At the age of 10, I attended my first funeral. It was for a drowning victim — my mother’s best friend’s son. We were the same age. This experience led to my decision to teach my child(ren) how to swim at an early age. Drowning is a common cause of death for children among African American little ones and is often fast and silent – occurring in as little as 20-60 seconds.
I enrolled my child in swim classes at the age of 1 and did not want to take her back after the first lesson. The process was terrifying. My child was briefly submerged underwater. I was not mentally prepared for that visual image. However, I was determined that she would not become a part of the annual statistics posted on the Water Safety USA website of the more than 4,000 preventable drowning deaths.
Four weeks into her lessons, her grandmother attended a swim class. Although grandma had viewed pieces of the lesson on video, she was ill-prepared as well. My mother yelled at the instructor, almost jumped into the pool to retrieve her grandchild, and eventually left the lesson. Still, the recollection of that first funeral, steadied by resolve to keep my daughter in the class. She did matriculate quickly – using her natural instincts to turn over from face-down positions and kick her way to safety. Not only did she move quickly through the classes, but also graduated survival swim. At the conclusion of the lessons, my child has controlled breathing, and can float.
Individuals who know how to swim are not drown-proof. Supervision of a young child is still necessary as swimming is one tool in the prevention of drowning. Assumptions should never be made that a child’s swimming abilities will get them out of every situation; however, these water safety abilities extend beyond the swimming pool. One hundred children drown in bathtubs every year in less than two inches of water.
A 2020 study from USA Swimming Foundation found that 64 percent of African American children cannot swim. But the rumored roadblock to African Americans being able to swim is not fear – but access.
According to Kevin Dawson, Professor of History at the University of California Merced, and author of Undercurrents of Power, Africans believed water was a spiritual place and by immersing one’s body in water, by swimming, Black people made connections with deities and to ancestral spirits in that water.
“Prior to the 1880s, most Black people were much stronger swimmers than white people. And slave owners actually began to target Africans with diving skills and brought them to the Americas where they served as pearl divers. They dove to salvage shipwrecks,” Dawson writes. “While enslavers were forcing enslaved people to do this, enslaved Africans were still recreating African aquatic traditions.”
Through a lack of access to common lakes, pools, and recreation centers during Jim Crow, many African Americans loss the love of swimming.
Swimming is fun and has many health benefits. Respect the water and learn water safety skills such as swimming. If unsettled about enrolling your child in swim lessons, consider parent-child water play classes. Be prepared and provide your family with tools that will assist in drowning prevention.
Become more comfortable in the water with swim lessons. Learn now and be ready to take that dip into a pole and swim in a local lake. The D.C. metropolitan area has many places to empower survival swimming and beyond.
District of Columbia
Brookland Swim Academy
Trinity Washington University
125 Michigan Ave NE, DC
Starts at 3 months
YMCA Anthony Bowen
1325 W Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009
Many DC pools that offer swim lessons are currently under construction such as:
Ferebee Aquatic Center and Takoma Aquatic Center
YMCA Silver Spring
9800 Hastings Drive, Silver Spring, MD 20901
420 East Monroe Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22301
51838 Lee Hwy, Arlington, VA
Develop swimming skills – must know how to swim
Big Blue Swim School
6112-A Arlington Blvd, Falls Church, VA
Starts as early as 6 months