Another summer has come and gone, and the only way I know how to stay afloat in a large body of water is to doggy paddle. And this is from a girl whose favorite destination in the whole wide world is a white sand beach off the Atlantic Ocean. So what gives? Why can’t I (and so many black women) swim?

Ultimately, what has kept me away from the deep end of the pool is a fear of three things: water, my body, and kinky hair. As a child, I was always drawn to water. I liked the way it cooled my sun-kissed skin and how, if you stayed relaxed, it could carry you safely to shore. But every time I tried to ride the wave, there was always some sort of mental block, something that stood between me and the cast of Baywatch.

Growing up, my dad — an avid swimmer — tried several times to teach me to swim. After patiently explaining techniques and demonstrating back, breast, and freestyle strokes, he’d take me deeper out into the water. It ended the same way each time; I’d come running to the shoreline screaming,”Mommy! Daddy is trying to drown me!” Not being able to touch something — like the earth’s bottom or my dad’s arm — was just too scary.

My father eventually relinquished his Michael Phelps duties to Camp Integrity. At about 12 years old, I started to attend a predominately white camp in South Hampton, N.Y. where everyone knew how to swim (Except me and the two other black girls) — and I’m not talking about average swimming. These girls were a whistle away from lifeguard status. But the pools in their backyards, summer homes, and middle schools probably had a little something to do with that.

I grew to hate “pool time” because I was always a “beginner,” and the beginner side of the pool was never any fun. But neither was bathing suit time. Most of my white friends had athletic or toned physiques (even for a 12 year old) that were adorned with itsy-bitsy polka dot bikinis. While not a beach whale, I definitely couldn’t pull off a two-piece. Years later, while watching black women on the beach hiding their ample rumps with cover ups or wearing t-shirts over swimsuits to hide their round bellies, I realized that swimming represented the unveiling of bodies we weren’t comfortable with.

And then there’s the hair. While I haven’t done an official poll, I would say this is the number one reason most black women don’t engage in aquatic activities. For many of us, the time, effort, and money invested in our “hairdo” can not be compromised for a quick dip in the pool. Forget about a spontaneous skinny dip or a (fun) water fight, we can’t even get our hair wet for something as profound as a Baptism (You’ve seen that young girl being dipped in the holy water with a swimming cap). Water is like kryptonite to black women. All the fun stops once a black woman’s hair gets wet. Game over.

In the past, my fear and hang ups have caused me to sink, but I’m starting to realize how important it is for me to conquer this thing. To that end, I’ve signed up for $250 swimming lessons at my gym. I’m tired of just splashing around and looking cute, everything submerged including from the neck up. The water is not a Wu-Tang song; you don’t need to “Protect Ya Neck.” I’m responsible for protecting myself — my life. I’m learning to trust, just breathe, and ride the wave … both in and out of the water.

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  • My sister and I were thrown in Hammond beach in NC by our mother on a regular basis and basically had to fend for ourselves. We were never taught by anyone nor given “lessons”. To be quite honest as I think about it…I never in the dozens of times I remember going there as little girl had I ever seen my mother touch the water (???)..anyway my sister and I are what one may consider very advanced swimmers.