All four of my kids are excellent swimmers, which makes them unusual among African-Americans. Some reports indicate that 70% of African-Americans and 60% of Latinos cannot swim. According to the Center for Disease Control, between 2005 and 2009, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher than that of whites across all ages. The disparity is widest among children 5-14 years old.
The fatal drowning rate of African American children ages 5 to 14 is almost three times that of white children in the same age range.
There are lots of complicated historical, socioeconomic, and other reasons for the lack of swimming among African-Americans. It’s quite different from tennis or golf (which also have low proportions of African-Americans participating), because there’s not so much danger of dying in those activities.
I would of course like to see all these sports and activities embraced by all sorts of people, having fun and being safe.
My daughter Adanech and son Chris, when they were in elementary school, were on the swim team for our town’s swim club. Let’s just say it was fairly easy to locate them in the well-populated team picture.
Adanech, now 24, has continued to use swimming as exercise, and even more intentionally as a stress reliever. I admire that. My granddaughter Zariyah loves the water, especially if her uncle Sean is there.
Z is wearing a swim cap here, as she usually does, as many swimmers do.
My experience with my daughters and with their black girlfriends when they were growing up–and still today–was that hair was a factor in swimming. Unlike many white, Asian, or Latina girls, these girls did not always freely jump in the water, especially not if they’d spent some serious time and money on their hair (via chemicals, flat irons, hairdryers, curlers, braids, weave, beads, more). The impact of chlorinated water on chemically treated hair can be especially damaging, no doubt.
Seeing hair as a gift and not a burden is one of the responsibilities, I believe, of white parents of black children. Yes, we need to learn how to care for it, comb it, celebrate it. We need to associate their hair not with inconvenience or tears or time-consuming chores, but with positive energy and beauty.
And we need to encourage our children to swim, with swim caps if needed (that don’t pull out hair at the hairline), with styles that work well in water, with hair protected before and after swimming from the chlorine (conditioner matters), and with confidence that they can do it. As the poet Rumi wrote, “Today, let us swim wildly, joyously in gratitude.”