“White women fear their children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against them, women of color fear their children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and White women will turn their backs on the reasons the children are dying.”- Audre LordeWhile the approaching warm weather brings to some dreams of rest, fond nostalgia for childhood adventures, and the season of a slower pace, the first songs of the summer bird can be a death knell to the mother of a child of color. For with the heat comes the promise of repose from the heat, found through the participation in water-based sports and other activities.
With the usual warnings, cautionary tales, and kindly meant advice, I would like to offer a brief public service announcement regarding indoor and outdoor swimming venues, and highlight the dangers the season presents for young children of color.
Drowning has been a method of killing intertwined with the violent oppression of people of color for centuries. The cruel stories of watery murders sit fixed within our weaving herstories. From the 132 enslaved Africans of the Zong sacrificed to the sea in 1781 to the recent purposeful sacrifice of New Orleans’ 98% Black Lower Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina. In the mostly unseen sub-sections of our nation’s newspapers, there sit thousands of stories of “illegal immigrants” seeking lives free from the oppression of NAFTA found drowned in the waters surrounding the United States. Many victims of the various U.S. “military interventions” throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have fled their war-torn country in makeshift vessels, often fated to drown in unfamiliar waters. Yet the primary manner in which this drowning manifests today seems even further invisibalized.
According to a 2009 study at the University of Memphis, “drowning is a leading cause of death for children ages 5-14 in the United States, and the inability to swim is one of the most often cited reasons why children drown.” Yet, as alarming as this statistic is on its own, the stress of this issue is further complicated by the reality that Black children are 3 times more likely to be killed from drowning than their White counterparts. In Washington, while 7% of children identify as Asian American, they account for 18% of deaths by drowning, the highest of any racial group in the state (Bock). According to the Center for Disease Control, the fatal drowning rate for Native children is 2.2 times higher that of White children. A 2006 study in the American Journal of Public Health surveyed the deaths of youth between the ages of 5 and 24 by drowning; 47% were Black, 33% were White, and 12% were Latin@.
Paula Bock of the Seattle Times offers a series of reasons as to why this racial disparity exists, including the following rationale: “Families, in general, hand down recreation through the generations.” In consideration of the reality that people of color have been and continue to be (see video below- note use of word "complexion") denied access to public swimming facilities, and the poor quality of waters in the lifeguard-less segregated swimming pools that eventually did emerge for the use of people of color, to what extent can swimming be viewed as an intergenerational pastime within communities of color? The reasoning is simple: how can I learn to swim from my people, those from whom I can achieve new skills most comfortably and inexpensively, if they were not given access to swimming places in which they might have learned the skill in their own childhoods?
According to the aforementioned University of Memphis study, “70% of white and Hispanic children of non-swimmers do not swim themselves; for black children the correlation is 91.”
The question thus becomes, who will teach our kids to swim?
If a child is lucky, she has access to a program like Make a Splash, a “national child-focused water safety initiative” with a mission to teach “minority youth” how to swim. If she’s really lucky, her guardian/s can afford to pay for lessons at her local YWCA. If she’s really really really lucky, she is able to attend a well-funded school where swimming classes are included in the P.E. curriculum.
In her essay “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” the fantastic Audre Lorde discusses how the loss of our children is the most violent oppression that women of color face today. Historically, we have been robbed of our children through forced sterilization and abortion. Indigenous children have been kidnapped be raised in state-run “boarding schools.” This theft and spiritual murder takes a more sinister, surreptitious turn in our present situation, it is ever-present but far less visible; Lorde explains: “violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living — in the supermarket, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who does not serve us” (119).
In Latin@ culture, there exists a myth surrounding a woman referred to as La Llorona, the crier, the weeper. The most popularized story in U.S. society tells of a woman scorned by her lover, the father of her children. This woman, in a Medea-like rage, drowns her children, before taking her own life, and is left to search for her children as a spirit until the end of days.
This story was revisited and reconsidered by a wonderfully talented Chicana professor with whom I had the pleasure of studying at Seattle University. She asked us to read the story in consideration of themes such as those addressed in Toni Morrison’s seminal novel Beloved, in which the titular child is slaughtered by her mother when she and her family are about to be discovered as runaway slaves. Why would a sane woman really kill her children?
It seems that only situations murder our children. In the case of La Llorona, we may more realistically imagine that her children were spared through death rather than be allowed to fight as child soldiers in one of the many U.S.-funded Latin American civil wars. The only option remaining when a child is to be taken, the parent deported, and culture forcibly removed through a cruel foster system.
The ghost of La Llorona is more present than ever in our problematic present, wailing for the children she has been lost in an inherently racist and cruelly apathetic environment. The children are dying, oftentimes within the womb of the mother hyperactively stressed from the terror of living while continuous oppressed (Allers). A beautiful post on the Womanist Musings blog asks “Who Will Love the Black Child?” “Whiteness would love to see us cast aside our babies,” this La Llorona weeps, “They are our future and the best of us flows within their tiny beating hearts.”
Allers, Kimberly. “What’s in Your Womb?” MomLogic. 13 May 2010. 1 June 2010
Bock, Paula. “The Power of the Pool: Issues of class, culture and political priorities swirl.” Seattle Times 15 June 2008, online ed. 29 May 2010
Brown, Sierra.“Everybody in the Water: Black People Too.” Brooklyn Ink 3 May 2010, online ed. 29 May 2010
Guenther, Curt. “Civil Rights Leader Hooks’ Nov. 4 Memphis Talk Will Reprise Earlier Washington, D.C., Speech.” 26 Oct. 2009. U of Memphis. Press release. 29 May 2010
“How Do I Talk To You, My White Sister?” Center for Gender in Organizations: GPO Commentaries 2 (2004). Newsletter.
Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1984. 114-123.
Miller, Larry. “Black, Hispanic Children Turned Away From Philadelphia Swimming Pool.” New Journal & Guide. 1 June 2010. http://www.njournalg.com/index.php?view=article&id=112:black-hispanic-children-turned-away-from-philadelphia-swimming-pool&option=com_content&catid=41:national-news&Itemid=74
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Saluja, Gitanjali, et al. “Swimming Pool Drownings Among US Residents Aged 5–24 Years: Understanding Racial/Ethnic Disparities.” American Journal of Public Health 96.4 (2006): 728-733. 1 June 2010. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16507730
Thomas, Wendi C. “Pooling efforts at summer of safety.” Commercial Appeal 20 May 2010, online ed. 29 May 2010
“Unintentional Drowning: Fact Sheet.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 17 May 2010. 29 May 2010
USA Swimming Foundation. 2004. United States Swimming. 29 May 2010. http://22.214.171.124/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Water-Safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html
“Who Will Love The Black Child?” Womanist Musings. Web log. 2 Nov. 2009. Blogger. May 29 2010