Women can’t parallel park. Gays are fastidiously neat and tidy. White men can’t dance. Ordinarily, airing such dubious stereotypes in public, even under the free speech auspices of RT, would get me cancelled faster than Jordan Peterson doing stand-up at a transgender comedy show. But working the cultural cliché shill game sometimes has a purpose, in this case, the notion that “black people can’t swim.”
As un-PC, anti-woke or just plain “wrong” as this may sound, there’s more than a little anecdotal, and personal experience, to give credence to the claim. For one, as a 10-year-old I nearly drowned off the coast of Dorset in the west of England during a rare family summer holiday. I’d badgered my father to get me one of those cheap Day-Glo rubber dinghies, the like of which are probably banned these days, for health and safety reasons, and eventually he caved in.
Towards the end of one typically overcast day of the vacation, my father, sister and niece sauntered down to the local beach, ostensibly to humour me for a few minutes of splashing about in the waves with my new acquisition. I set off in the dinghy waving to my family on the beach. Within a matter of minutes, I was in deep, choppy water. And I couldn’t swim. Realising I was literally out of my depth I hopped out of the death trap dinghy only to find an absence of seabed underfoot. I panicked, started thrashing about, and was consumed by the cold, unforgiving water. They say that when you drown you see your life flash in front of you. As a 10-year-old, all I saw was silt and seaweed.
My father, who had been a fisherman as a young man in Guyana, South America, laboured to come out to save me. I could see flashes of him wading out and my sister screaming as the current carried me further out to sea. And then, an old man with a grey beard who looked like Santa on a weekend break appeared, grabbed me and swam me back to shore. That man saved my life. I don’t know his name. We never saw him again. That was over 40 years ago, and still the fear of water persists despite the fact I live on a Caribbean island in a house with a pool.
Every time I hear of a drowning, a boat accident or shark attack, my stomach churns – and it’s not just from personal experience. Years before we went to Dorset my parents and I went to Guyana. This was the first time I’d been abroad or flown on a plane. It was Christmas, 1974. I met my grandmother, extended family and got a sense of the culture I’d been born into, albeit remotely, coming as I did from the East End of London. But what was meant to be a homecoming, the adventure of a lifetime, at least for a child, quickly turned into a nightmare. Two of my father’s cousins, a father and a son, drowned in a fishing accident off the coast in the desolate Atlantic. A black cloud lay over the family from then on.
Such is the power of the sea and fear of water, not just for me, but for the majority of black people I know that the “black people can’t swim” stereotype is beyond a stereotype. It’s a truth. A white ex-Metropolitan Police copper I know of the ‘Life on Mars’ generation once told me that he and his equally white colleagues used to use “non-swimmers” as canteen culture code for black suspects.
Recently, while sipping mango daiquiris at my members only swanky beach club with an old pal from Brixton and his 22-year-old cousin, Marcus, I asked how often he went to such places after soon sensing his uneasiness with the surroundings.
“I never come to places like this,” Marcus said.
“Really?” This came as no surprise. At three thousand bucks a year in membership fees it’s beyond the realm of most bourgie expats, let alone ordinary locals. Besides, access to WTA grade tennis courts and PGA standard golf courses notwithstanding, the location is no less idyllic than anywhere else on the island.
That, I did find surprising – as well as a mark of my latent bourgeois sensibilities. Marcus then went on to break down a key reason why in many parts of the Caribbean black people don’t swim, despite having access to the most amazing golden beaches, azure waters and diverse aquatic life in the world.
“Other than holidays, I don’t have time for the beach,” Marcus said. “It’s more of a tourist thing. They want to have fun, get a tan. I don’t need a tan, so why go to the beach, especially if most hotels and bars catering to tourists and foreigners make you feel unwelcome?”
What Marcus was getting at is a contentious notion that’s at the heart of director Ed Accura’s indie docudrama film, ‘Blacks Can’t Swim: The Sequel’ – namely we don’t do the water because, like skiing, bungee jumping or wearing tweed, swimming and water sports are achingly Eurocentric and thus something everyday black folk aren’t into. As one of the film’s characters says during a comedic home studio grime session: “Bro, concentrate on the music fam and we’ll be back, fam. For that swimming ting? Just don’t go near water and you’ll be good, fam. Anyway, that’s a white man’s ting, fam.”