There’s an old joke – or, at least, that’s what some people have the nerve to call it – that goes something like this: Why don’t black people swim? Their bones are too dense to float.
That’s it. That’s the punchline.
It’s patently untrue, of course. But I’ve heard it more times than I care to remember. From white friends who blink in surprise when I emerge in a swimsuit ready to jump in the pool. And from uncles and aunts and cousins who think I’ve lost my mind when I tell them I love to dive into the ocean.
“I ain’t gettin’ in no water,” my grandmother used to say with a dismissive wave while I begged her to sit on the steps in the shallow end of my suburb’s public pool while I splashed around.
She never did get in. Not even a toe. She edged around that pool like it was a pit of burning lava and eyed me like my body would burst into flames at any minute.
Her fear of the water, like that of my mother and so many other black people I know, is real. So real that, according to a 2010 study commissioned by USA Swimming, 69 percent of black children had “low or no swim ability.” For white kids, it was 41.8 percent, and for Latino kids, 57.9 percent.
It’s why black children die from drowning at a rate that’s 5 1/2 times higher than white children do, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So, yeah. Black people don’t swim. Then along came Simone Manuel.
On Thursday, the 20-year-old Stanford student became the first black female swimmer to win an individual medal at the Olympics. And she won a gold at that, turning out an absolutely amazing performance to tie with Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak and set a record time of 57.20 in 100-meter freestyle.
Fighting back tears, Manuel seemed overcome by the historic significance of it all.
“This medal is not just for me,” she said after the race. “It’s for some of the African Americans who have come before me and been an inspiration. I hope I can be an inspiration to others.”
Manuel surely knows better than most that the history of black folks and swimming is long and convoluted.
There’s the fear of the water, yes, but there’s also the legacy of Jim Crow laws that kept pools segregated in the South. Court-mandated integration only led to the closing of public pools, and the opening of fancy country clubs and private pools that were out of reach of poor black people.
Fast-forward and you have a generation of parents who either instilled their fear in their kids or tried to break the cycle.
My mom put me in swim lessons at age 4 because she didn’t know how to swim. One of my earliest memories is shimmying to the bottom of a pool that was 12 feet deep, touching the bottom and getting back to the surface. My mom had tears in her eyes, she was so scared.
I have friends whose parents, convinced that their children would drown, kept them as far away from swimming pools and rivers and lakes and oceans as humanly possible.
This is the world that Manuel wants to change, the behavior reinforced by racial stereotypes that she wants to do away with. And I’m convinced that she can.
“I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone, the black swimmer,’ ” she said, “because the title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I’m not supposed to be able to break records. And that’s not true.”
Black people can swim.