I am one of nearly six of every 10 black Americans who can’t swim, so the jarring statistics about African-American
and swimming, especially kids ages 5-14 being nearly three times as likely to die of drowning as
white children, concern me.
I did not grow up disadvantaged or with the stigma of blacks not being able to swim. In fact, some of my best childhood memories were at pool parties. I just avoided the water - and not just because of my hair. As I recounted ten years ago (ouch!) in Heart & Soul magazine my phobia can be traced back to 1976. Yes, that's me in the opening shot, fakin' the funk for the photo shoot and mini me in the inset. I was six years old and my younger sister (who taught herself how to swim) and I were playing in the pool at our father's apartment complex. I don't remember if I took a wrong step or just was not paying attention but I ended up struggling, nearly drowning, in the deep end of the pool. Unfortunately for me, my dad was so pre-occupied jamming to the P-Funk, he didn't see that I was in trouble and a woman that I didn't know, one of his neighbors, pulled me up and led me to the edge of the pool.
Ever since that episode, I have done my best to avoid the water. Even when I got my hair washed in the kitchen sink at my mother's house, my arms and legs had to be pinned down or else I would kick everything off of the kitchen counter! I was famous for doing this as a kid. Sad... I even called my mother today just to ask what she remembered about it and she said, "Oh yeah! You were always too scared to get in the water. Every time somebody tried to put you in, you wouldn't go!"
I have had many opportunities to learn to swim since that time. In fact, I took a few lessons for the Heart & Soul article, but I haven't kept it up. My excuse has always been that I would learn to swim before I had children (which means... what?)
Anyway, watching Cullen Jones not only win gold, but work with programs to get young Black kids in the water has definitely inspired me to rethink my swimming stance.
So, I am asking you Black Americans out there (apparently the "blacks can't swim" stigma does not apply to our Caribbean and African brothers and sisters) Can you swim? Are you afraid of the water? Can your kids swim?