Like Water for Black People

America has either been denying black Americans access to all manner of water to drink or it has let us drown; drown in filthy hurricane water or, as in Flint, Michigan in the tainted water flowing into the tubs and sinks of poor blacks and whites there.

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America has either been denying black Americans access to all manner of water to drink while we worked ourselves dead in its fields and for rejuvenated and recreational (even competitive) swimming. Or it has let us drown; drown in filthy hurricane water or, as in Flint, Michigan in the tainted water flowing into the tubs and sinks of poor blacks and whites there.

What is it with water and black folks in this country?

Y’all brought us all this way in the 17th century across great waters through the Middle Passage and you denied us water on that field trip, too.

Water is some kind of status symbol only the entitled few can have.

During the two most heinous and egregious miscarriages of humanity and real postmodern horror stories to occur in my lifetime, the only thing separating the insidiousness of Hurricane Katrina and the Great Water Cover-Up in Flint is the sight of floating dead black bodies through the streets of New Orleans in the summer of

2005. It looked like entombed Egyptians had been loosed and were — like human bumper cars in slow-mo — lazing across overpasses and out of the broken windows of submerged

houses where they’d been left by overwhelmed relatives swimming and boating away for their lives, inhaling sick water.

Most of the victims who made it safely and

finally to other places were called refugees, and that word became a slur. Either that or they were blamed for “staying too long.”

At least — and I use “least” incorrectly and

sadly — in Flint there are not any floating dead bodies, only a legacy and a generation of soon-to-be sick, lead-poisoned, brain-damaged, undernourished and intellectually slow children who will hopefully be “tracked,” “profiled” and “found” in five or 10 years’ time at the turn of the anniversary of Flint’s water mishaps.

In the very long run, this fiasco will cost America a bundle of money — in the care, education and re-nourishment of these children who will create a drag on special-education classrooms, Medicaid and Medicare costs, social service attention and Social Security benefits.

And ain’t that what we get?

Their parents are stuck, just like their Southern counterparts: They live in old

houses worth very little that cannot possibly

be resold in this or any other market. 

Maybe in 15 years’ time?

That is, if Michigan’s leaders actually decide to switch out the miles and miles and miles of lead-encrusted pipes with new pipes whose locations are kept on antiquated, handwritten cards in drawers in some county municipal building, and that is if the fading, early 20th-century handwriting in pencil is legible.

It’s fading, like generations of respect for the well-being and stabilization of the black family in America lost to the ravages of damaged water and the government’s control of the liquid gold.

It is amazing how devastating something as beautiful as water can be. Just like it can uproot trees and overturn trucks and swallow whole houses, too much of  the wrong kind, once inside us, can be a killer, too.

That so many black Americans have been murdered by white supremacists for either trying to drink from white fountains or from shotgun blasts of water from fire hoses (talk about a waste of good water!), no wonder the stereotype of black hydrophobia is largely a truism.

Blacks have developed a kind of reverse immunity to water when it comes to willingly submerging ourselves in it for sport and for pleasure. We’re in denial of our fear of water.

In early August 2010, six teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 18, all from the same black blended family, drowned in Shreveport, Louisiana’s Red River, one trying to save the other.

As one went in and went under, another jumped in and so on.

None of them could swim.

The adults watching did not enter the water because they could not swim, either.

When we were youngsters, my father loved taking us to the lake at Hueston Woods in Oxford.

Our mother hated it.My father was capturing for the first time boyhood activities he’d never gotten to enjoy, and we were the direct beneficiaries of his hardscrabble upbringing.Two boys and one girl all clung to his big, strong body, at least one of us grasping tightly around his neck, as he waded into the water, and the sand beneath his feet disappeared and the water lapped at his nose.

He threw us around and splashed us with that green, tick-infested lake water.

At that young age — 5 or 6 — I could not swim at all, and I did not become a decent swimmer until the fourth or fifth grade when I learned in a post-divorce apartment complex swimming pool.

But I just knew my strong Daddy, who built things with his hands, fixed cars, climbed ladders, rewired electrical machines, ran like a gazelle and taught me to ride a bike, could also swim.

I was in my mid- to late-twenties when my stepmother told me Dad had only then been taking swimming lessons at the YMCA.

That entire time he could not swim.

I know black adults today who cannot swim, and it remains one of the Great Black Open Secrets, like black abortions.

Either, as women, they never learned because someone convinced them their hair was too precious to survive the presence of water, or, as men, they just never learned.

More appropriately, though, studies that show public swimming pool deserts in black neighborhoods throughout the 1950s, ’60s and even ’70s are to blame. America just never gave us access to public pools and/or private swim clubs like it did white America.

So... what?

Am I saying America is partially responsible for killing blacks with water it denied us and with the bad water it supplied us and for denying us the water in which to learn to swim?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

From dehydrated slaves, to Civil Rights fire hoses, to Hurricane Katrina to Flint, Michigan: Welcome to Black Water World.

It sounds just like a rinky-dink black amusement park that black business owners and a bunch of black churches got together to open on some before-Kwanzaa-was-invented Kwanzaa mission, and the Grand Opening was only covered by Jet magazine with color photos of celebrities of the day like Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Sammy Davis, Jr.

And none of them were pictured swimming.


CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]


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