Lessons from the Drowning Tragedy in Louisiana: Black Kids, All Kids Need to Learn to Swim

BlogHer Original Post

In one way, the horror that unfolded at what was supposed to be a fun family outing in Shrevesport, Louisana was incomprehensible. Six teenagers drowned in the Red River while their families, all non-swimmers, watched helplessly from the bank, screaming for help. According to the Associated Press, the teens, two sets of siblings aged 13-18, had gone into the shallow end of the river to cool off, only to encounter a steep drop that threatened to take them under. A seventh teen survived.

In another way though, the story was all too familiar. The youths fit the characteristics of those who are most at risk for accidental drowning in the United States according to the USA Swimming Foundation's "Make a Splash" web page. They were African-American, and they came from non-swimming families. According to the Swimming Foundation's research, nine people drown in the US every day, and "In ethnically-diverse communities, the youth drowning rate is more than double the national average." 

The US Centers for Disease Control adds more detail to this grim picture. (h/t to Blogher CE Gena Haskett and Poynter.org's Al Tompkins.) 

  • More than one in five fatal drowning victims are children 14 and younger.For every child who dies from drowning, another four received emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries.1
  • Nonfatal drownings can cause brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities including memory problems, learning disabilities, and permanent loss of basic functioning (e.g., ., permanent vegetative state).

The simple fact is that a disproportionate number of African American and Latino children can't swim. The reasons are complex and not all of them are related to race. Unquestionably though, race and class discrimination has played a role. In many parts of the country, access to swimming facilities (including public beaches) was restricted by segregation, whether by law or custom. Last summer, a Philadelphia-area swim club made headlines when a visiting group of African American children was turned away with some white club members reportedly voicing racist comments about their presence. Blogher CE Gina Carroll's 2009 post about that incident evocatively expresses how the incident re-opened old wounds.

Even when facilities were available, swimming lessons often were not, or if they were, they were prohibitively expensive. In cities such as Philadelphia, where I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, there were some public pools, as well as facilities such as the YMCA. The services available at those facilities were uneven at best. I remember day-camp visits to crowded public pools where I did receive some instruction in how to float, but I did not learn to swim until years later when my brand-new husband gave me lessons in the pool at our suburban apartment complex. He had been taught by his father who had learned from his own island-born father. We agreed that our children would learn, so they had lessons from their father from an early age.

My husband, I think, recognized those lessons as a valuable life skill and a fun activity. I recognized it as an imperative because of Nathaniel, a boy I knew from elementary school. We were not close, and I left that school for a better one in the middle of fourth grade. It was maybe five years later when I came home one evening to the news of a call from Miss Beulah from the old neighborhood; Nathaniel had drowned in a city pool. In broad daylight, with a lifeguard on duty. The thought of what happened to him haunts me still.

James C. Collier at Acting White, Acting Black explains how easily someone can die the way Nathaniel and the kids in Shreveport did:

"For the most part drowning happens quietly, with little or no yelling or even splashing. Victims slip quietly beneath the surface. This is why on-duty lifeguards can often miss a close-by victim. Also, the urge to attempt to save another person, especially someone you know, is overwhelming. The hardest thing to teach a lifeguard is restraint when they cannot reasonably complete a rescue."

To be sure, there have been a number of valiant efforts to prevent tragedies like this. In my community, there were people such as 91-year-old Mrs. Sylvia Hatton, who told me she started teaching swimming at the Christian Street Y because it distressed her that so many poor children could not swim. She also gave swimming lessons as a member of the Women's Army Corps during World War II. After I posted Mrs. Hatton's story to Facebook last year, a friend told me a similar story about his own mother, who was fairly close in age to Mrs. Hatton.

Perhaps the most famous and inspiring story along these lines is that of Jim Ellis, the Philadelphia swim coach portrayed by Terrence Howard in the 2007 movie Pride. The film shows how segregation stunted Ellis' collegiate swimming career during the early 1960s when white swimmers refused to compete against him. He was further stymied when he was denied employment despite having earned a degree in mathematics. Ellis ultimately became a teacher, and in the 1970s he started a swim team at the Marcus Foster pool -- named for the dedicated educator who deserves a movie in his own right -- that became a powerful tool for character education, not just swimming instruction. In keeping with that vision, the Pride movie website has a section called "Stories of Pride," where people can testify about obstacles that they have overcome through hard work, character and perseverance.

Beyond the inspiration, there are practical things that parents -- especially -- can do to help ensure that all children have an opportunity to learn swimming and water safety. Hobomama has great practical advice about preventing drowning accidents and saving lives when accidents do occur. It's all worth reading and taking to heart. 

The Make a Splash program raises money for swim classes for children who might not be able to afford them and has links to information about local swimming instruction and water safety classes. The Red Cross also has water safety and first aid classes that adults can take so that they can administer first aid to a child in distress. Beyond that, it's important to heed instructions from local authorities about unsafe water conditions. For example, Shreveport officials had warned against wading and swimming in the Red River, knowing that its currents could be treacherous and its depths deceptive.

These programs are all the more important as public dollars for swimming programs wane. As this Shreveport Times editorial notes, the city of Shreveport has closed pools to save money. The pool where Jim Ellis started his swimming program closed in 2008, because the Philadelphia School District couldn't afford repairs.

There is a great deal more to say about this subject -- including the misconceptions about science that reinforce stereotypes that people of African descent are somehow biologically unsuited for swimming. Many black females are kept out of the water by concerns about the effect of water on our hair. (And yes, this has been a major personal consideration at times.)

And if the conversation on the Blogher CE list that preceded the writing of this post is any indication, many of us come from families with deep and sometimes painful memories and anxieties about learning to swim -- or not. I hope you will share your thoughts and stories in the comments.

Kim Pearson
BlogHer Contributing Editor|KimPearson.net|


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