Submitted by Outdoor Afro contributor Reginald James, who reflects nostalgically on a recent swim in a local lake with friends.
A few weekends ago, I went swimming with a group of friends at Lake Anza at Tilden Park in Berkeley for the third year in a row.
The idea for a swim began through a 2009 Twitter conversation with my friend Charles Perkins. As a child in Berkeley public schools, Lake Anza had “childhood nostalgia” for Perkins. He remembered swimming at the lake more than the nearby WIlliard Pool while he was in elementary school.
Two other friends, Katia Allen, and Chinyere Tutashinda, soon joined the Twitter conversation. We all liked to swim, despite the reservations of many of our peers. Just a few months before, USA Swimming released a report about six out of ten Black children being unable to swim. And according to a University of Memphis study, 70 percent of black people cannot swim or have limited swimming abilities.
“Anytime you talk about Black people and swimming, that issue is going to come up,” Perkins said. Since all four of us could swim, could we be the four Blacks out of ten that could swim?
There are many reasons that Black children don’t swim. Many Black children, whose parents grew up in Jim Crow communities, did not have opportunities to learn how to swim. And many of those folks sure didn’t teach their children. And many people don’t have access to neighborhood pools, so many young people grow up without learning how to swim. Some people even associate swimming with “acting white.”
Not to mention the transformative effects of water on Black hair!
Growing up, I was fortunate that my mom insisted I learned how to swim. As long as I can remember, I could swim. In fact, when I fell in Lake Merritt feeding ducks in 1987, I was able doggy paddle back to the edge.
(Sidenote: Swimming in Lake Anza is far better than swimming in Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Uggh!)
I later moved to nearby island town of Alameda. Although I lived in what some people considered the “ghetto”—in the historically segregated West End of Alameda—the Buena Vista Apartments had a big swimming pool. Coupled with some swimming lessons at the Encinal Swim Center, I practiced in my neighborhood every summer in our pool. But swimming in neighborhood pools is nothing like going out to the lake.
Lake Anza is like a small beach inside of Tilden Park. Just past the Little Farm, this jewel is surrounded by hiking trails in the Berkeley Hills. For a small entrance fee, you can enter Lake Anza’s sandy beach area. Surrounded by trees in sort of a clearing, it is full of sun and free of extra wind. There’s also a nearby picnic area.
We began our annual Lake Anza swim in 2009. As my friend Katia said, “There’s no such thing as a ‘first annual’ anything.” But after going two years in a row, “Now it’s a tradition.” This year, we decided to go a little earlier in the summer, and we also decided to invite a few friends.
I put out a Facebook event called, “Fantastic Voyage at Lake Anza” I invited a few people. Somewhat to my surprise, a lot of folks wanted to go. Unfortunately, many had scheduling conflicts, while there were also some who could not swim.
On short notice, the turnout at the Lake tripled. Besides our group, we also had Jumoke Hinton Hodge, Falilah Aisha Bilal, Joy Gerner, Khaya Wig, and Cedric Troupe. (Cedric convinced me to swim with him September of this year during the Escape from Alcatraz swim.) And a few folks brought their children and families.
We brought fruits and vegetables and other snacks. Some of the children played with buckets and shovels, while the bigger (adult) kids swam out to the lap area. A few of the guys took a little hike on the main trail too.
“It’s important to get back to the simple things in order to connect with nature,” Perkins told me. “Swimming at Lake Anza is a very spiritual and holistic process; walking on dirt instead of concrete and swimming in a lake instead of a pool.”
Many people don’t have access to pools. Lake Anza is a great place to swim. And there are lifeguards on duty.
Swimming at Lake Anza is a great experience that I hope to share with others for many summers to come.
Reginald, son of Deborah James, was born in Oakland, CA and raised in the nearby island city of Alameda. He is currently studying Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, after transferring from Laney College, where he focused on African American Studies, journalism, and political science.