I’m Black—My Dad Taught Me to Swim as an Act of Political Resistance
My dad’s hands cupped my stomach as I stretched into a Superman pose above the water. He lowered me into the pool as I moved my legs until a cloud of sparkling blue bubbles swirled around me. I kicked until my hips burned. I kicked until my stomach ballooned. I kicked until my dad let go, and I was swimming. I was a five-year-old African American boy in Miami in the 1980s, and swimming became a hobby, part of my identity, and a defining element of my relationship with my dad.
When my dad was growing up in Miami in the 1950s, one of the running jokes was that black people couldn’t swim. This, of course, was partly because black people were excluded from pools across much of America. So, as a teenager, my dad deliberately learned to swim and eventually became a lifeguard. In my family, learning to swim became a point of pride—and an act of political resistance. It was a step toward self-reliance. It was a gesture still met with unnerved glances and sneers from white parents. The recent incident in McKinney, Texas, reminds us how public pools, and water in general, are still touchstones of race in America.
One of the first family trips I can remember was to the Venetian Pool, a pink-and-white aquatic paradise in Coral Gables, Florida, carved out of a coral rock quarry in the 1920s. My dad was a schoolteacher and a history buff who seemed to take on any question with links to politics and history. Every field trip, vacation, and meal seemed to have an accompanying documentary ready to cue up at a moment’s notice. One day, before getting into the Venetian Pool, I was forced to sit through the oral narrative about the history of black people, segregation, and public spaces of water. This was more than 30 years ago, and many of the details have faded. But I still remember his emphasis on a few points:
- Black kids are more likely to drown because they don’t know how to swim. This is partly because pools and beaches aren’t always accessible in the neighborhoods where we tend to live. (He was right to be concerned: Black kids between ages 11 and 12 are 10 times more likely to drown in swimming pools than their white peers. Fourteen percent of black people surveyed said they can’t swim, and nearly 70 percent said they have low swimming abilities.)
- When my dad was growing up in Miami, the pools and beaches were segregated. He didn’t have the luxury of swimming in an expensive pool like the Venetian.
- The pools and segregated beaches in the black neighborhoods were often kept in terrible condition, with exotic wild fauna and vandalized bathrooms.
- This trip wasn’t just about fun and games.
- Every one of his kids was going to learn how to swim.
I was never more aware of blackness than in public pools in South Florida. Often, the pools were in nice neighborhoods, with a mix of races and ethnicities obeying a seemingly invisible force field that kept people in certain zones: black people in one section, white people in another, and Latinos—mostly Cuban Americans—in another. If a black kid swam through the white zone, all the kids would get quiet until the zoning infraction had passed. It was a strange way of keeping the peace. You couldn’t run and hide anywhere.
My dad wanted me to learn to swim as quickly as possible. This only stunted my growth, because I kept overthinking everything. I would look to my dad for constant validation and wonder: Am I getting the legs right?
“Don’t bend your knees,” he’d shout, holding me on the cold water’s surface. I’d overcorrect and become rigid. My arms were supposed to be elegant and strong, he said. My fingers were supposed to be cupped. Kids were running and screaming around us, tossing themselves into the pool. And here I was stuck in class with my dad. After a while, the lessons were no longer fun. We both grew frustrated by my lack of advancement.
After these long sessions, my scorched back and shoulders would peel for days. Eventually, my dad gave up. He’d go to the other side of the pool and talk with the adults. I would dog paddle away to play with my older sister, who already had her lifeguard license. Occasionally, my eyes saw him looking over, and I began trying to swim—simply to win his approval. Soon, for some reason, he stopped watching me.
One day, swimming just clicked in. I was playing in the water and someone wanted to challenge me to a race. I dove under, and all the lessons just naturally flowed together. My head was on a swivel, my hands were cupped, my arms cut the water with precision. I felt like a submarine propeller. After a week or so, I was swimming laps.
In high school, I stopped swimming, even though we lived in Miami, surrounded by pools and beaches. Between tennis, football, and wrestling, I didn’t have time. Soon, I forgot about that part of my childhood. Until January 2006, when my mother called me while I was living in New York. My dad had had a stroke. His right arm and shoulder were stiff and frozen, and he was going blind. Therapists said he needed to exercise. But my mom, now well into her senior years, wasn’t strong enough to support him if he fell while walking.
I started going home that winter of 2006, looking for ways to help. One day, I set up a family field trip. I drove my mom and dad to one of the local public pools. It was the first time in more than a decade that’d I’d been to a pool. My mom helped him out of the car and guided him across the parking lot. In the locker room, I helped my dad put on his blue swim trunks and guided him out to the pool. My mom had called up a few of his old friends from high school, who showed up to swim and support my dad. He was nervous about swimming, because he didn’t have good peripheral vision. He was frail and thin. As his body floated on the water, I guided him in his laps down the lane. It was the least I could do. It was the first time in years that he seemed happy.
Over the next eight years my dad had several more strokes. Now he can barely see, is partly paralyzed, and is bound to a bed. Recently, I’ve started swimming again, and I tell my dad about it every time I talk to him on the phone or visit. I tell him the temperature of the water, about the people and the weather. His face brightens, because our tradition—our mission, our resistance—has survived.
I know there will be no more lectures about African American history from my dad. There will be no more swimming sessions with him. But I can pass on the lessons I learned around the pool.