Gentle Readers, I live by Lake Huron; my whole town does. I can be at the lake in five minutes by car or half an hour as the podcast-listening blogger in no particular hurry walks. Back in my mother’s day, to graduate high school here you had to be able to swim and prove it. By the time I graduated, that requirement had long gone. Now you know how I got out of high school; as a child I enjoyed being in the water but never quite learned how to swim. I did not know until today that I shared that with 68.9% of black children in the United States.
I don’t know from sports, but I found out that Simone Manuel won a gold medal in swimming at the Olympics. No other black woman from the United states had done so. This makes her another first black American for us to celebrate come February and forget promptly, as we usually do. The firsts matter, but our conventional focus on them risks two costly mistakes. We can take a first person as the end of a story, the victory lap in a story of progress. Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Barack Obama broke through the color line, so we have triumphed over white power. Everyone applauds as the curtain falls. Pay no attention to the rabid white supremacy still raging almost undisturbed behind it. It would not do to demean the achievements of talented individuals in breaking down social barriers, but I think it makes far more sense to consider them as beginnings of stories than ends.
I did not see Manuel win her gold. I have seen other events where the reporter comes immediately to the American who wins second place for an interview. You expect that when you watch an American network. Maybe the person from Tuvalu or Belarus actually won, but the home country’s network will focus on the home country athletes even if language barriers didn’t very often argue for it. Not so for Manuel, who had to make do with a still photo on Twitter while the American news discussed an Australian swimmer. Priorities, you know? Maybe the law made her an American, but white Americans have never quite made our peace with that.
The other peril of focusing on first arises from that. In taking a first achievement as a kind of trivia point, we easily miss just why it mattered. Maybe it would have taken until Manuel hit the water for a black American woman to win a swimming gold, but we can’t know because white Americans have long insisted that black people have no place in our swimming pools. We have dumped acid into them to keep our waters white. We have drained the pools and filled them with dirt or concrete. More often, we’ve abandoned public pools that must accept swimmers of all colors in favor of private pools we can keep whites-only. We don’t much care for black people getting their blackness into our pools. Take it from Strom Thurmond himself:
Thurmond had a seat in the United States Senate into the twenty-first century. South Carolina kept voting for him and he ended his career as a revered and exceptionally elder statesman. Why wouldn’t he? His name made for a good trivia question and everybody knew his checkered past, but that kind of thing rarely disqualifies any white man from much of anything in the United States.
All the black children who don’t learn how to swim, and so die from drowning at five times the rate of white children. But if we poison them to cut costs then you can’t expect white America to care much about mere accidental deaths. I say accidental because so far as I can tell the statistics omit suicides; the people who drowned did not mean to do so. But in another sense, they don’t qualify at all. You can’t learn to swim without some dependable water nearby and for a great many people, particularly in cities, that means a pool. White Americans left those behind to die from lack of funds, where we didn’t destroy them, rather than let black Americans enjoy the water with us. We chose that policy and we have kept right on choosing it. We know the consequences and we, as we almost always do, took the deaths of black Americans as at least an acceptable loss. Some of us surely go so far as to prefer it.
I can’t know what went through the minds of the directors, film crew, and reporters who ignored Manuel’s achievement, but flag-waving enthusiasm didn’t enter into it or she would have gotten far more coverage than she did. We are all trained to believe black Americans just don’t count, even beyond how we’re trained to think women don’t count. But meaner things lurk in the national consciousness. She didn’t win her races for an America that we’ve been trained all our lives to see as our own: the white male land playground build on stolen land and lives. She represented an America that that country has fought for centuries. For her to win, it had to lose. We do not celebrate our losses.
Simone Manuel beat her opponents in the pool. She beat Strom Thurmond and all his modern doppelgangers too.