In answer to the Day 4 Question “Can You Swim?”

Swimming While Black

I actually grew up with a pool in my backyard.  It wasn’t until I was at least 9 or 10 that I even encountered the idea that most black people couldn’t swim.  .

I remember my father taking me with him to pickup my brother from Boy Scout camp at the age of 9 or 10, and witnessing the final relay race in the Boy Scout olympiad every camp is required to have.  These things usually start with someone running into chest deep water as the first leg and tagging a swimmer, who tags somone in a canoe, and so forth, culminating in a race around the lake, most of which is in deeper water.

I remember being keenly aware of the fact that there was rarely more than one black kid in each troop, and that all of those black kids(except for my own brother) were all running the first leg.  I assumed it must have been because they were faster than everyone else.  It blew my mind when I later found out that all of these kids had to do the first leg because they couldn’t swim.  I distinctly remember thinking, that’s odd that everyone here who is black can’t swim.

I recall returning to that camp 5 or 6 years later as a member of a different troop(we moved in those intervening years), and of course being the only black kid in my troop(my older brother had gone off to college).  We did the same relay on the last day, and I was doing one of the legs of the race that required you to kayak alone across the middle of the lake.  I was picked because I was undoubtedly the best swimmer in the troop.

I recall no less than 3 men immediately surrounding my scoutmaster and asking him if he was sure it was a good idea that I was going to kayak.  I recall the confusion on his face as they attempted to subtly hint at their concern.  Even better, was the obvious increase in his confusion when I strolled up and explained, “Mr. Jacobsen, they want to know if I can swim.”  I have always appreciated his response, that their concern at my swimming while black, was one of the stupidest things he had ever heard.