“Black People Don’t Float and Swim:” Another Jim Crow Lie

Dr. Sherick Hughes

Dr. Sherick Hughes, Guest Writer

Unfortunately, the phrase “Black people don’t float and swim” has been interwoven as a deterministic Jim Crow lie deep within the fabric of this nation. There were skewed social science studies of our buoyancy and muscle density in relation to our White peers to suggest that we can’t float. From this conclusion, it was determined that my people are not born to swim like our White counterparts. In reality, neither buoyancy nor muscle density characteristics actually would prevent Black folks from swimming. I learned in a college water safety course in the early 1990s that each human can float by lying on her/his back or stomach in the water, filling up her/his lungs by inhaling air with the head above water, and then holding her/his breath in 5-10 second intervals. From there, humans must simply learn the kicks and arm movements that accompany the proper “strokes” that allow us to move most efficiently in the water.

Given these human facts about floating and swimming were ignored by Jim Crow in favor of a lie that my people can’t float or swim, how might critical family history assist folks in unlearning this falsehood? Nearly a decade after the college water safety course, I pursued ethnography and family history work as part of my dissertation 2001-2003. It was during this time that I first engaged three techniques that can be useful for critical family history: (1) revisiting the local libraries, (2) revisiting the local museums, and (3) listening for understanding. These three techniques provided fuel for me to challenge continuously the racialized floating and swimming lie that Jim Crow had spread throughout my family and in fact, throughout my birthplace in Northeastern, North Carolina. In this fourth and final installment, I describe how these three techniques can be quite useful for dismantling the Jim Crow lies that too often become faulty “common sense” in our families and communities.

Revisiting the Local Libraries
While we visit local libraries and read books as children and even young adults, I am encouraged by the practice of revisiting libraries for old and new texts that may shed new light on my family history. Cecelski’s book The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in the Maritime South (2001) was available in my local library, but I missed it during my initial online searches. Consequently, it was my wife who introduced me to the book after a conversation with her former employer about my dissertation research. Cecelski became a key piece of evidence to provide a context around my family’s coastal, rural experience. I learned from Cecelski that historians now estimate that over 900 free Blacks lived in the Albemarle region of Northeastern North Carolina (which, includes my hometown), more than anywhere else in the South during slavery. The Blacks who lived there like Moses Grandy (one of the few published slave autobiographers), were known for their skills on the water, for building ships, for their brick masonry, etc. A critical mass of them were escaped slaves living in my hometown’s Great Dismal Swamp in Maroon communities, while others were free Blacks, including those who literally bought their freedom and began to help slaves to escape to the North.  Revisiting another library book by Siddle Walker (1996), Their Highest Potential, although written about a different part of the state, reminds us of the ingenuity and intellectual feats of the segregated Black schools that counters the pre- and post-Brown narrative of how horrible they were for Black children. Moreover, in my book, Black Hands in the Biscuits Not in the Classrooms: Unveiling Hope in a Struggle for Brown’s Promise (Hughes, 2006), I describe finding in the state archives the fact that in 1955 one county’s segregated Black K-10 schools sent more youth to college than the local white high school.

My father added additional context to Cecelski (2001) and I paraphrase:

Back then (during Jim Crow), White folks didn’t want to work down at our local (the Unionized International Longshoreman’s Association). They were ashamed to due to the grueling schedule (4:30am-6:00pm includes commute) lifting and transfer of goods from ship to port to cargo trucks and trains, so David D. Alston, a Black man, recruited Blacks to do this work. Knowing that most of the youth came from poor Black families, David D. Alston persuaded the union to open more of its doors to Black workers. The higher than minimum wages and health insurance with over-time pay benefits and bonuses were a big deal for Black men then and they are a big deal now. Then, when he died, they named a scholarship after him from our union local…that scholarship that you got all of those years. Now White folks want to work down there. The last time I was down there on the waterfront, most of the folks were White and that’s not right.

Revisiting the Local Museum
While we visit local museums and see their local exhibits as children and even young adults, I am encouraged yet again, by the practice of revisiting museums for old and new displays that may shed new light on my family history. At one of the museums in the Albemarle are pictures in black and white photography of Black men who saved many lives as life guards in the very rough and sometimes unpredictably waters of the Atlantic. The sandbars alone sank many ships which led to it being known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Similar to their hinterland brethren of the Great Dismal Swamp, a group of Black lifeguards emerged, survived and thrived in their work to save others in the Atlantic Ocean. Anyone who visits this museum display would be remiss to dismiss the honor that those young men have brought to local, national and international Black families by troubling Jim Crow’s lies about our aquatic capabilities. These brothers piloted ships, they built boats, and yes, they floated and swam with the very best. Seeing their portraits again, for the first time in the local museum as an adult, gave me the chills, because they had become such powerful photographs for me on a critical historical level.

Listening for Understanding, Not Just to Reply
I am learning from experiences of collecting oral histories formally and informally, that when I listen, I must consider how to listen. Listening for understanding is quite different and can produce quite different results when researching family history critically, than listening just long enough to reply and to maintain my comfort level of knowledge with the topic without expansion. This point became quite clear from a discussion with my nephew back in 2001, when he was in high school and I was home pursuing the ethnography and critical family history work of my dissertation. I worried that during the encounter, he was not beginning to understand better how our family’s story connects to larger stories. I remember telling him what I was learning from Cecelski (2001), Siddle Walker (1996) and the local museum. Several years later, he returned home from the Coast Guard with a proud look on his face with a brief personal encounter to share:

The first time I went into the galley (eating and social area on the ship), there were huge portraits of a bunch of Black men on the walls who were being celebrated as heroes for their service work on ships and in the water saving lives. I felt so proud to know that other Black mean had not only succeeded but also thrived in the Coast Guard, both on the ship and in the water. Seeing those celebrated black men in the galley helped to build my confidence, especially when times got tough.

While I was encouraged by his story, I recall feeling frustrated as I replied, “Don’t you remember me telling you about this information back when you were in high school, didn’t you believe me?” My nephew looked as if he sincerely did not remember. That exchange has been a key turning point in my approach to sharing and receiving family history. I am learning from that turning point that in addition to contexts and family liaisons, there is much to be learned at all ages about listening for understanding and not just listening to reply. A listener and receiver of ethnography and critical family history evidence must fight against being just critical, liberal and conservative enough to hear his or her own voice.

Concluding Thoughts 
The critical family history and critical ethnographic techniques in Hughes (2006) coupled with the work of Cecelski (2001) and Siddle Walker (1996) did seem to help my nephew, family and me to make more meaning out of what we already knew about the family’s history with water in our coastal hometown, and to add to our limited knowledge about our family’s prowess in schooling and water-based entrepreneurship from slavery to segregation. Yet, my nephew and I must continue to ask ourselves, “Is this experience in the water and on the boat something for which I should be ashamed, because White people do it, or is it something for which I should be proud, because it is what my people used to do, before Jim Crow pushed us out of this part of the local economy?” Obviously, I am arguing here that the evidence suggests that the latter is the closest to (t)ruth for our family, a Black family with six generations on the coast with records dating back to the early 1800s. The next step includes continuing to check other family members in the appropriate contexts with necessary family liaisons; and to fight against passing on Jim Crow’s aquatic lies to our posterity.

I continue to learn more about my family history of swimming, boating and Black life in the home of my birth, the county of The Great Dismal Swamp. It is the home of escaped and free Blacks, of Maroons, and of brave Black lifeguards, as revealed from my revisiting of local library books and displays in the local museum and in my listening for understanding. I find this evidence toward my critical family history troubling Jim Crow, my nephew and me with respect to our previous assumptions about possibilities and limitations of our family in maritime North Carolina from the late 1800s to the present. It is my sincere hope that information from this final installment (both alone and in conjunction with the previous installments) will inspire readers to initiate, sustain, and augment evidence from their own critical family histories in ways that keep troubling Jim Crow and the lies Jim Crow taught.


Cecelski, D. (2001). The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in the Maritime South. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press.

Hughes, S. A. (2006). Black Hands in the Biscuits Not in the Classrooms: Unveiling Hope in a Struggle for Brown’s Promise. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishers. (Also see http://www.peterlang.com/download/datasheet/46083/datasheet_67431.pdf)

Siddle Walker, V. (1996). Their Highest Potential: An African American Community in the Segregated South. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press.

Dr. Sherick Hughes, MA, MPA, Ph.D. is Associate Professor with Tenure, and Founder and Director, Interpretive Research Suite & Carter Qualitative Thought Lab Graduate Program Coordinator/Chair, Cultural Studies & Literacies Program Founder and Director, Black Alumni of the School of Education (BASE), School of Education, University of North Carolina, CB #3500, Peabody Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599

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