A black man or woman on a board my stand out to you, hell, we even feel like we're in a fishbowl out on display for the rest of the beach. Perhaps at first. It may be strange waters for the black man or woman or for the spectator, but the reality is most African Americans didn't grow up with open water awareness and thus have legitimate trepidations. Nevertheless open water recreational activites are on the rise for Americans as a whole, and who are we to shun a good time?
My first 'moment' with my now husband was at a beach barbecue he threw before we were even a twinkle in each others eyes. At sunset he beckoned everyone to get back into the water one last time. To the rest of the party this was normal. To me, it was a bucket list challenge. With some tropical liquid courage to give me strength, I waded in and the first wave that rolled up on us, I jumped and clung on to him -- a mere acquaintance at the time -- like a koala bear on a eucalyptus tree. The way he tells it, the wave was no more than 3 feet. In my minds-eye I survived a tsunami.
Now baptized into my first adult ocean experience, I was altogether raptured and terrified. I grew up with a love for pools and the water park -- that's it. I went boogie boarding one time as a child and got rolled in the whitewash -- and was out. Drop the mic, DONE. So this new immersion, decades later felt like an analogous challenge to open my mind and try something new. I skipped bodysurfing, which definitely would have helped me get comfortable in the waves, and I jumped straight into paddle surfing a few times then surfing.
The fear, for the longest time, weighed me down. I was terrified of it all: getting tossed/drowned in the crash zone, sting rays, jelly fish, heebie jeebies and the like. But to me, as is my personality, I was determined because I was sure there was a God-breathed life lesson in this new adventure. As a black woman I was precociously taught to tread carefully, stay in control of my person and survive. Everything about surfing went against how I was raised. The danger and possible outcomes governed the first entire season of my experience learning to surf.
But as I began to observe and find the poetry of the experience, it dawned on me that perhaps and especially as an African American, the lesson in surfing was learning how to let go, relinquish to the experience, and quiet my mind. To learn to become one with the water versus fighting to stay on top. To stop swimming upstream and to take the adventure in stride. I learned, over the course of several innagural seasons, that, just like a duck dive, if I want to avoid the danger I must submit to it. In duck diving you must go under the wave, trying to go over it will put you in greater danger and you certainly cannot outswim a wave. You must face the wave and bow to it, to let it pass. I am not a great surfer, and currently not even a good one. But the lessons I learned made me a lifelong soul surfer. I will learn slowly and ride long.
How I learned and overcame the fear
Golf, Hockey -- nailed it! Now SUP?
Blacks across the globe are renowned and envied for just taking over sports. If we try something, chances are, we're going to kill it -- athletically speaking. It was quietly assumed and rumored that slavery made African Americans stronger, though a simple anthropology and a lesson in eugenics will disprove this misnomer. Besides, the notion that the pride of our athleticism being attributed to selection and breeding in slavery is a racist explanation itself. A bold-faced dismissal of our God-given attributes.
Jon Entine is an author and science journalist who tried to delve into the weighty subject. Entine's book,"Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It," touches on some of the science behind the natural Black physiques typical composition being a shoe-in for ground games but a burden in the water. "And, just as 'white men can’t jump,' it is also the case that 'black men can’t swim.' One of the reasons for the latter fact is that black people have denser skeletons and lower levels of body fat, a physical trait inherited from the tropical areas of Africa."
This generality may ring true for some, but by and large a stereotypical fear of deep water and geographical lack of exposure are arguably the main reasons behind African American's corporate absence in open water sports.
Still, as the melting pot of culture, demographic, social status and races continue to stir here in the U.S., beach babies and water enthusiasts are seeing increasingly more of their brown fellows venturing out to enjoy the likes of surfing, kayaking and most popularly: standup paddleboarding or SUP.
SUP has grown to such wide recreation over the past decade. In fact, according to the 2013 Outdoor Recreation Participation report, paddleboarding was the number one sporting activity with the most first-time participants of any in the United States that year. It's an excellent upper body and core workout; fresh and flashy; and the user doesn't technically have to get immersed in the water to tour around lakes, jetties and harbors. For me, not getting my hair wet was the primary motivation for not falling off my paddleboard. My husband could attest, I enjoyed touring and seldom slipped off.
If you see a man or woman of color out enjoying open water recreation, just smile and nod, no words are needed. Bear in mind their Caribbean kin and rural ancestry actually carved the current for SUP, as standing while paddling in canoes was common in African and Asian culture well before it became a pastime.
Surfing is sexy
About the third time I got in the water to surf, I decided to go with a girlfriend instead of my man, thinking my nerves would calm if I went in smaller waves with a fellow MILF. My friend, Ally, introduced me to the suave appeal of soul surfing for grown women. I had studied the guys and young girls surf and I admired the sportsmanship: their agility, their command of catching a wave and their strength. Basically the guys and sporty-spiced girls make it look too easy -- certainly unattainable. I was very self conscious and intimidated. Yet as my friend showed me the basics, from the perspective of how a woman's body moves, I was turned on... to the sport.
We were on longboards and after carrying the Cadillac-long boards to the water, balanced on our heads, like my rural ancestors, we rested them atop the water and mounted. I was having trouble with very elementary fundamentals like turning the board around to even begin to catch a wave. But Ally knew all the femme tricks and tips. I will never forget this part. Once we quietly paddled out to a comfortable distance, my friend uprighted herself, and while straddling the board, began to swirl the lower half of her right leg under the water. The motion effortlessly set her hips to circling and rotated the board in turn. I was mystified! That one simple action, made surfing personal to me. She had command of her nose rider, but with a steady pace and finesse. I imagine this is what the former voluptuous fatale blaxploitation actress, now very private Pam Grier looks like riding her horses on her Colorado ranch. Whereas the boys quick-flipped their boards and popped up in a nanosecond, Ally steered her stallion of a board in her own time, planked on her board and arched her back. We joked that nips off the board helped paddle effectively; but breasts pressed down in the 2-3 swift digs of the arms in the water helped level the weight of our curvy bodies, and facilitate catching the wave -- one knee-to-foot, then the other. She never rushed or seemed to struggle. Either she caught the wave, or she didn't. When she did she rode rock-steady and long.
Watching my friend inspired me, she and the few other 40-somethings women the water made surfing look like a practice -- like yoga -- measured, and sexy as all get out!
That slick, cold wetness where the sun don't shine
The soothing thrill swaying upward and over,
Upward and over
Pulsating - I loosen up to gain control- get on my knees
Jump to my feet to catch the wave
Fight to keep balance
The irony of the audience
Many claim godless,
But there's faith and patience in wading for the surf, trusting that because it was, is - it will totes be to come bro
That solid weight between my thighs,
the exciting peaceful rock, rocking horse
I squeeze my legs to stave the urgency
faster, rocking, galloping
Back straights, muscles taut
Then, there's that.
All sports are practice for this main event
Slick and wet, warm, sometimes raw skin on waxed board,
I loosen, tighten, I sway, rock, smack
Thrusting forward, rhythmic breaths- it takes both faith and control
An eager relenting,
surrender to the feeling
Cataloging the journey: mama say, mama surf, mamakusa!
- BLACK PEOPLE DON'T SURF
Surf Sista is the archetype of soul surfers for women and people of color. And lucky for us, she's cataloged her journey of falling in love with surf and everything that comes with the lifestyle.
- BLACK PEOPLE DON'T SURF: February 2005
Surf Sista has detailed the journey of salmon like us: mother, wife, working woman and surfer - of color. Is it swimming upstream, or the new norm? You're stereotypes will be challenged and your curiosity satiated with her long-running blog.
The chaka & the nod.
So in short, if you see a 'chocolate fish' riding a chocolate fish or Dewey noserider, or more, just smile. We don't want or need to hear that you voted for Obama or your stance on Rachel Dozier. We love the sun, don't care about getting darker out here and just want to soak in all that the ocean and life has to offer.
Throw up the chaka and the nod, and keep paddling!
What's your story?
Leave a comment and share your experience learning to surf or embarking on water recreation!