There is an open water swim race that takes place annually in Senegal. It starts at the Voile d’Or Beach, in Dakar, and ends at Gorée Island, the last stop for many enslaved West Africans destined for the New World. It's 3.5 miles from Island to shore. While the last three U.S. presidents – prior to the current White House occupant – visited the island during their tenures the 33 year-old race, its roughly 600 annual contestants are almost all Black African swimmers (certainly few or no Americans).
The race commemorates a piece of West African lore: If you were lucky enough to escape captivity on Gorée Island, you might have chosen to brave the 3.5-mile open water swim journey back to the mainland. This story may not make a lot of sense to you, if you assume that Black people don’t historically swim, and especially during the New World slave trade era. We’ll get to that.
A young woman and man – Skylar Smith and Noah Nicholas – recent Howard University swim team alumni, plan to travel to Dakar to compete in this event. There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with the race itself. There’s a short Al Jazeera clip from a couple of years ago just below.
Let’s just break the seals on the race question. Black people don’t or can’t swim, at least like White people do. Right? Because, if they did, there’d be more Black people competing in the triathlons in which you and I participate. Right? It depends on which Black people and the time in history you’re talking about. A game-changer for me was the book Undercurrents of Power. In this book surfer, swimmer, author Kevin Dawson recounts a historic truth previously unknown to me and, probably, to most Americans: The West African aquatic culture during the Trans-Atlantic enslavement period was the dominant aquatic culture in the world at that time.
So, when the 17th or 18th century African who found or got himself from the Slave House to Gorée Island’s shoreline, and faced his or her decision, he or she was often armed with the skill and fitness to successfully make that 3.5-mile swim. I have long been of the opinion that our multisport events champion and memorialize the skills and journeys undertaken when it was for real, when survival was in the balance, and I can think of no more poignant example than the Gorée Island open water race. I want to race this event myself, of course, as many of you do too now that you know about it (if you watched that Al Jazeera clip), and an organization called Black Kids Swim is sending of Skylar and Noah to Senegal for this event.
It’s a shrewd decision because, if you are White and you think that Black people just don’t swim, you aren’t alone. A lot of Black people agree with you. The history of how an aquatic culture was stripped away from Black Americans is frustrating and infuriating, but it’s quite long and I’ll leave this for another time. The point is, when Black Kids Swim talks to kids and their parents about swimming, and they are faced with, “We don’t swim,” an honest history of aquatic culture allows and maybe demands this answer: But you used to.
There are more layers to The Gorée Project. West Africans aren’t only aware of what White colonialism meant to their countries, they’re often suspicious of Black Americans who – though wanting to connect with their African heritage – haven’t been Africans for several hundred years. Noah and Skylar are walking into this unknown. What will their reception be?
All this omits Skylar’s technical fear, which is, the race is 3.5 miles and she’s a pool-only, drop-dead sprinter. Her concern is apparent in the Gorée Island Project, which is going to be made into a documentary film, and the first installment just dropped and is here, just above, where you will meet the effervescent Skylar and Noah.
A couple of notes on this: You might wonder when this race takes place, and if the global pandemic affects this year’s holding of the race. This event is historically a September-end, or October-beginning, event. The race organizers are committed to the 2020 edition, as I understand it, and the precise date for this year has been pushed back, and the announcement on the new date is perhaps imminent. But we’ve heard that a lot about races, have we not? Then there is the question of quarantine, should Skylar and Noah be able to travel. I’ve been following this, and my guess is that it will happen or it won’t in 2020, but if it doesn’t then The Gorée Project moves into 2021, since 2020 is for so many of us the Lost Year. I’m speaking only out of instinct, not of knowledge.
I am passionate about learn-to-swim efforts, and I have a lot of respect for Black Kids Swim, and am especially enthusiastic about The Gorée Project. This is a crowdfunded effort and we – at Slowtwitch – are chipping in. Here is the PayPal site where you can give to Black Kids Swim, and you can choose The Gorée Project if you want.