Wade in the Water Children

The warmth of late summer offers a promise of cool lakes, rivers, oceans, and backyard pools to cool us down, but unfortunately it seems many folks never jump in them. The Outdoor Afro community has taken note of a recent rash of outdoor related posts and videos these days that start with “Black people don’t…” but we find this language seems to get in the way of understanding the complex realities and history of African Americans and our waterways.

Yet some statistics are stark. Too many black folks avoid the water because of a lack of ability to swim. Research by the USA Swimming Foundation indicates that up to seventy percent of black children cannot swim. The consequences of not swimming can have a profound personal and environmental impact that includes an increased risk of drowning, a less healthy lifestyle, and a reduced sense of connection to our natural waterways. See below Olympic Gold Medalists Cullen Jones doing his part to encourage swimming among youth.

The ability to swim also allows people to be more comfortable engaging in water sports, such as boating, kayaking, and white water rafting — activities that can be a gateway to a deeper relationship and sense of stewardship of our waterways and shorelines.
But African American estrangement from water activities is a recent phenomenon, and not exactly traced to individual choice, but instead brought on by many generations of systemically severed connections to water.
Let’s take a step back into a time not so long ago…
African Americans are decedents of West Africans, who were once known as excellent swimmers, divers, surfers, and fisherman – and they brought these skills with them as slaves. But the bondage of American slavery and continued restricted and segregated access to local pools, coastal regions, and waterways has reversed centuries of natural behavior. Yet in spite of these limitations in our history, many black people have persisted in their engagement and respect for the power of our waterways as a source of recreation, spiritual connection, and economic sustainability – Read more.

For example, in the traditional southern black church in the summer and early fall, the sacred ritual of outdoor baptisms in rivers, bayous, and lakes was the norm. “As late as the 1950’s, outdoor baptism was common in both black and white Protestant churches in rural North Louisiana,” according to Louisiana’s Living Traditions. Even today, many churches continue to choose the natural, outdoor setting for this important rite of passage, and ritual symbol of purification and initiation.
Spiritual music and poetry has also used the river as a theme to narrate our connection. The Negro Spiritual: Wade in the Water is well-known for providing explicit instructions for runaway slaves to use waterways to avoid capture by throwing searching bloodhounds off the trail.

Wade in the water.

Wade in the water, children.

Wade in the water.

God’s gonna trouble the water.

You don’t believe I’ve been redeemed,

Wade in the water

Just so the whole lake goes looking for me

God’s gonna trouble the water

Later, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers as a tribute to the life and connection African Americans have to rivers both in America and in Africa:

 I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

flow of human blood in human veins. 

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy

bosom turn all golden in the sunset. 

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers. 

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

African Americans have also prospered from our waterways. In one American region in the last century, Chesapeake Bay black watermen and women have been boat builders, sailors; owned seafood restaurants and processing plants. The area was considered a gateway for the first blacks brought to the colonies from Africa, and later its rivers were important pathways for the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, newly emancipated blacks migrated to the shores to ultimately shape the Chesapeake culture and economy. Unfortunately, their narrative is largely unknown in popular culture, and kept alive mainly through oral histories.
Today, while not often seen in the mainstream, African Americans are engaging in rivers, and other waterways in increasing number. Like the Maryland Coastal Bays, Coastal Steward youth of the Delmarva region, who are participating in scientific surveys and ecological restoration projects that help protect land, water, wildlife, and heritage. And further south, the Georgia River Network is succeeding in its efforts to make Georgia rivers healthy and accessible for everyone.

In spite of restricted access to beaches and rivers, there have remained persistent efforts to engage with our waterways for fun and recreation. American Beach, located north of Jacksonville, Florida is an historic example of a black-only beach during Jim Crow, when African Americans were not allowed in most public beaches. American Beach was the most popular in the region, and privately established by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first black billionaire –  Read more about Black beaches.

Today, Outdoor Afros from the San Francisco Bay to Atlanta are getting on rivers and rediscovering opportunities to connect with our precious waterways and one another, like a recent trip last week on the American River in California’s Gold Country pictured below.

In spite of the myths, perceptions, and statistics that face us when it comes to African Americans and waterways today, there is a rich and varied history, spanning poetry, spirituality, recreation, and conservation. Today, we have an opportunity to embrace and expand this heritage to engage a new generation of stewardship to benefit ourselves, and our communities.
Is anything keeping you from connecting to rivers and waterways? Let us know by completing this survey!
This blog is sponsored by the Georgia River Network