Outdoors

Did My Uncle Drown or Was He Murdered?

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In 1982, almost twenty years after Easter drowned, I took my first swimming lesson. I was three, my brother was ten, and my mother was 36 when we hit the pool together at the Fairview-Greenburgh Community Center in White Plains, New York. She enrolled in adult classes and assisted me in the water-baby class, where instructors guide a parent and child through basic swimming techniques and safety practices. I was a little old for a water baby; usually they were age two or younger. I remember being terrified by the ominous drain at the bottom of the deep end, but a year later I was jumping off the high dive.

The Greenburgh pool had not one but two Black swim instructors, a rarity in the early 1980s. My mother was grateful for this; she was still reeling from how I’d been treated some weeks earlier at a YMCA ­nursery-program swim class. A white instructor had put her hand on my head and pointed at me while gesticulating to other staff, as if to say, What is she doing here? The nursery-class teacher, unwilling to acknowledge that the woman’s act might be racist, told my mother that the instructor and I “didn’t get along” and suggested that I be moved to a different swim section.

I kept taking lessons, and at five or six I joined the Greenburgh pool’s junior swim team. As an adult, I’ve often looked back with gratitude for those years at Greenburgh, for how my parents and teachers gave me a portal to transformative experiences. Throughout my life, swimming has provided a means of play, fitness, and reflection. The water has been a setting for both emotional and physical recovery, and a reminder of the vastness of our natural world.

When I was seven, my family moved to an unincorporated town on the Hudson called Cortlandt Manor. My mom immediately signed me up for more lessons and for the local swim team. Many years of early-­morning practices and weekend swim meets followed. Cortlandt Manor was a much less racially diverse place than White Plains, which is basically a northern suburb of New York City. The racial homogeneity was stifling, and my brother and I struggled with it. Students picked on him, and neither of us had access to the opportunities and support my parents thought we deserved.

To a white person who viewed Black people as inferior, he might have come off as irritatingly confident. I don’t know and will never know. But in my heart I feel that his death wasn’t an accident and may have involved an act of racial violence.

When I reached ninth grade, my folks moved me from the local public school to an intimidating private school several towns away, and I experienced the requisite amount of teenage self-consciousness. I like to joke that I burned out on competitive swimming by 14, but at least half the reason I quit was that I didn’t want my chemically straightened hair to get wet every day. This is one reason some Black people avoid the water; our society has a history of glorifying straight hair and denigrating African curls. As a teenager, straightening my hair felt like the only way to fit in.

Though I didn’t join the swim team, a year later I decided to become a lifeguard and a swim instructor. I was also on my high school’s track team, and one afternoon during practice I told a few teammates about my lifeguarding goal. An assistant coach, a white man, overheard this and turned to me. “You?” he said derisively. “A lifeguard?”

This cruel remark seemed to come out of nowhere, and I don’t know if he said it because I was female, Black, or a mediocre track athlete. Whatever the reason, it burned. I was an artsy, musical kid. I had poor hand-eye coordination and was never good at ball sports. Becoming a lifeguard was important for me, because I was able to prove to myself that I was strong and capable of responding in a crisis situation. This gave me a sense of agency and confidence.

I was a young teenager at the time, and I began to notice that few of my Black friends and family had much swimming experience. This is still widely true among Black people as a whole. A 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation found that 67 percent of Black children had little or no swimming ability, compared to 36 percent of white kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drowning rate in the U.S. from 1999 to 2019 was two times higher among Indigenous people and 1.5 times higher among Blacks than among whites. This disparity decreased between 1999 and 2005, then increased between 2005 and 2019. The most jarring figure: Black youths between the ages of ten and fourteen drown in swimming pools at 7.6 times the rate of white youths in the same age range.

This tragic reality is a direct legacy of segregation. Throughout this country’s history, Black and nonwhite people have faced exclusion, often violent, from swimming pools and public beaches. In the early 20th century, municipal pools were built in countless white neighborhoods but not in Black parts of town. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was a sudden pool-building spree. Simultaneously, the genders were integrated and allowed to swim together. This movement dovetailed with Jim Crow in the South and both official and de facto pool segregation in the North, Midwest, and West.

The intimacy of pools and beaches awakened the white mainstream’s most racist fears, including the idea that Black people would spread germs through the water, and that Black men would prey on white women. When pools began desegregating, from the 1940s through the 1960s, many white families fled to private pools, and cities spent less on public pools—a pattern that persists today. Naturally, reduced access to pools and beaches led to diminished water-safety ability in the Black community.

Sometime during my teenage years, I remember talking to my mom about racial disparities in swimming and how few Black people I’d see at the pool. I thanked her for all the years of lessons and the expense. She told me then that she took me to swim lessons because Easter’s death haunted her. She was determined to do anything in her power to ensure that her children would not drown and would feel secure in the water.


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