“Kick. Kick! Kick kick kick! Don’t forget to breathe! Don’t work so hard—I don’t want you to have a heart attack! I know how black people have heart conditions!” chirped my swimming instructor, Stacy.
I took a pause in my kick-kick-kicking to give her the eye and to catch my breath. I looked around at the svelte undergrads that lined the walls of the outdoor pool, then I looked down at my plump brown body, magnified underwater.
“Are you ready to start kicking again? Your heart rate should be down by now,” Stacy said.
I nodded, coughing out the last remnants of sunscreen-flavored pool water, and continued to kick, clutching the kickboard so hard that the joints in my fingers ached. I was going to do this. I was going to learn to swim, despite my frustration.
Most people learn how to swim when they are young. It’s easier for children because they haven’t become as aware of their mortality as adults have. They may be afraid of water, but they aren’t afraid of drowning to death, like some adults are. I was in my late twenties when I took my first swim lesson. Two year olds, doing breaststroke like tiny Olympians, were lapping me in the shallow end. During my first lesson, I clung Stacy, nearly dragging her down below the surface with me.
“I don’t know how to float. Also, I’m afraid of the water, in case you couldn’t already tell,” I said with I laugh. “Oh, and I can’t see without my glasses. I just wanted to let you know. In case…”
I squinted and tried to smile at Stacy; she grinned back.
“It’s OK! That’s what I’m here for. You’re going to learn how to float, miss! Before you know it, you’re going to be swimming across this pool!”
I wished I could siphon some of her 18-year-old incessant enthusiasm as we bounced to the far corner of the shallow end.
“You know, I always heard that black people don’t know how to swim. I never really met any black people until I came to New Orleans. Why do you think it is that so many black people don’t really learn how to swim?” she asked, and then told me to hold onto the wall. “Now let your body rise to the top of the water. Try to relax!”
My fingers gripped the metal trim of the wall of the pool as I struggled to get my legs and bottom to rise while also trying to answer her uncomfortable question.
“Uh…I think that maybe many black people, historically speaking, had restricted access to swimming pools—er—because—oh my God, oh my God.” I began to sink. “—because of financial situations or segregation, and this, um, uh, means that people don’t teach their children to swim, so that’s how I ended up here. Uh, oh no! Uh. God! Jesus!” Sinking again. “I think there are other reasons, too. I don’t think I can do this.”
I stood up. The air sent a chill through me; I shivered. Explaining cultural baggage while trying not to panic was exhausting. I was frustrated with both Stacy’s naïve cheerfulness and with myself for being such a weak swimmer.
After one of my early lessons, my stepfather told me why he learned to swim. He had grown up during segregation and there was only one pool where he and his friends could go swimming. However, their preferred swimming venue was a series of canals that cut through the city. The depths of the canals were not uniform from one bank to the other. One day, one of his friends waded out farther than he usually did; he slipped below the surface and drowned while his friends looked on, unable to help as they could barely swim themselves. He learned how to swim so the same wouldn’t happen to him. My mother, on the other hand, never learned how to swim because her mother couldn’t. She just avoided the water. I didn’t want to be trapped on land by cultural traditions. I had to keep trying. I knew the history. I’d watched the cartoons.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabana, Eliza could not swim: she was a slave. When she escaped, Evil Simon Legree and his tracking hounds chased her until she reached a river—this could have thwarted her attempt, but Eliza stopped at an ice machine—5 cents a block!—conveniently located next to the river; she floated across the river on blocks of ice. I didn’t want be Eliza—the modern embodiment of a girl who couldn’t do something because she’d never been given the opportunity to learn. A modern black woman has the means and the societal permission to learn whatever she wants, and I would grasp wildly at that chance, while keeping my head above water.
Seven lessons and countless practice hours passed and I was still struggling to float on my stomach and back. I repeated Stacy’s instructions to myself: hold onto the foam dumbbells; lift the left leg; lift the right; arch the back; breathe deeply; don’t let out all the air; try to relax. The currents in the water pushed the dumbbells, my arms making angel wings in the water. On the Sunday morning after my seventh lesson, I practiced on my own. And I did it.
“I’m floating!” I shouted to the ceiling of the natatorium. I was excited, but also sad that I had needed so much time to learn how to do a thing that babies did automatically. I showed Stacy my achievement the following day.
“Good for you!” She clapped her hands. “You’ll be swimming in no time. Now, you’re going to learn how to float on your face. It’s called the dead man’s float. And you have to blow bubbles and be able to sort of clap to lift yourself up to get a breath.”
“Oh, my God,” I said, shivering.
Fear began to bubble beneath the (now false) confidence my floating accomplishment had built. I dove forward, sucking in a lungful or two of air before my face hit the water. I spread my arms and legs, shaping my body into a fleshy star. I held my breath and felt power pulsing through me with every beat of my over-excited heart. I clapped my hands like a seal and was delighted to find that the action really did force my upper body out of the water, allowing me ample time to catch a breath.
Later that week I sat at a bar with a few friends. I told one that I could finally float. Her eyes lit up. She put down her glass of wine and wrapped me in her arms.
“I’m so proud of you. You finally learned how to relax!”
These were victories in all areas of my life: managing anxiety, overcoming cultural stereotypes, and banishing fear and ignorance four buoyant limbs at a time.
My second swimming instructor, Francis was younger than Stacy and far less bubbly. He was on his high school swim team and he would take no nonsense concerning sloppy form and lack of emotional control. At the beginning of our first lesson, I told Francis the same things I told Stacy regarding my fear and my lack of experience and clear vision.
“OK. Well, let’s get started,” he said. He instructed me to move my arms and kick at the same time without worrying about breathing. Lo and behold, I propelled myself across the width of the shallow end. My hand hit the lane divider and I stood up, shooting water out of my nose.
“You swam,” Francis informed me, deadpan.
“I swam? Wow. So it’s that easy? Jeez.” I blew water out of one nostril, then the other, cupping my hands over my nose, clandestine.
“Well, you did the hard part, learning how to float. The rest is just moving your arms and legs and working on breathing,” he said.
I didn’t quite like the sound of working on breathing—a thing I normally did without effort—but I was elated. I had (basically) swum a (meager) distance! Now all I had to worry about was the effects of chlorine on my black-girl hair. I was worried it would become brittle and break off in clumps, but I didn’t want to let it keep me from achieving my goal. And I didn’t. I washed my hair and greased it with Bonner Brothers’ coconut-scented Miracle Gro hair grease after it dried. I deep conditioned it regularly, using Queen Helene Cholesterol, which helped me to comb through the tangles the pool’s currents wove into my hair. I used a swim cap to hold my hair in place so my hair wouldn’t get too matted as I cut my way down the shared lane. I went to the hairdresser regularly to get Damage Remedy hot conditioning treatments, letting the girl know that I was a swimmer and that she should treat my hair accordingly.
I practiced almost daily. I chanted my mantras to myself, spurring myself on: one, two, three, breathe! Tighten your core! Rotate! Relax! Keep going! My heart, lungs, and arms burned; I was filled with fire.
I knew, finally, that I had mastered swimming—at least, the basic tenet of swimming: that I could rescue myself, if I didn’t panic—when I went snorkeling in Mexico the next summer. I didn’t stop to concern myself about how deep the water was going to be when we swam out to mingle with tropical fish. I stripped down to my bikini, put on my life vest, and adjusted the snorkeling device in my mouth.
I entered the Gulf as part of a group, but we soon dispersed across a wider area. Our flippers propelled us into ever deeper and darker waters. I moved away from the group; I didn’t want to be kicked in the face. The water went from turquoise to slate blue. Striped and iridescent fish flickered past me. I reached for them. Briny water slopped into the top of my snorkel tube, running into my mouth. I spluttered and coughed, then reached again, fluttering my flippers, grasping. A catch! My fingertips grazed what I thought was a zebrafish. Looking from side to side for more fish, I noted that I couldn’t make out the floor of the Gulf. I must be in pretty deep, I thought. Bliss, rather than panic, flooded my body. I relaxed my arms and legs and let the waves push me around, my body bobbing like a buoy.