The question I am often asked as someone born in the West Indies is “How often did you go to the beach?” As a family, typically we visited maybe three times a year, it was never a huge priority and usually done on holidays. My response is always met with disbelief and some variation of “…well if I were living in the islands, I would go every weekend.” To this day, I have always found the matter of visiting the beach and swimming trivial. It turns out the aversion links to a cultural history not well known.

There have been numerous statistical studies conducted, including through USA Swimming and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about the percentages of children that swim. The conclusion is clear, as the studies corroborate one another, that a far higher percentage of black children have little or no swimming ability in comparison to children of other ethnic backgrounds. More troubling are the statistics that reveal, in the United States, (there are no validated statistics in the Caribbean) black children drown at a rate of three times higher than their Caucasian peers.…a far higher percentage of black children have little or no swimming ability in comparison to children of other ethnic backgrounds.

Why is that? We’ll attempt to answer this short yet highly complicated question in the next few articles, but today, we’ll start with one major factor: fear of the water.

Historically, and before the advent of slavery, West Africans had a long and well-documented record of loving to swim, and embracing the water. However, during slavery swimming was viewed as another way of escape, so the slave traders and owners went to great lengths to make sure the skill was obliterated. How did they manage this? Research points to lots of stage managing on the slave ships coming from West Africa to the the Caribbean islands and the South and East coasts of the United States.

Many accounts found throughout written journals, ships logs and other documents point to slave traders bringing slaves in chains and shackles onto the decks of ships just after the crew had been chumming in known shark-infested waters. With the slaves watching on in horror, the crews would throw the sharks live animals, often chickens, in order to create an even bigger frenzy. These staged events to create fear drove home their point to the slaves that the future they faced trying to escape via water was worse than the future they faced once the ship landed.Seventy percent of black children cannot swim, according to a national research study conducted by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis

These records are appalling in every sense of the word, and they’ve partially trickled down into a cultural misperception that the waters are far more dangerous than reality. But make no mistake – as we’ve shown in the earlier statistics, another fear of the water is also due to the risk of drowning.

Seventy percent of black children cannot swim, according to a national research study conducted by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis, putting them at a higher risk of drowning. However, participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among young children, according to a 2009 Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine report.

Here at home in the Virgin Islands, we also suffer from a multi-generational and longstanding fear of the water. This thinking is holding us back from many opportunities for social and economic advancement. We hope that these articles will be helpful in providing useful and actionable information to begin changing how we think about swimming, and its relationship to our health and prosperity. Stay tuned.

John Klein is the president of the V.I. Swimming Federation and vice president of the St. Thomas Swimming Association. He is a long-term resident of the V.I. and has been a long distance swimmer for decades.

Original article published at the Virgin Islands Daily News

Image: Victoria Shipp @shiptoria Shipp/Instagram