It’s not a black thang…yet

Cullen Jones may be the second Olypic swimmer, after Duke Kahanamoku a century ago, to have an impact on surfing.

Cullen Jones may be the second Olypic swimmer, after Duke Kahanamoku a century ago, to have an impact on surfing.


Would it surprise you to hear that the fastest American to ever swim 50 meters is black? I said swim, not run. In a pool. Filled with water. You’re not surprised? Bullshit.

We can’t talk about race these days without someone claiming racism. I’ll take my chances, and I’ll preface this with the fact that Steve Martin isn’t the only white guy who grew up thinking he was born a poor black child. Seriously, ask my mom.

So my question is, if elite swimming is no longer beyond the reach of African Americans, why should surfing be any different? It’s a bit soon to expect a wave-riding Tiger Woods, but why haven’t we at least had a wave-riding Calvin Peete? Like Spike Lee famously asked in Do the Right Thing, I’m asking, “Hey Sal, how come you ain’t got no brothers up on the wall here?”

The answer is hardly a secret. It isn’t racist to note that blacks, more so than people of other races, avoid water. A University of Memphis study from 2010 found that nearly 70% of African-American youths can’t swim, compared to 40% of whites. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, black kids drown three times as often as white kids. The primary reason for these descrepancies, according to the study, is fear. Parents who haven’t learned to swim due to a phobia of water raise children who never learn to swim. It all stems from segregation, but the statute of limitations on that excuse has expired.

Goofing off in 1986 with Cab Spates, a good surfer and now a fixture on the North Shore.

Goofing off in 1986 with Cab Spates, a good surfer and now a fixture on the North Shore.


Why do I care? Teaching thousands of people to ride waves has shown me the transformative qualities of surfing, especially on those beginners who moments earlier could not imagine being able to accomplish such a feat. Learning to surf (after learning to swim, of course) instills a sense of appreciaton and respect for nature. It opens eyes. Plus, I recently watched 12 Years a Slave, and I still have a sick feeling in my stomach.

If you don’t think that a surfing Tiger Woods is possible, Honkey please! Youtube any episode of “Soul Train” and tell me those brothers and sisters couldn’t surf if given the chance. Blacks are in a league of their own as far as rhythmic body movement, and what is a wave but a moving dance floor? Given the lack of rhythm white people demonstrate at wedding receptions on a weekly basis, our aptitude for surfing is a miracle.

So what’s keeping African-Americans from joining the party? You can’t blame it on cost. The only real expense in surfing, once you get to the beach, is a board. I know that a new pair of Jordans runs more than a decent used board. The only barrier is irrational fear, and some have already chiseled away at that make-believe wall.

The Black Surfing Association has existed since the 1970s, Malibu regular Solo Scott was a U.S. Amateur champ in the ’80s, and the late Buttons Kaluhiolokalani, who was every bit as black as Tiger (meaning 50%), had as much talent as any other human on a surfboard. Buttons grew up on the beach at Waikiki, so avoiding the water wasn’t an option.

Buttons Kaluhiolokalani was decades ahead of his time in terms of creativity and spontaneity in surfing.

Buttons Kaluhiolokalani was decades ahead of his time in terms of creativity and spontaneity in surfing.


And what of that swimmer I mentioned, the black guy? His name is Cullen Jones, and he nearly drowned at Dorney Park in Pennsylvania when he was five. His mom, instead of telling him water is dangerous, signed him up for swim lessons. Now, the man is an Olympic champ, and he travels around the country doing the same for other kids.

It used to be that people believed only Polynesian islanders could ride waves. As Mark Twain penned after a miserable Hawaiian failure, “None but the natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.” It wasn’t that we couldn’t surf; we just didn’t surf. Once white dudes realized the ocean wouldn’t swallow their lilly-whites asses whole, they ripped. When Jones’ mission catches on, blacks will realize what they’ve been missing. Then, we’ll see the surfing version of Tiger Woods, and the sport might finally get the mainstream recognition it desires.

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