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Jordan Hunter, founder of Legacy Aquatics, works with a client during a swim lesson. (Eliza Partika/AfroLA)

Combating racist tropes and trauma surrounding Blacks in the water 

Update

Nov. 29, 2023, 9 a.m.: This story was updated with the addition of summer lifeguard demographics data received from Los County Parks and Recreation on Nov. 8. After several months of exchanges and three extensions from the county regarding data first requested in late August, we’re finally able to provide this contextual information. Based on the data findings, we will be doing follow up reporting.

A U.S Navy Search and Rescue team veteran, Jordan Hunter isn’t afraid of the water, in spite of his parents’ trauma and unfamiliarity with swimming that could’ve made him fearful. He could’ve been like many Black Americans—often stereotyped as not being able to swim, or even capable of it—who never learn to swim. Instead, Hunter’s mission is to help other Black people embrace swimming and overcome generational traumas with the water, one lesson at a time. 

“Each time someone picks up the phone for a consultation with me…that is the first step to healing. Each time in the water, there’s healing involved,” said Hunter. 

For Hunter, teaching others how to swim is personal. His mother almost drowned when she was eight and has avoided water ever since. And, his father learned out of necessity during Marine boot camp training. His parents viewed swimming as a vital life skill and didn’t want him to experience the same fear or traumas around water that they had. Hunter credits his love of swimming to his childhood neighbor, Dawn Richards, who offered to give him formal lessons at 18 months old when she saw his parents struggling to help him learn. By the time he was 4 or 5 years old, said Hunter, he joined his first swim team. He won his first championship in seventh grade. From childhood to the Navy to coaching an L.A. triathlon club, Hunter’s love of swimming has only grown. He said that he started Legacy Aquatics so he could pass those skills and that passion on to other Black children and adults. 

Jordan Hunter, founder of Legacy Aquatics. (Eliza Partika/AfroLA)

Sixty-four percent of Black children in the U.S. can’t swim, according to a 2021 study conducted by the YMCA. A separate 2021 survey from the Y found 9 in 10 parents see swimming as an important life skill—as critical as learning first aid or cooking a simple meal—but Black parents are less likely to encourage their kids to participate in water activities. Moreover, nearly 60% of Black parents are afraid of pools, lakes, rivers and beaches. Fear of the water may correlate to higher rates of drowning among Blacks. From 2019 to 2020, says a recent CDC study, drownings of Black Americans under age 30 increased 24%.

“This is empathetic for me,” said Hunter. “I’m taking on [my clients’] deepest fears. Now, they send me photos, and you can see the joy on parents’ faces when their kid is in the water.” 

Hunter’s lessons are encouraging; he strikes up conversation easily with a smile on his face, and gets to know his clients between kicking, breathing and arm movement drills. For him, swimming is therapy, and beyond that, it’s a way to heal stereotypes and internal trauma that has affected the perception of swimming in Black families. 

Cultural competency leads to comfort in the pool

Hunter visits clients at homes across Los Angeles County for private swim lessons. He also meets clients at pools he rents using the app Swimply—“Uber for pools” he calls it. The pool sits in a picturesque backyard framed by trees and overlooking the L.A. skyline. The water begins at three feet and deepens to nine feet, perfect for people of all sizes and ages to learn. 

On a clear August day, Hunter meets one of his long-time clients, Trevell Anderson, for a lesson. Anderson, who is transgender, began adult swim lessons in August as part of an episode on representation for their podcast. As Anderson swam with Hunter, they worked through childhood fears of the water. “I was part of a family that threw you in the pool to teach you how to swim, and it didn’t work,” said Anderson, now 32. Hunter looks at swimming not just as a “survival skill” but “therapeutic.” “I think that perspective was useful for helping me acclimate to the idea that I am learning how to swim. There’s a broader personal benefit,” explained Anderson. 

Jordan Hunter, founder of Legacy Aquatics, works with a young client for swimming lessons. (Eliza Partika/AfroLA)

Anderson describes Hunter’s teaching style as “culturally competent.” “You can’t underestimate the importance of having folks who look like you who have a little bit of lived experience, similar to yours,” said Anderson. The end result is making something that is “anxiety-inducing” and related to trauma more comfortable.

As a trans person, Anderson said they appreciated Hunter’s sensitivity toward their body while swimming. “Simply asking someone, ‘Is it OK if I touch you here?’ goes a long way…[Some people] would just automatically assume that they can touch you there because it’s a swim lesson, right?” explained Anderson. “The automatic assumption that because I’m learning this lesson from you that you can touch me, on my back or under my legs or wherever is necessary, [but] I think even just asking that question makes [a trans person like myself] feel at ease and feel safe and comfortable in a particular environment.” 

Hunter has about 30 regular clients, and teaches about 80 throughout the summer. Since 2022 when he started Legacy Aquatics, he said he’s taught more than 175 people to swim.

Aaricka Washington began learning to swim after seeing her friends swim on a trip to Cabo San Lucas. She recently started lessons with Hunter after another swim instructor told her Black people can’t float

Washington recounted her experience with a YMCA instructor for AfroLA: 

“He said to me, ‘African Americans can’t float. I don’t even know how to float. I’ve never seen an African American float…I’ve never even seen a mixed person [float] if they have one drop of Black blood…I’ve never seen black people float.’”

Washington said she was shocked by the baseless claims, and how the instructor tried to prove himself right: 

“He [said] that to me. Wow. And, then he had me try to float for like, a minute. [I couldn’t do it, but] I knew I could because I [have done it] before. And so, I kind of felt kind of defeated. When he said those comments to me, and I saw that in my performance…It just stayed on my mind.” 

“They believed that just because of my race, just because of the color of my skin, or however they felt like my body was shaped…I was not able to do something,” said Washington. I was not able to use this skill that could potentially save my life. And, I didn’t know how to take that.”

As of June 29, Black lifeguards accounted for just 2% of all lifeguards working at the 30 public pools overseen by Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation, according to data obtained through a public records request. In addition to these five pool lifeguards, data show two Black pool lifeguard candidates, two Black pool managers and no Black pool supervisors.

According to Kevin Dawson, associate professor of history at UC Merced and scholar on the history of aquatics in the African Diaspora, swimming and a relationship with the water was a strong current through enslaved Africans’ way of life:

“When white people from the American north and Europe sailed into slave-holding regions, many were surprised—even overwhelmed—by the degree to which life among enslaved Africans was steeped in maritime activity. Fleets of enslaved fishermen in African-style dugouts parted to make way for ships entering seaports, sailing past enslaved boys and girls swimming, as one observer described it, like ‘Tritons and Mermaids in the water.’ 

Awnsham Churchill and John Churchill, Collection of Voyages, 1732 (London), vol. 5, plate 9, page 156. This image captures the fleet of 500 to 600 canoes used by Fante fishermen to harvest seafood near the ports of Cape Coast and Elmina, Ghana. The illustration depicts the use of fishing nets, harpoons, and fishing lines with one or multiple hooks. Fishermen often looped fishing lines to their heads so that they could detect when fish nibbled the bait and still keep their hands free. (Credit: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens)

“Enslaved women in canoes paddled alongside ships to sell fresh produce, seafood, and tropical curiosities like parrots, alligators, and monkeys. Enslaved men in canoes, performing call-and-response songs in African and European languages, provided a steady cadence for paddling as they transported white newcomers ashore and loaded and off-loaded cargo.”

Marketplace, Mompox, Colombia, 1826 in Voyage pittoresque dans les deux Ameriques. Captured Africans selling goods from their beached dugout canoes, which were used to quickly transport perishables, including fresh fish, meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables. One captive is selling live turtles, which were a delicacy. A husband and wife apparently crewed the canoe in the foreground, allowing them to extend the precious little time they had together while earning money by selling goods produced during their free time. (Credit: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens)

But, historically, swimming has been discouraged for Black people. Enslaved Africans on slave ships bound for the Americas were thrown overboard or fed to sharks during the crossing to discourage escape, said Dawson. Jim Crow-era lynchings involving water and segregation of swimming pools further discouraged swimming amongst Black people. A “swim-in” at a St. Augustine, Florida motor lodge pool was staged by a Black teen named Mamie Nell Ford in June 1964. Angered, the motel manager dumped muriatic acid—a highly corrosive agent—into the water. A widely-circulated photo of Ford and other activists in the pool screaming became an emblem of integration efforts of the Civil Rights Movement.

After several instructors, Washington said Hunter is the first she’s encountered with the kind of sensitivity she needs in an instructor. Sorting through childhood pictures, Hunter can’t find a single one with him and a floatation device—it’s just him and the open water. Hunter encourages others to take the leap: “Check in with yourself. Are you ready to overcome this fear? There are less reasons for no, and more for yes. We are out here. Black people are here.” 

Correction

Sept. 16, 2023, 1:15 p.m.: The original version of this story included several factual errors, including Hunter’s father’s military affiliation and the spelling of his neighbor’s name. We regret the errors, and strive to improve in the future.

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