What? Black Folks Can Swim: The Misguided Attack on Gold Medalist Simone Manuel

August 12, 2016

There’s a saying in the black church: “tell the truth and shame the devil.” Simone Manual did that and more when she became the first African-American female swimmer to win an individual Olympic event. She crushed any myth about Black people’s ability and desire to swim. Her historical moment should have been celebrated around the world.


Things got ugly though when Simone was interviewed after her win. She told a reporter that the win was particularly important to her given all that’s going on with African-Americans and police brutality. The Social media “police” couldn’t wait to jump all over this statement and take her to task. The critique was swift and brutal. Some accused her of demeaning her own victory; others called her comments un-American; and some were just plain nasty and used offensive comments like “stupid.”


I’m shaking my head still trying to figure out why people have been so harsh and why her comment struck such a cord. After all, being the first anything carries with it a tremendous burden and responsibly. In the Black community, we know this all too well. My best friend, Terri Hamilton-Brown, and I were the first in our families to graduate college; first to attend graduate school; and first to obtain professional degrees. Some of my other friends were actually the first in their families to even fly on an airplane or stay in a hotel!


And although breaking barriers and achieving success have tremendous benefits, they are not without consequences. You are immediately the standard bearer. Communities of people are suddenly living vicariously through you. They are celebrating your achievement, while judging your worthiness by how you project that which they deem appropriate.


This is evident in the post following Simone’s historic win. Religious folk immediately praised her for acknowledging God. People, who consider themselves socially conscious, applauded her for her audacity to make comments about police brutality. In contrast, those who see themselves as sports purists attacked Simone for infusing social issues into one of the biggest sporting events of the decade.


As a mother of young women Simone’s age and very much a social activist, I think the “social media take down” is ridiculous and misguided! Simone is a 19-year-old kid who just achieved the unthinkable. She was on the world stage for the first time, and like any kid would be, she was full of emotion and pride. She knew going into the games what a win would mean to her family and the Black community. She had a choice: make her comments strictly about swimming or make them about both the sport she loves and the issue of the day for most millennials. She chose the later.


This was neither right nor wrong. Simone simply spoke from her heart about an issue that is prominently on the minds of many. The Olympic Games have often been used as a platform for athletes to raise awareness of injustices, i.e., John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black power fists at the 1968 games. Her statement was benign compared to their clear political statement.


If the “social media police” need a cause, don’t go after Simone, but rather make your target the institutional racism that has prevented African-American children from learning to swim and entering the sport. Dating back to the 20th century, public swimming pools were strategically placed in all White neighborhoods. Southern cities would close public pools rather then allow Blacks to swim in them. In the North, whites would abandon pools once they became mixed. Many established private clubs, which required expensive memberships. In some ways, integrating public schools was easier than swimming pools, revealing the anxiety whites felt around such intimate contact with people of color. African-Americans systematic exclusion from public pools led to the miss perception that “Black folks don’t swim.”


I doubt any of this was on Simone’s mind as she proudly talked about what it meant to win a gold medal. But as a civil rights attorney that was told as a child that I couldn’t learn to swim, I can’t help but be reminded of America’s dark past. I would be remiss to gloss over it given the attacks on Simone.


Simone not only defeated the world’s best swimmers at the Olympics, but she gave mothers like me, who have raised three Black kids, all of whom are excellent swimmers, another reason to take a deep dive in the first public pool I see!



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