Black People Can’t Swim (When I Was 14)

Black people can’t swim.

I learned how to swim well before I was 14 by taking classes at the local YMCA in East Cleveland. At the Y, Black people swam — only Black people. White folks nowadays seem to steer clear of floating Black people. Maybe it reminds them that we haven’t sunk yet. Maybe it reminds them too much of the days when their boats came for our bodies and their religion came for our minds, and of those of us who didn’t make it across the ocean so were fed to it. Maybe it reminds them of their glory days and they hate it because those days are never coming back.

Community pools have always occupied a special place in the white community’s heart. So much so that not too long ago they banned us from them. Our Black skin was covered in sickness that was somehow benign enough for our mothers to spend time nursing, holding and wiping the asses of their children at our expense, but as soon as our skin made contact with the water, the whole pool turned to filth. Punishment for plaguing their pools was sometimes acid in the water. So Black people can’t swim because they never learned how.

I learned how to swim well before I was 14 but I still can’t swim. Not in McKinney. In McKinney, a pool party with Black attendees gets raided by police. In McKinney, a 14 year old gets brutalized by an officer for trying to swim. Punishment for plaguing their pools…

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  1. I’m new to your blog and kind of amazed by you… because I was looking for your voice… and finally found it, maybe… Thru a friend I found your blog.

    This link:

    (Sal Masekela on Racism in Surfing- The Inertia) is a video about racism in surfing that reminded me of the whole “black people can’t swim” you’re writing about and I thought you might be interested.

    I really like your writing and feel grateful for hearing your voice. Thank you.

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