Monday Sep 14, 2020

Episode 43: The Golden Age of Black Swimming with Kevin Dawson

In this episode, Johanna and Nathan speak with historian Kevin Dawson about how his book, Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora completely debunks the historical and contemporary white supremacist myth about Black people’s innate inability to swim. Dawson explains how from about the 1400s-1800s African peoples were some of the biggest swimming, canoeing, diving, and surfing experts worldwide because they taught their young children to swim and find communal meaning in the water. The aquatic sphere defined their ways of living, occupations, and leisure activities. When white European colonizers – who feared the water - approached West African shores in the 1400s, they were amazed to find African people frolicking in the ocean and diving to great depths. As whites colonized and enslaved Black peoples in subsequent centuries, the two groups used the latter’s aquatics skills to negotiate their power vis-à-vis one another. Whereas enslaved Africans did things such as only selectively save white people during maritime disasters, work more slowly, and find prestige in their success in water competitions, white slaveholders in North America especially exploited Africans’ swimming skills through the same water competitions and other tactics. Until the post-Civil War era, white Europeans and American slaveholders framed enslaved people’s aquatic abilities in racist terms by describing them as animal-like, in comparison to their own white, “civilized” way of living. 

You will not want to miss the second half of the episode! Dawson explains how the shift to our present-day white supremacist ideas about Black people’s innate inability to swim began in the early 1900s, when whites transformed sites of water to sites of trauma for Black Americans. They segregated public pools under the guise of needing to protect their white wives and families from Black and other minoritized groups’ “filth” and “criminality.” Particularly traumatic moments such as the lynching and dumping of Emmett Till’s body in the river reinforced the water as a site of death for the Black American community, such that the latter began to understood swimming and the water as sites of white leisure and “un-black.”

At the end of the episode, Dawson details his work engaging with public audiences and swim team by educating them about his work. He also explains his surprise and joy at seeing Black Paralympic swimmer Jamal Hill discuss Undercurrents of Power to viewers in an IG TV video for USA Master’s Swimming, as well as the limitations of Team USA’s current attempts to tackle the history of anti-Black racism in American swimming history. 

You can find Kevin Dawson’s groundbreaking book, Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diasporahere.

Black Paralympic swimmer Jamal Hill’s fantastic IG TV video for the USA Master’s Swimming Instagram account can be found here. Hill will be our guest for a future episode of Swimming Week, so stay tuned!

Team USA’s limited attempt to confront our racist history of swimming can be found here (note too that no scholars of color are cited), and its beautiful IG post can be found here.

For a transcription of this episode, please click here. (Credit @punkademic)

After listening to the episode, check out our most recent pieces:

“Red-Scare Rhetoric Isn’t Gone From Histories of American Sport” in Jacobin Magazine

"Canceling the College-Football Season Isn't Enough" published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“'We are being gaslit': College football and Covid-19 are imperiling athletes” in The Guardian

“Canceling the college football season is about union busting, not health” also in The Guardian


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