Drowning in Fear

Today was our first day of swimming lessons. While Ahmir, my 4 year old, was like a fish out of water – scared, timid, shaky – at least he resembled a fish. I was amazed at what the instructor got my notoriously skittish little one to do – let go of the side (while holding him, of course), straighten out his arms like an airplane, kick, put his chin and eventually his mouth in the water. My daughter Amina, on the other hand, at almost 3, actually cried and wouldn’t get into the big pool. She did eventually walk in the baby pool, with much prodding by me, but she did not live up to what I expected for my $24 half-hour lesson.

But we are going to stick with it, as ridiculously expensive the lessons are, because I want my children to know how to swim. Black children drown at a rate of almost 3 times that of white children, and mostly that is because they don’t know how to swim. I can understand, because embarrissingly enough, I also don’t know how to swim. Many black adults, epecially those that I know were raised in the Northeast region of the country, don’t know how to swim. And while the reasons run the gamut from lack of access to pools (the public pools in Philly during the summer were so jam packed there was no room to swim!), to the expense of lessons, one of the most troubling reasons is a fear of water.

Again, I can understand. I’m terrified of water. Really, I’m terrified of drowning. But isn’t that ironic – I’m scared to drown, so I don’t learn to swim?

Fear is drowning us adults and our children, and honestly robbing them of a sport and a exercise that does not need to be held back from them. Granted, the lessons are hella expensive, and my checkbook is hurting right now, but I know that I am giving my children a skill that lasts a lifetime. Furthermore, water is one of the most precious things we have on this earth, and one of the most beautiful. When I hear of people diving off cliffs in St. Lucia into pristine waters, or exploring underwater caves, I want my children to be able to experience this wonderful natural resource and engage with it, not be in fear of it.

And you are probably asking – well, what about you, LaToya? Are you going to get over your fear and learn to swim? As soon as a recreation class in beginning swimming fits into my schedule, I’m there. I don’t want my life ruled by fear of anything.

P.S. And while we’re talking summer health, don’t forget the sunscreen. Brown folks do get skin cancer.


13 thoughts on “Drowning in Fear

  1. I’m a fish. I’ve been swimming since I was a baby. My mother was also a big swimmer. Come to think of it, all of us swam. I’m trying to get my baby into swimming lessons ASAP. He loves swimming in the bathtub (well he used to, too big now) so I want to capitalize on that.

    I just don’t get it. Where did this fear come from? Did our ancestors pass along some “dont go near the water” trauma or something?

    I also hate to see so many Black women refuse to get into the water because it will mess up their hair. That really grinds my gears. Swimming is arguably the BEST exercise people can do, yet Black folks are so scared. We have to conquer this fear.

    Our babies require that we do.


    1. I’m thinking that partly it’s adaptive – you develop a fear of things you aren’t around much? Concentrated in cities like New York, Philly, D.C., Chicago, the weather makes it so that there are only 3 good swimming months a year, and then the cost and access issue perhaps made swimming just something that is foreign. And I won’t lie – I was in the ocean last week and I was terrified! Water, while gentle, is also so strong.

      The hair thing – yeah, but we have to admit that it’s a real issue. I would imagine that if black women were more into swimming, some serious money could be made off of a swimcap that really works for our hair…


  2. I also think that a fear of swimming is generational; our parents can’t swim, and so we can’t swim. And why can’t our parents swim? Because they weren’t allowed to. Segregated public facilities usually meant inferior or no facilities for people of color, and swimming pools were no exception. As a result of Jim Crow, we have an entire generation of people (particularly in the Northeast, as both of you mentioned) who never had an opportunity to learn how to swim.

    My mom put us in swimming lessons in the 5th grade, but by that time, some fears are pretty deeply ingrained. As a result, I won’t drown; I can do a doggy paddle, and can float, and can even do a decent stroke when I put my mind to it. But I’m really not COMFORTABLE in the water, mostly because I never really learned how to tread water. I try not to let that stop me; on vacation, we spend a lot of time playing in the water, or at least we used to before the little one came along.

    Speaking of the little one, we put her in the water in Mexico, and she did okay, although she wouldn’t let anyone but me hold her. But on Saturday, we went to the pool with my colleagues and their children, and she let other people hold and play with her in the water, and I’m happy about that. My husband intends on taking “lessons” with her this summer; she’s really too young to learn how to actually swim, but we do want to build a foundation. In South Florida, where pools and access to the ocean abound, it is a matter of safety that she become a strong swimmer.

    Finally, hair–yeah, Toya; you’re right; we have to be honest–it’s harder on our hair. If you have a perm, forget it! Getting your hair wet is problematic, speaking less of getting your hair wet with chlorine, which will just further weaken hair already devastated by straightening chemicals. But even with natural hair, it’s tough. We don’t have wash and go hair, and that chlorine and/or salt water must be washed out after every swim. Even in its natural state, curly hair is very fragile, because ever turn in the coil is a weak point. Drying your hair out with chlorine or salt-water is a bad idea. And even locs must be rinsed and re-tightened after getting soaked. It’s only a non-issue if you’re rocking a short fro that can be quickly rinsed, with not much to do after, but how many of us are rocking that? Unfortunately, those ugly swimming caps just take all the fun out!…


    1. “We don’t have wash and go hair, and that chlorine and/or salt water must be washed out after every swim”

      Yes we do. Wash it, and go. I do this about 3x a week after I swim. I rinse it off, put some conditioner in it, and keep it moving. But then, I’m more comfortable with my natural hair than many sistas are, so I hear your point. I just don’t accept it as a legitimate excuse.

      Locs dont “have” to be retightened. That’s for people who are super meticulous about their locs being neat. I swam regularly with my locs too. They never suffered, and I had locs for 8 years.

      I can understand the relaxer defense, because of the additional harsh chemicals, but many relaxed women pre-treat their hair with conditioner and/or oils that lock moisture in and keep chlorine from penetrating. I learned that on a hair board I frequent.

      So, to me, when it comes down to the hair thing, its just excuses, IMO.


      1. Thanks for the reminder, Benee, that not all people of color have the same hair type! My hair has never been wash and go, even in its most natural state. If I intended on getting my hair wet, I had to also commit to a large-tooth comb, a lot of conditioner, and 30-45 minutes of detangling! What I lack in volume, I more than make up for in curl pattern–I have very, very, kinky hair. The only way I could have wash ‘n go hair would be to rock it boy-short; maybe one day I’ll have the guts to do that.

        Incidentally, I like my locs very manicured, which makes my tight curl pattern useful; my hair always needs to be washed long before it needs to be re-tightened. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with preferring neat locs; it’s just a preference.


  3. OH! I forgot to say, I think it’s great, Toya, that you’re giving your kids this opportunity. They’ll get so much out of it!


  4. I don’t think the hair thing is *just* an excuse, although I understand the point that it can be handled somewhat with some preparation. I think if you want your hair to look a certain way, and that way is affected by frequent washing or getting your hair wet, it’s a legitimate concern. With two kids, I sometimes don’t have time in my day to take one 5 minute shower, let alone rinse my hair and get it back to looking the way I want it to look. Is it vain? Yes, I’ll readily admit that.

    I’ve also bought various swim caps, and cannot find a way to not get my hair wet at all, even when wearing two. So all I’m saying is someone needs to work on the swim cap technology so that NO water gets in. It may be an excuse, but if it’s keeping black women from swimming, then I think it’s an excuse that needs to be dealt with, in the most economical fashion – both for time and money.


    1. I don’t think the vanity issue is an excuse for not getting your kids swim lessons. Obviously that has little to do with children getting lessons. And it’s not an excuse for not learning to swim ourselves, as black women. It’s simply an acknowledgement that maybe swimming isn’t the most convenient thing to do for people who want their hair to look good. As you said, there are many things one can do to minimize the damage to both style and health. I’m not going to let those issues stop me from learning to swim because it really is that important. But I also acknowledge that its going to take extra planning for me to do so, and I worry/think about where that extra time is going to come from, when I have two children under the age of 4 hanging onto my back!


  5. Oh, I’m not addressing the fear. I know its real. My fear of heights is INSANE! So I’m not diminishing the fear. I’m just addressing what I consider a silly excuse too many Black women use for not swimming. But then, I’m wondering now if they use it as an excuse because of the fear they have. Its hard for people to admit to being afraid, so maybe they hide behind the hair issue?

    Because regardless of texture, style, chemical treatments, etc. we can swim, get our hair wet, etc. Too many of us are so hung up on appearances, esp when it comes to our hair, that our health is at risk. You know how many Black women wont go to the gym because they dont want to sweat their hair out?? Its utterly ridiculous. Sacrificing health for hair.

    If thats truly whats keeping them from swimming, I criticize it. Sure, someone needs to create products more helpful for our swimming needs, but since most of us DONT SWIM, there is no market for it so its not worth the money, energy, or time.

    I’m hoping its more about fear. I can accept that.


    1. I agree with you on that. It’s not an excuse not to learn, not to try. Utterly ridiculous is right when it comes to not working out at the gym because you don’t want to sweat your hair out (although we’ll do it in the club, but that’s another issue.)


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