Thursday, June 20, 2013
June 20, 2013: American Swims: Race at the Pool
[For me, summer has always meant swimming: in the pool across from my childhood home, at the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, with my boys. So in honor of the summer solstice, this week’s series will focus on meaningful swims in American culture and history. Add your responses and summertime thoughts for a warm weekend post, please!]
On one of the most insidious sites of American segregation, past and present.
I learned to swim at the intimidating, demanding, impressive, and inspiring hands of one Mr. Byers (I wish I knew his first name, but to us he was always Mr.). A big African American man with a shaved head and booming voice, Mr. Byers was definitely scary to this young 7 year old AmericanStudier; I can still remember how, if I came out of the locker room with even mildly wet hair, he would wrap my head in a towel and dry so vigorously I thought my head might come clean off. But he was also incredibly good at his job; not only at teaching young kids to swim, but also at lifeguarding: he had been struck by lightning at least a few different times while trying to get the last swimmers out of a pool as a thunderstorm arrived. And he could be tender and caring as well, both in his lessons and when the unexpected occurred—it was while at a lesson with Mr. Byers that we watched the Challenger explosion, and I distinctly remember his calming presence in that terrible moment.
Thanks to Mr. Byers, my memories of that tragic historical moment are a bit less traumatic than they might otherwise have been. But thanks to a more long-term and just as tragic American history, Mr. Byers wouldn’t have been welcome at—wouldn’t have been allowed entrance into—many of the swimming pools in his (and my) hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. De jure racial segregation endured in Charlottesville as long as it did anywhere in the South; the public schools only gave in and desegregated in the late 1960s, nearly 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education (and after closing for a year in a last-ditch effort to avoid having to desegregate). De facto segregation continued for far longer still, as illustrated by the city’s swimming pools in the early 1980s of my childhood—most of the private pools and clubs prohibited African American members or visitors, making the city’s public pools almost entirely and exclusively African American as a result. Even where the segregation was not so overt, it tended to follow this overarching trend—my family’s pool, Fry’s Spring Beach Club, had desegregated in 1968, but in my memories it was still almost entirely white (despite being located near predominantly African American neighborhoods).
We like to think that such de facto segregation is a thing of the past in America, but quite simply that’s not the case—as recent controversies involving proms, neighborhood covenants, and, yes, swimming pools amply demonstrate. But even where segregation is no longer either the law or the rule—and that’s most American places, of course—its potent legacies linger. As documented in this NPR interview and the book to which it connects, the history of race and swimming pools has produced a number of complex and ongoing effects—including the striking statistic that more than 50% of African American schoolchildren are not able to swim. Which is to say, not only would Mr. Byers have not been allowed to practice his craft at many of the pools in our shared hometown, but his lessons would also have been far less likely to make it to his young African American brethren. That’s not a history that we Americans much like to think about—but both for its own sake and for its present ramifications it’s vitally important that we do so.
Final American swim tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on these histories or issues? Other summer links you’d highlight?