Sink or Swim: Race and Drowning

Cullen Jones, teaching children to swim, 2012. Threads: University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Multicultural Student Center.

70 percent of African-American children don’t know how to swim and are three times more likely to drown than other children, according to recent studies. In recent months, the  media has shocked America with news features describing the disproportionate deaths of nonwhite children–merely because they don’t know how to swim. Cullen Jones, Olympic gold medalist in 2008 and freestyle sprinter on the 2012 US Olympic swim team captured headlines this summer promoting the safety initiative, “Make a Splash,” which endeavors to save lives by providing swimming instruction to children in need.

Curiously, drowning has always affected groups of Americans disproportionately–but not as today’s statistics might suggest. Slightly more than 100 years ago, thousands of deaths from drownings occurred annually and public safety campaigns–called “Learn to Swim”–similar to “Make a Splash” were launched in cities across America. They targeted not African Americans but women—particularly white middle-class women. At the time, sportswriters described swimming as a masculine sport, as evidenced by the stamina and endurance it required.

Just as African Americans drown in shockingly high numbers today, hundreds of women drowned annually 100 years ago–largely because their heavy, woolen skirted bathing suits immobilized them in the water. But many at the time concluded that women were biologically inferior or incapable of swimming and that cultural stereotype rooted until early 20th century “Learn to Swim” campaigns taught hundreds of women to swim.

Today, the idea that gender could inhibit swimming seem ludicrous–a cultural stereotypes that society outgrew. But the early “Learn to Swim” campaigns, emphasizing as they did, the need for women to learn to swim, may have accidentally created other cultural stereotype: that water sports were most suitably undertaken by whites and women or slender men who seemed less stereotypically masculine than other athletes, like football players.

Publicity photo of Esther Williams at the Beverly Hills Hotel, 1941. Courtesy International Swimming Hall of Fame.

The idea that race affected performance in sport gained prominence in the interwar years beginning, perhaps, when Jesse Owens captured the world’s attention with his spectacular performance at the 1936 Olympics. The media reported eagerly on black men and women athletes’ natural excellence at track and field athletics; at roughly the same time, the media associated water sports with whites. Streamlined swimmers and divers like Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams appeared in Hollywood films.

Their widespread popularity as actors and the proliferation of swimming films helped cement the cultural association of swimming as a white activity. Williams, winner of three national championships, would likely have become a world champion had World War II not preempted the 1940 Olympic games. The media downplayed her strength, using images that emphasized her sex appeal and ornamental beauty, subtly reinforcing the idea that swimming and diving were “white” sports, and perhaps increasingly, female sports.

Did Americans always perceive swimming as a “white” sport?

No. And Africans and African Americans were historically regarded as strong swimmers. The pioneering work of historian Kevin Dawson illustrates that swimming once held great cultural significance to Africans and enslaved Africans who were once regarded as exceptionally strong, natural swimmers—much more adept at swimming than whites. Evidence suggests that swimming retained at least some cultural significance to black communities in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Chicago Defender provides an alternative history of black men and women swimmers. Its pages describe the champion swims of women such as Louise O. Wilson, graduate of the Hampton Institute, and Pauline Jackson, neither of whom were recognized by the white sportswriters of mainstream newspapers. In addition to its column about swimming instruction, it included articles about swimming  from other magazines.

Lack of access to swimming instruction today undeniably contributes to the serious problem of drowning among African American children. Economics as well as race affects  the community accessibility of swimming pools and and available instruction. While it would be naïve and shortsighted to attribute drowning solely to cultural stereotypes, it is important to consider how gender and racial stereotypes can cause communities to disassociate from certain sports. It is imperative to understand the power the media has in shaping not only our present perceptions, but our understanding of the past. Hopefully the “Make a Splash” initiative will succeed and not only save lives but eradicate any lingering beliefs that race predisposes or disinclines swimming.


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