When I was a little girl, thick fronds of seaweed wrapped themselves around my feet, pulled me down into a bed of mud, and I nearly drowned. I was swimming in a trench by the side of a main road in Guyana, treading and scooping up tadpoles and frogs with my little blue, sparkly pail. Suddenly beneath the water’s surface, panicking and inhaling water, I knew that this moment was inevitable, that I could never escape this terror–in fact, I dove right into its enveloping arms, knowing what I did about my inability to swim. I was right where I belonged. I was home. Some moments passed and, somehow, I was rescued by a passerby, a stranger I did not recognize when I came to, hacking phlegm and dirty water. I wasn’t allowed to return to the trench after that. I came home from that holiday filled to the brim with shame and, at the same time, a brazenness that I carry to this day, unveiling it at every pool, sinkhole, and sea I come upon.
The public pool originated in the late nineteenth century in America, and the early twentieth century in Canada, as a response to the rowdy, half naked youths crowding lakes and rivers across the continent. The City of Toronto has preserved thousands of Victorian era photographs teeming with lithe white bodies expectantly queuing for a turn on the water slide at Sunnyside, contorting mid air before plunging into the Mineral Baths at High Park, handstanding before tumbling into the blurry water of Humberside Collegiate Pool. Black bathers, however, are essentially absent from the archival record of this particular recreational milieu, although having lived, worked, and, allegedly, enjoyed equal freedom under the law in Canada since the nineteenth century. The figure of the Black bather only emerges later, predominantly in the American archive, merely to document or allude to their experience of violence, to index the hostility and wrath of white people at the pool. These threats often vary in their visualization, with some even attempting a cultural corrective, such as Mister Rogers inviting a Black officer, Francois Clemmons, to share a wading pool with him on screen in response to pool segregation, effectively ‘breaking the color barrier.’¹ Others double down, presenting the Black bather as a menace on several fronts, like President-elect Joe Biden who at the time of Mister Rogers’ swim-in was still a humble Delawarian lifeguard, facing off with CornPop, a young Black man who flouted pool rules by refusing to wear a bathing cap as he bounced on the diving board, leading to a parking lot brawl between the two, replete with straight razors and a 6 foot chain.² Though, borrowing from Tina M.Campt’s theory of ‘affective frequencies,’ outlined in her 2017 monograph Listening to Images,³ I was somehow able to look beyond the vitriol I saw in those photographs and tales, and even beyond the admonishment and disinterest that these fueled within my parents, to recognize in each Black bather with a towel draped over their shoulder, the very banal desire for leisure, for respite, for joy, interrupted.
While the pool’s Western origins are Victorian, swimming itself has an ancient pedigree. That privatized infant swimming lessons abound in major cities, and we encourage parents to toss their babies into pools within the first few weeks of birth at the premium rate of sixty dollars per half hour can be traced back, perhaps, to Plato’s Laws, a dialogue that muses on the ethics of government making. Plato writes, through his interlocutors, that the business of bureaucracy and law should not be entrusted to schmucks, fools, or those who “can neither read nor swim”⁴–the two most ordinary accomplishments.⁵ This notion reflects the prevailing juxtaposition between swimming and privilege throughout Western culture, as very few people in antiquity knew how to read or had access to formal education, pursuits which were considered leisurely and practiced only by those of the noble class⁶, presumably after they had tired themselves out doing laps in the Aegean.
While the Greeks did not have access to public education, we certainly do, and still swimming remains an activity for the privileged, those with disposable funds for private lessons, or who own suburban homes with private pools and lakeside cottages, largely those who are white and middle class. Even a city like Toronto, whose resident population is more than fifty percent people of colour, sees its public pools filled with mostly white swimmers⁷, reflective of the same systematic abandonment that allowed fifteen year old Jeremiah Perry, a Guyanese emigrant, to drown during a school field trip to Algonquin Provincial Park⁸, as a lifeguard and his teachers stood idly by.⁹
As a teen I, too, failed a deep end test which, at the time, was measured by your ability to complete a single, uninterrupted lap across the length of the pool. I had never received a swimming lesson, no one had ever shown me how to reach my arms, to what rhythm I should inhale or exhale, or how to kick from the hip, yet there I was being administered a test by a municipally appointed lifeguard who, evidently, did not care whether I passed or failed, lived or died. As I furiously splashed my way to the pool’s end, expending an inordinate amount of my already waning energy, I glanced back at the tower and saw the lifeguard wasn’t even looking at me, their attention drawn to someone or something more important than my evaluation. We now know that these pool trials are a farce, and if you come from a non-swimming household, you are virtually guaranteed to never learn to swim¹⁰, to be barred from this brand of leisure–of freedom–having fallen through another hole in the net of economic, social, and political disadvantage.
While the swimming statistics are dire, and the visual lexicon–or lack thereof–often discouraging, it is an intrinsic part of Black study–that is, the radical making and remaking of what it means to be Black–to swim in and through and past our pain and suffering to achieve every kind of freedom, infinite and abundant as they are¹¹. Each time I return to the pool, a place of both inherited terror and self-determined refuge, this notion of freedom descends deeper into my consciousness. I am to this day not what one would consider a ‘good’ swimmer, but I remain, in defiance of it all, devoted to the water.
Returning to Campt and my anachronistic ability to attune myself to the frequencies of images, to look beyond and towards the obscured desires in poolside images from the 1940s through 1960s, it took very little analysis for me to understand the monumental achievement of Black Olympic swimmers whose images flashed on my TV screen, were framed and hung on my mother’s hair salon walls, and clipped from newspapers and magazines for scrapbooks. Swimmers like Cullen Jones, whose journey to the world record gold medal win in the 2012 Summer Olympics began with a brush with death at Pennsylvania’s Wild Water Kingdom when he was 5 years old¹², and Enith Brigitha, Curacao-born and Caribbean Sea swim-educated, the first Black athlete to ever win an Olympic medal in swimming, who paved the way not only for young Black women like Simone Manuel, who hails from Sugar Land, Texas and currently holds the Olympic and American records in swimming¹³, but many others yet to become visible and immortalized in photographs.
This assemblage of aquatic exceptionalism, of course, does not disappear the problem. In fact, its pervasiveness, even within my own consciousness, is a problem in and of itself. Still, it is these achievements that swirl about my head as I tip-toe out of the YMCA changeroom and shyly lower myself into the quietest lane for a leisurely swim. And although my local pool’s racial makeup has not yet caught up with its marketing images, I am always pleased to see through my foggy goggles the few young Black swimmers gripping kickboards, splashing about, jumping fearlessly into the deep end, knowing that they, too, are brazen and undeterred.
Letticia Cosbert Miller
Letticia Cosbert Miller is a Toronto-based writer, curator and researcher, and the current Director of Koffler. Digital at the Koffler Centre of the Arts. Letticia holds a B.A. in Classics from the University of Toronto, and an M.A. from Western University, where she specialized in erotic Latin poetry.
Letticia’s work as a writer is often in dialogue with historical, mythological, or philosophical tropes from the western classical tradition, interrogating its cultural proliferation. Her current research interests lie within the reception of Classics in Black diasporic contemporary culture, with particular regard for the application and evaluation of Classical ideas in visual and performance art, film, literature, and critical theory.
Letticia’s writing and editorial work have been featured in the Toronto Star, Canadian Art Magazine, BlackFlash Magazine, Ephemera Magazine, Sophomore Magazine, The Ethnic Aisle, as well as in publications for the Aga Khan Museum, Gardiner Museum, YTB Gallery, Xpace, Trinity Square Video, and Akimbo.
As Gallery 44’s 2020-2021 Writer-in-Residence, Letticia Cosbert Miller will be exploring the liberties and limitations of water as it is refracted through Black visual culture.