Untitled Black Swimmer Project

Directed by Mirissa Neff

To my mother, the ocean is terrifying. Her aversion to water is profound. I often wondered, when watching her recoil from the surf, where this fear came from. After all, she’d grown up surrounded by water on a small Caribbean island. She emigrated to the States as a young woman, lifting herself out of poverty to  become a high-powered executive for “Sesame Street”, and eventually bought a small summer house by the sea, forty years ago, that she still owns. Although my mother is confident in most other aspects of her life, if she wants to take a dip in the ocean, I have to hold her hand to make sure she doesn’t get swept away by the waves. 

My mother never learned to swim. Not wanting this to be my fate, she enrolled me in daily swimming lessons by the time I was three. I went on to swim competitively, becoming a top swimmer in my hometown of New York City, while often being the only black person in the pool. Swimming has always been central to my life. But I’ve always had the sense, which has only grown since childhood, that water is a place where family and race and identity meet. 

In my new film, I intend to explore the themes of blackness and swimming by illuminating a little-known aspect of America’s racial drama. This untitled project will employ a personal lens to explore how this fraught history has been experienced not on dry land but in and around our pools, ponds, rivers, and oceans. Impressionistic present-day footage of black people interacting with water, in both ordinary and extraordinary ways, will be juxtaposed with archival imagery of same. These images will be set to narration from five black people whose lives have been shaped, in distinct but linked ways, by their relationship to swimming. These voices, beyond my own, will include a young national swimming champion positioned to become a household name in next year’s Olympics; a mother who lost her teenage son to drowning and started a program to ensure that her community’s black children would learn to swim; an eminent writer whose essays on race and difference have shaped my thinking (and whose own life has been marked, in surprising ways, by deep encounters with the sea); and my own mom, now in her 80s, who continues to grapple with what lies at the root of her lifelong phobia.

About two-thirds of black Americans today can’t swim. Black youths drown at five times the rate of their white peers. The basic reasons for this are clear enough. Segregation and class discrimination long kept blacks excluded from pools and beaches. In recent years, multiple incidents and images in the media — from the white male cop in Texas who body-slammed a bikini-clad black teen attending a pool party in a white neighborhood, to “Pool Patrol Paula,” the white woman who assaulted a black teenage boy because he didn’t “belong” at their community pool — have shown that we’ve yet to escape this brutal history. A few news reports and obscure documentaries have highlighted these recent incidents and statistics. But much less focused on is what I’m interested in: how the deeper traumas of history, from the Middle Passage on, have lived on in our bodies and our memories alike. 

In today’s America, precisely four centuries after racial slavery’s implanting on this continent in 1619, there are exceptions to history’s rules. Black swimmers have now excelled on the world stage. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Simone Manuel became the first black woman to capture Olympic gold for the United States in swimming. Now Reece Whitley, a sophomore at UC Berkeley is poised to take next year’s Olympics by storm (and I aim to film him as he trains for Tokyo). But as in other realms, a few exceptions can obscure larger structures as much as mark their transcendence. 

My own life has been affected by the remnants of old barriers. My early comfort in the water didn’t prevent me, of course, from experiencing discrimination in pools and at beaches that were meant to be open to the public. And when I arrived at the elite college where I earned my BA, I was confronted in formative ways with these legacies when I learned the story of  Gerald Penny, another black freshman at Amherst College who in 1973 drowned while taking a mandatory aquatic test. Penny would have failed a class by skipping the test, and was never asked if he was capable of passing. At this elite institution, such capability, and the privilege to gain it, was assumed. By the time I attended twenty years later, the Black Student Union’s center had been renamed for Penny; it was during BSU meetings that I learned Penny’s story. During meetings there, when a classmate said or sang something worth affirming, we snapped our fingers, instead of clapping, to honor his memory. Looking back on the young woman I was then, quietly snapping my fingers in a building named for a young black man who died in a pool, I think those meetings were where the earliest seeds for this project — a project exploring how swimming and race have shadowed my own life and our shared history alike — were sown. 

One of the goals of this project is to employ a premier underwater cinematographer to film black people swimming — from an Olympian transcendently moving through the depths, to toddlers making their first strokes in the pool — in ways they never have been before. The tone will be reverential to our African forebears and the watery burial ground of the Middle Passage, but also show a hopeful future for black people’s relationship to water. This film will attract a multiplicity of viewers, from those interested in race and America’s original sin, to sports enthusiasts, who will engage with uncharted territory in swimming history. It will further the current conversation on race, and illuminate how black lives matter through the lens of history.

This film builds on my previous work, which in recent years has included my soon to be released feature documentary “This is National Wake”, which traces the story of a pioneering multiracial rock band that upended the apartheid norms of 1970s South Africa, and my interactive work surveying the photography of the civil rights era for PBS’s Black Culture Connection. The Untitled Black Swimming Project will delve deeply into themes that have defined my work, only in a more personal way. It’s a film I can’t wait to make, and that I must make.