Great Escape

Walking on Water, and Other Ways Black People Escape Life on Land

A surfer challenges modern American narratives about black bodies, water, and freedom

Illustration: Richard Chance

TThe cold of the Pacific Ocean hits you like a drug high. It’s a painful, pleasant shock to the system. The water bites, but doesn’t break the skin. Instead, it penetrates.

As you walk into the water, the purple light of dawn against your back and a surfboard under your arm, you equally welcome and recoil from the predictable sting. The first wave swallows and submerges you. When you resurface, the cold runs down from the crown of your head; it streaks past your eyebrows and rushes down your face in tiny rivers of frigid liquid. The sea water exhilarates and restores you in ways nothing else could. You think about how walking on water forever changes how you walk on land. For the better.

Water is my everything. Always has been. Out there, bobbing in cold oceanic currents on my surfboard, feeling the grey morning swells rumble and roll beneath me as I wait for my wave. Drifting free on the skin of the sea. Waiting to walk on water. Alone in my oceanic escape. Yet when I tell people I’m a surfer, they often have the same puzzled look.

“Is this a joke?” their eyes wordlessly wonder, “Are you being funny? Should I be laughing?”

A black surfer? To certain ears, it must sound like “devout atheist” or “unbiased opinion.” But it’s no oxymoron. Guess some people don’t know this: Black people are a water people. You could say we were born on the ocean. The Atlantic.

“Toe in ocean, Mommy. Toe in ocean!”

That’s what I said the first time I ever saw the lapis blue waters of Miami Beach. I was 18 months old and an early talker, so this sentence impressed no one. But it does seem to be one of my earliest defining moments. I just always wanted to be in the water.

While some assume that my being a black surfer is a joke and laugh accordingly, it is true that black people rarely get to enjoy the water. “Get to” being the important part of that statement. The most recent statistics report that only 35% of black American children know how to swim. There is, of course, a reason for this. (The answer rhymes with “flavor free.”)

This is not history. This is Tuesday.

As writer Brentin Mock explains, the public pool has been, and remains, one of the most racist spaces in America. No matter the body of water, whether it’s a public pool, a lake, river, or public beach, black Americans have been, and continue to be, actively denied access to water.

Take the recent viral story of that racist white guy, ID Adam, who called the cops on a black woman for daring to visit a private community pool. Or do you recall when, in 2015, a young black woman in Texas attended an end-of-the-year pool party and a cop showed up and violently, wrongfully arrested her? She sued and won. Or earlier this summer, when an off-duty cop harassed a black guy for using the pool at his own apartment complex. The young black man repeatedly asked, “Why do I have to leave my pool?” This is not history. This is Tuesday.

Black bathers and swimmers were once a welcome sight. That was back when black bodies were a source of profit, with slaves unintentionally bringing skills like swimming and underwater diving to the Americas. Turns out that up until the 19th century, most whites — even sailors — couldn’t swim, and if they could, they couldn’t do it as well as the West Africans they’d stolen. It was only when public swimming became a thing — when black people wanted to be in the water for our leisure, our pleasure — that America denied us (and learned how to swim). We were and continue to be denied water in this, the Land of the Free.

Consider the work of Joseph K. Lee. As a UCLA student, he often flew into the city and was repeatedly mesmerized by the endless pools that dot the landscape of Los Angeles. In 2013, the graduate researcher compiled aerial photographs to tabulate all the pools in LA. He counted over 43,000 pools in the LA basin. Unsurprisingly, Beverly Hills had the most per capita, with 2,481 pools. But the wealthy coastal community, Rancho Palos Verdes, had Beverly Hills beat by total count, at 2,592. The predominantly black South Central neighborhood of Watts? Zero pools. Not a damn one. Well, there is one public pool — it just wasn’t counted in Lee’s study because it was closed for a decade before reopening in 2016.

To recap, Los Angeles has 43,000 pools. And in Watts, there’s one.

This is why 65% of Black children living in the US don’t know how to swim. Sixty-five percent.

So no, Carol, it isn’t because of our hair. Sorry, Timothy, it isn’t because we’re scared of the water. And no, Brad, it isn’t even because many of us don’t float. Why is it? Say it with me: Black people have been actively denied access to water in America. And continue to be. But go ahead, Phillip, joke about how black people hate to swim because it’s the one sport we’re not good at. Or whatever.

Growing up, my father was particularly good at telling a bedtime story. They featured no princes saving princesses, no noble knights vanquishing dragons, no superheroes overcoming supervillains. Instead, there were stories of talking animals, magical bakers; tales of an irresponsible physician named Dr. Vinny Goombach (which I later learned was a play on a Rodney Dangerfield routine). My pops would sometimes mix in tales of the Five Families of New York and New Jersey. He’d tell me the story of some gangland execution, tracing it backward and recounting the many events that led to that bloody payback. My father liked to retell stories of the Black Panthers shootouts with FBI informants or the LAPD, how they led an armed occupation of the capital of California. My father loved stories of men who lived by their own codes, free of normal constraints of the law.

Freedom was the underlying theme in all my father’s bedtime stories. I wonder if he realized if those stories were intentional lessons that would teach his son to value his own freedom, or if he was just compelled by escape. My favorites were the stories about slaves, who planned and waited like master criminals for just the right moment to steal themselves away from their master’s house. Betting against death to save their lives. Underground Railroad escapes. Moonless nights. Impossible river crossings. The sound of the hounds.

As I listened to my father’s voice, the characters would spring to life; I’d see the imagined world through their imagined eyes. But I also knew that at one point, these characters from my father’s stories? They’d existed. This stuff really happened. Even the one about the slave woman who walked — no, ran — on water and found freedom on the other side. A biblical feat if ever there were one.

On a frigid night in northern Kentucky, Eliza Harris stares at the sleeping face of her two-year-old child. She has just learned that her master is having a financial crisis. He plans to save himself by selling Eliza and her child to new owners. She has already buried two children; this sleeping infant is all she has left. So once her master lays down to bed, Eliza plans to escape with her child.

On this winter night, Eliza flees into the darkness, her eyes reflecting both the star-dotted night sky and her committed resolve. Her master wakes before dawn to discover she’s fled with his property and promptly sends slave catchers after the mother and her child. All through the night, the bloodhounds howl and wail as they hunt after faint whispers of Eliza’s scent.

Eliza’s plan is to reach the Ohio River and walk across the iced-over surface to freedom. But at first daylight, as she approaches the river, she sees how the thawed ice has broken up into enormous, floating cakes. No way to walk across it. Eliza has no time to think. Calling from the woods, the howls of bloodhounds announce the presence of the slave catchers. They’ve tracked her down. She watches the slave catchers arrive at a house. When they dismount their horses, Eliza makes a break for it, fleeing with her child, the river her only hope.

Before the slave catchers and their horses can run her down, Eliza steps out onto the semi-frozen river. The ice cracks a bit beneath her. She keeps going. The ice cracks more, it splits, breaks open, and with a splash, the river swallows her and her baby.

But Eliza pushes her baby up onto an ice floe and drags herself out of the frigid water. She repeats this every single time she and her infant child splash into the river: push the baby up, drag herself back out of the icy water.

A man waits on the river’s edge, watching her terrifying progress. He’s a stranger, certain she won’t make it across. But she keeps going, so he keeps watching. Walking on water, Eliza eventually reaches freedom. The man guides her to a local station of the Underground Railroad. She’s conducted to Canada, safe from the slave catchers. To free herself and her child, Eliza Harris ran across the Ohio River and delivered what was left of her family to freedom.

There’s a stereotype that some black people don’t swim because we fear what lurks in the water. Did you know the word “shark” is believed to come from slavery? The term is rumored to have originated on English slave ships sometime in the 1560s, on one of Captain John Hawkins’ many trips collecting human cargo along the shores of West Africa. By that time, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Spanish slavers had all been operating in those waters for decades, and sharks — like the predatory slavers — found their way to benefit from the horrors of slavery.

Even the imagery of the ocean can conjure up unresolved historical trauma.

The Middle Passage of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was so bloody it changed the migratory patterns of sharks. After 350 million years of evolution, their nature was altered on account of all the African bodies dumped into the sea. Centuries of bodies. In fact, suicide by shark was so common that it was documented in the journals of multiple slave ship captains. The captains often tried to use the sight of the sharks to scare the slaves — as the alternative to their chains — but the captains were surprised to find just how many Africans chose the sharks over slavery.

This is but one more reason a lot of black people don’t swim. Sharks. Even the imagery of the ocean can conjure up unresolved historical trauma. It’s also a reminder that not every escape into the water was so thrilling. Not everyone was Eliza Harris. Some slaves would meet the maw of a shark before they ever had a chance to meet Harriet Tubman. Some slaves never got to walk on water.

Black Panther gave us one of the greatest lines uttered in American cinema in the last 10 years. The villain, Erik Killmonger, tells his cousin, the Black Panther, what to do with his body after he dies. The dialogue ripped open an unhealed wound for Black America. It was a moment so powerful that it has transcended its supervillain origins and is now a legit part of the culture. Like the cinematic equivalent of a Tupac quote:

Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.

The ocean as respite from unconscionable brutality. A funerary baptism at sea. Black bodies as a bloody host for sharks’ communion. Consumed by the sins civilization committed against us.

But finally, free.

The writer Isak Dinesen once strung together a line of words that, to this surfer’s mind, is one of the best and most accurate sentences ever written: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.”

Your labor can sometimes save you; the salt water of sweat reminds us of that.

And hot tears — whether from joy, or sorrow, or a bittersweet mix of both — can be a conduit for tremendous release, our emotion finally escaping from where it’s bound in our bodies.

And the sea can save you, that great body that’s always there like a birthright. Just as the ocean gave birth to black people when we were delivered to a new land, the waters between continents are a second home to any of us. The sea is a body that no one owns; all are welcome to escape into it.

For the spiritual among us, the sea and its salty body no doubt put us in closer contact with the divine. I may not find God when I fall off my surfboard, but baptized in cold I can understand why so many seek salvation there, why believers expect to find God (or gods) in the sea.

For the rest of us, finding escape is enough.

writer at MEL magazine, essay & short stories at Medium, and always in the mood for donuts

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store