Black Surfers? It’s Not Just a White Thing. “Whitewash,” Black Surfing Documentary Narrated by Ben Harper and Black Thought of The Roots Now at Hulu

I found this from Shadow and Act.  Whitewash was released in October of this year on DVD.   It debuted in 2009.  Here’s what it awoke in me, and I haven’t even seen five minutes of it yet.

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Despite what you’ve heard about black people hating or being afraid of the water, because of some racial memory regarding slavery,  or even about the Mississippi and the New Orleans levees, don’t believe all of it.  We could learn to love it too, just like anyone, beyond wading pools.  But it’s not just access to pools that limits folks, but peer pressure about what black people, and what black women supposedly do.  Or limit themselves to.  Like, “black people don’t golf.”  “Black people don’t swim.”  “Black people don’t do skis.”  You mean, you wouldn’t do these things.  How about someone else?

I learned to swim with a sympathetic instructor, Mrs. Henninger, as a junior in high school in San Jose, California.  Facially, Mrs. Henninger’s smiling, encouraging face reminded me of Amelia Earhart‘s.  If she told me I could do it, I did it.  Soon, I went beyond just believing her.  I believed in myself.

The first thing I had to learn was to trust that my own body had buoyancy and could float.  It got to the point, though, that I would wear my glasses while swimming, causing a white film–bleaching–to form on the bows.  I wanted to see everything, even the fog on the water on cold days.  This was decades before prescription goggles were accessible for the terminally near-sighted.  Even if they were available, they would have cost a fortune for a poor family in the Seventies.  I hated to dive off the board, though.  I would close my eyes as I jumped off.  I preferred to jump in feet first.

The next semester with Mrs. Henninger, I learned synchronized swimming or water ballet.   Yes, I did.  Did the Esther Williams thing.  Learned how to hold my breath underwater; how to come up and break the surface.  Some basic sculls.  My favorite positions were the vertical and what I think was the dolphin, where you used your arms and hands from a back layout to go under in a backwards somersault.   Loved it all.  Meanwhile, all  the other black girls were sweating their hair back running the 440.  They were welcome to it.  I really didn’t like running track or  playing softball or basketball.  Tennis, yes.  That’s another story.

Wrecked my hair with all that chlorine, though.   (Even sea water would have been a bit better.)  My mother would be beside herself with me and my hair, because I didn’t know quite how to take care of it between good (financial) times when I went to the hairdresser and got it straightened and conditioned.  Ended up with an Afro that entire time because it was easier to wash out the chlorine and oil my hair and scalp.  I noted, though, that some white girls’ hair–especially those who were competitive swimmers after school hours–literally turned greenish.  After a while, the swimming caps to me seemed superfluous.  My hair was going to get wet, anyway.  Sometimes I just put my cap on the side of the pool and came back for it when P.E. was over.

That was sooo long ago.  I’d need a day to get my courage up again with the water.  I haven’t swum in a long while, and it’s not the same.  (I hope Mrs. Henninger is comfortably retired and in a good situation.)  If anything, I would remember how to float.  But you have to learn to like the water, to fearlessly swim in it, in order to enjoy and appreciate the big sports.

Before that time, going on the first leg of the journey back to New Orleans to bury my grandmother,  the Coast Starlight trundled by the seashore, and through the picture windows I could see beaches with whites baking in the sun like brown and serve rolls, and people splashing in the water, but there was no surfing that I can remember seeing.  Of course, I was jealous; I was referencing the Gidget movies and the ABC TV show Hawaiian Eye.  This was close to the real deal.  I even drew girls on surfboards on big waves and wearing bikinis at one time, on my blackboard and when I had paper.  However, I had never heard of black surfers at all, just the Hawaiian and white surfers who helped to import the culture to Southern California, much less black swimmers on the same level as Don Schollander.  However, I still thought that they were possible, just not readily visible yet.

Black surfers today from the film documentary "Whitewash" regarding the history of surfing in the African American community (Courtesy:

When I was in the fourth grade, I had a teacher, Mrs. Graybeal, who was mad for Hawaii.  She had lived there for a time, and then had to go back to the States with her husband.  Mrs. Graybeal missed Hawaii badly; she had left her heart in Hawaii, just like Tony Bennett sang about San Francisco.  She got permission to teach us Hawaiian history along with California history.  I’m not lying.  She shared the Hawaiian people with us poor blacks, whites, and Latinos and Asians who only knew Stateside.  And because Hawaii was the 50th state way out in the ocean that had what we call now indigenous people, I was curious to know something more about it other than what Hollywood said it was.

So King Kamehameha was very real to me from the time I was 10 years old.  When I saw a photo of that statue of him in front of  the Iolani Palace decorated with leis, I was floored.  You could say that to me, he was the first non-white, and non-black historical individual who was heroic and powerful and let’s face it, unconquerable. 

Now the aqua and white history book Mrs. Graybeal used in the Sixties was very much from the white American point-of-view, but some things could not be explained away.  Like the fact that the Hawaiian people’s culture was slowly but surely being taken away from them by missionaries.  (And also, like the Native Americans, they were falling prey to diseases from contact with white Americans and British and even from Asians, which some traditionalists ascribed to not following the Old Ways.)  Surfing was a part of their warrior culture, like the hula, which danced by men as well as women and was not a hoochie-coochie dance at all.  If some blacks are taking up surfing, it’s one oppressed people taking up–and honoring–part of the culture of another oppressed people, and making it real and affirming.

By the time Queen Liliuokalani–who in the old black and white photos resembled a black woman with her mature form and broad lips and nose–was deposed by Americans in 1893, I felt as if a stone had grown in my stomach.  Not because she was royal, either.  Decades later, I saw a PBS documentary on the queen.  When she died in 1917, witnesses related how the very heavens, the land, and the ocean seemed to respond to her passing, and the end of an age.  I went back to how I felt when I read in class that she had been deposed, criminalized, held under house arrest, and again I felt particularly haunted and horrified that day.

And the music which was part of the American surfing culture?

There were some black kids I knew who criticized my preference for white AM stations (which also played Motown and Chess and Atlantic records by black artists, but apparently not James Brown’sI’m Black and I’m Proud.”  And yet these same children made a beeline for the Beach Party flicks whenever they could afford the tickets).  They called white, early Sixties rock music, “surfer music,” though the British Invasion and its American imitators was pretty much underway by then, and was what I liked.

And I didn’t like  just The Beach Boys, but Dick Dale, The Surfaris or Jan and Dean of the genre.  I knew by the time  the Beach Boys released “California Girls,” that they weren’t talking about me.  I didn’t care.   The music, though, promised me fun and good times–in the summer sunshine and calm breezes–that could be had while surfing in the U.S.A.

I think that, given half a chance, I would have liked becoming a surfer girl, so long as the waves weren’t 20 feet high.  By the time I reached college though, I had discarded the dream, because poor blacks don’t do surfing.  Surfing was and can be an expensive sport.  One has to be driven.  One has to wipe out not five, but perhaps dozens of times.   One also had to be a strong swimmer; but I felt that I could pass.  I was happy to finally, fearlessly play in the Pacific at Santa Cruz with some of my white girlfriends, but that became enough. Besides, I lived far, far from the water.  I didn’t have independence or a car.  For those who were mavens, the water was within fifteen minutes drive.  In retrospect, it would have been way better than falling on my behind roller-skating, or falling over riding my bicycle without the training wheels.  However, it was also a dream to be likeable, to belong, to be one of the boys riding the waves, to be near the foaming water and kick up the sand in the warm sun.

Unfortunately, if it was tough for the original Gidget to surf with the surfers of the Fifties, it would have been a lot tougher because I was black, according to Whitewash.

Narrated by Ben Harper and Tariq “Black Thought” of The Roots, the 75-minute documentary film Whitewash will be available on DVD and VOD on October 4, 2011.

In short, the film, directed by Ted Woods, explores the history of rarely detailed surfing culture within the African American community, told from the POV of black surfers from Hawaii, Jamaica, Florida, and California, and includes archival footage and conversations with professors, historians, authors, and of course professional surfers.

In essence, Whitewash explores the issue of race and so-called “black consciousness” in America through the eyes and minds of black surfers.

The New York Times reserved its praise for the documentary, but did say this:

One point comes through loud and clear: “black people don’t surf” is something that whites and blacks seem to believe in equal measure. It goes along with the stereotype that blacks can’t swim. Some of the most interesting parts of Mr. Woods’s film deal with that topic, showing how African-Americans were excluded from swim culture and public pools. Many beaches were segregated too, and footage of the police pulling blacks out of the water during “wade-ins” hasn’t lost its power to shock.

But now there are Africans who are surfing in the shadows of the former slave castles on the Atlantic coast in order to learn self-affirmation in the midst of poverty, and also self-determination in how to create and to sustain a business.

Those interviewed in Whitewash?

Rob Machado, Pro Surfer
Rick Blocker, Black Surf Historian
Rusty White, Surfer
Andrea Kabwasa, Surfer
Dedon Kamathi, Surfer
Kelly Slater, Pro Surfer
Sal Masekela, Surfer and Television Host
Patrick “Quashi” Mitchell, Founder, Quashi Surfboards International
Dr. Audwin Anderson, Sports Sociologist, Texas State University
Dr. Mark Chapman, Chair, African American Studies, Fordham University
Dr. Doug Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America, Georgia Tech University
Pohaku Stone, University of Hawaii
Bruce Wigo, President, International Swimming Hall of Fame
Sam George, Surf Historian and Film Maker
Buttons Kaluhiokalani, Surfer
Lee Pitts, Swim Historian and Instructor
Dr. John Hoberman, Author, Darwin’s Athletes, University of Texas
James Meredith, Integrated University of Mississippi, 1962
Alison Jefferson, Santa Monica Historian
Dr. Charles Ross, Director, African American Studies Program, University of Mississippi
Billy Mystic, Jamaican Surf Team
Solana Lansdowne, Surfer
David Lansdowne, Surfer
Michael Green, Surfer, Founder, Brooklyn Surfer

So now, I can kick back with my old dream, and watch the trailblazing vets I didn’t see growing up who were going against the tide, as well as the new bloods–both young men and women–who are breaking all records and stereotypes.  And dream again for the next lifetime. Aloha.

The film was scored by The Roots, too.  So if you missed it in your city or neighborhood, you can see it here or at Hulu.

~ by blksista on December 13, 2011.

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