.
I have heard this story more times than I care to count and each time, a sliver of fear creeps up my spine when I think of the alternate outcome. From my father’s memory, it was a beautiful summer’s day, one that simply could not be passed up in the way of a family outing, so he took his family out for a swim. This would be my first swimming lesson and shortly after, my first outlet and love. There was a fee for the use of the park’s pool and all of its amenities and my father states he was paying for the services we would use for the pool. He let go of my little hand to be able to complete the transaction, and before he knew it, I’d run off in the direction of my mother, past her, and jumped right into the “adult pool.”
From behind him, he could hear my mom screaming, other patrons and family members rushed to my aid, but my father said he stood there, and waved off a few people, and asked them to let me be. Just as swiftly as I had jumped in, some second sense or maybe, swimmer’s knowledge kicked into action, and I flailed about willingly and remained afloat. He hopped in, picked me up, and began teaching me right there in the pool how to swim. Although shaken up a little, I was a willing student. My father’s initial intention was to do this in the “kiddie pool,” however, this option changed when I was quick to take matters into my own hands.
“Every day, there are nearly 10 accidental drownings in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s 3,500 people every year who die in water. Within these numbers is a startling fact: the fatal-drowning rate of Black/African-American children is three times higher than white children.” — Lindsay Mondick, the YMCA
My father learned how to swim at a young age and was certain all his children would have this luxury. His father before him, an army man, knew how to swim as well. My father would often say, “You are going to beat the odds. You will know more than what others think you do.” And by “others,” I grew up to recognize what he meant. According to my father, I would not be another statistic when it came to swimming. I had known many boys and girls in the neighborhoods where I grew up who could not swim — who did not even care to learn. “Water” (in this sense) was something they feared and they were okay in not conquering or altering this fear.
“According to a recent national study conducted at Ys by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis:
64 percent of Black/African-American children cannot swim
45 percent of Hispanic children cannot swim
While only 40 percent of Caucasian children cannot swim.” — Lindsay Mondick, the YMCA
Those numbers are staggering to me, especially for the above-mentioned study to be a recent one. Given our history, African-Americans and swimming pools, that is, I would have guessed that in the 21st Century, we would have evolved past these percentages. In both the 19th and 20th centuries, our presence was not wanted in public pools. To be more specific, public swimming pools were not constructed in many African-American communities. We were not meant to have the luxuries and delightful pleasures as our White counterparts. Public swimming pools were a segregated space and remained that way for decades.
James “Strom” Thurmond Sr., an American politician, in a speech he gave in 1948, boldly expressed, “the entire United States Army couldn’t force white Southerners to allow black people ‘into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.’” He was adamant about keeping us out. And many agreed with him, thus they followed suit. Integrating swimming pools brought about its own drama and more racial tension which pressed upon African-Americans in a gruesome way. Even though we had been “welcomed into the fold,” there were many who did not want and would not allow our presence.
Stories of pools being drained after not only African-Americans “took a dip,” but Mexican-Americans as well, are yet another scary part of America’s history as it pertains to racism and its way of inducing fear into the already oppressed. Due to their treatment and the denial of their presence at public swimming pools, many African-Americans in the South, would not learn how to swim. They carried this lack of knowledge along with the fear of drowning, into several generations. But not my grandfather, my father, and me.
When I was in my teens, I taught three of my brothers how to swim. One of the oldest boys would become a lifeguard for his junior high school where he spent many summers doing something he loved. My youngest brother was the most fearful. I stayed on him regarding his fear and how to overcome it because I knew the importance of learning how to swim. He needed to know something we were not supposed to, something we were not invited to know. To this day, all three of them are strong swimmers and they will have this gift — this life skill to pass down to their children.
I spent many of my summers at one of our local YMCAs in Savannah, Georgia. There, I would further my knowledge of swimming and enjoy what we would call “speed races” as we lapped from one end of the pool to the next to see who was the fastest swimmer. This became a game that we played for sport, however, it was a test in strength and conditioning as well. Each year, we would be assigned to groups based on our advancement, and each year, I longed to be an “expert” swimmer. My father taught me everything I needed to know and he continued to swim with me well into my early teens.
Swimming was the first athletic activity I learned. It was also the first I grew to love. There was a sense of peace in the water for me. There still is. I always felt more alive and in control of my surroundings as I waded in various waters. There were some summers where I spent more weeks with my hair under a swimmer’s cap, much like this one, than I did with it out or in ponytails. It became my norm. I swam religiously every summer until my mid-twenties. It was not only my favorite activity for the summer months, but it was also my escape.
During the morning hours, we, the local kids in my community and me, would swim. We would spend hours upon hours in the pool. Toward evening, I would join the boys in my community on the basketball court. And during my summers in New York, the routine was about the same. I found my daytime outlet and my nighttime outlet and both would keep me company for decades.
As I think back to my grade school years and how much I enjoyed the water, I yearn to feel that way again. It has been several years since I dove into a public pool, but the core lessons I have learned are still with me. I was fearless thirty-six years ago, unafraid of the big, bad water.
For me, it was the safest place to be.
©2019 Tremaine L. Loadholt