Friday, June 04, 2004

Troubling the Waters: Navigating the Things Black Folks Just Don't Do Handbook (Part 1 of 3)

THERE'S A LONG LIST OF THINGS THAT BLACK FOLKS just don't do. Those of you who aren't Black may not know this, but right after the umbilical cord is snipped - right there in the delivery room, before we can read even- each of us is given a crushed velvet handbook entitled (what else?), Things Black Folks Just Don't Do. It's about 8.5" x 5.5", the size of a dreambook, with a silhouette that looks like Jesse Jackson stitched on the back cover. I've only see the American edition, but I hear there's a Caribbean one, too.

Without much shuckin and jivin, it opens on page 1 - no by-line, no publisher - and gets right to the point:

Dear Reader:

You have been given this book either because yo Mama is Black or yo Daddy is Black; or your Grandmama is Black or your Granddaddy is Black; or your Great Grandmama is Black or your Great Granddaddy is Black; or somebody in the long and storied history of your family was rumored to be Black, or to have been Black at one time; or looked White and had a little too much rhythm to his step; or looked White and liked neckbone just a little too much.

And thusly so, by your politi-genetic design, here is a list of things that you and your kind just don't do (and most especially not in the presence of another Black person) - lest your Black card be permanently, retroactively, and effective-immediately revoked until Eternity to the ninth power:

0. Arrive anywhere on time.
1. Dance off-beat.
2. Walk barefoot in a public shower.
3. Pee in a public shower.
4. Pee with the door open.
5. Watch NASCAR.
6. Enunciate.
7. Have sex with animals.
8. Pay bills on-time.
9. Hike.
10. Hitchhike.
11. Read.
12. Fall while running from the killer in a horror movie.
13. Pass up free food.
14. Graduate on time.
15. Patronize Black-owned businesses.
16. Let a dog lick you in the face.
17. Leave a tip.
18. Publicly acknowledge that Eminem has talent.
19. Get sunburned.
20. Serial kill.
21. Snorkel.
22. Write science fiction.
23. Molest children.
24. Go to the opera.
25. Analingus.
26. Ride with factory speakers.
27. Speak a second language.
28. Consider walking into a Supercuts.
29. Catch AIDS.
30. Crossword puzzles.
31. Live in New Hampshire.
32. Watch films with subtitles.
33. Play tennis.
34. Succeed.
35. Trust the police.
36. Vote.
37. Vote Republican.

And the list goes on and on and on for pages and pages ad nauseum, with appendices updated annually. (If you ain't got the latest, I'll hook you up!) It all becomes very cumbersome the older you get - way too much to remember. The 2003 edition ends with entry 48,402:

48,402. Blog.

The reason I bring this handbook up is that somewhere along the way - consciously or subconsciously - it became my life's ambition to do everything the list said not to do. Okay - not everything - but to do as many of the things as possible that improve my quality of life. Not because I want my card revoked, but because, quite frankly, the list is preposterous. Most recently, I'm tackling number 138. Which is to swim!

I'm sure you've all heard the myth: Black people don't swim. I mean, look at the Olympics; look at the World Championships. When was the last time you saw a Black person in a pool? Even in our most lavish fantasies (you know, in BET rap videos?), Black people are always around the pool, but they're never in the pool. About as close as you can get us is to a pool is sipping Cristal in the jacuzzi.

Well there haven't been any widespread sociological studies as to the validity of this myth, but it nonetheless got addressed in a very realworld way recently when the North Miami Police Department dropped swimming as a requirement in order to recruit more Black representation on the force. It seems that they believed many otherwise qualified Blacks weren't applying because they couldn't swim:
North Miami PD Drops Requirement In Bid To Recruit Blacks

NORTH MIAMI, Fla. -- The North Miami police department dropped a swimming requirement for applicants, saying they need new officers and want to encourage blacks to sign up.

North Miami police say they are dropping the requirement for a year. They say few departments require swimming and their officers rarely save people in water.

"Our swimming requirement may give the false perception that we are not serious in our efforts to hire Haitian police applicants," police chief Gwendolyn Boyd-Savage wrote in a memo explaining the decision. Boyd-Savage is black.

"They have been intimidated because they don't swim, very few of them swim," said Mayor Joe Celestin, who is Haitian-American. "They have the ability to learn how to swim, but many of them are not that great of a swimmer as the standard, current requirement that we have. We want to bring them in and give them a chance to learn."

The requirement is for police recruits to swim 150 feet without stopping while wearing all clothing except shoes, assistant police chief Doug Brown said Thursday.

Critics say race and ethnicity are not factors when it comes to swimming.

Assistant Police Chief Doug Brown said, "We are not here to make any type of cultural assessments. We are looking to attract both minority and non-minority candidates who would normally not apply."


And were I to have considered applying to the North Miami Police Department, it would have been a very short consideration. I can't swim.

Then it occurred to me that I didn't know whether my own Black friends could swim or not. So I decided to do a not-so-random poll of my friends. And the results were a bit surprising.

It turns out I am not alone - nowhere near it. What are the reasons? It seemed the most common reason in my not-so-random sample was lack of access to a swimming pool. There are historical factors as well. Neither of my parents can swim, and there were actual societal reasons for it during their generation:

On my day job, I was speaking on the phone to a Black satellite technician in North Carolina about my first swimming lesson. Grady, who is 50-or-so and cannot swim, told me of a visit his family received from his cousin from New York when they were in their early teens in the late 1960's. His cousin could swim, it turned out, and wanted to take a dip as it was hot and it was his summer vacation. But the closest pool was not so close. It was in a trailer community which had politely posted a "For Residents Only" sign over its chlorined waters. Naturally, all of the "Residents" were White.

Anyway, Grady's cousin decided to take a dip in the evening when the sun was low, while no one was around. But he knew better.

Interestingly enough, no one harrassed Grady's cousin at all while he swam. But when they passed the pool the next day, much to their surprise, the pool had been drained dry.

So I'm going to exercise a bit of courage and make a change in my life. My good friend, K____, who happens to a real live Black person who can swim, has agreed to give me lessons!

I actually had lessons when I was five, but completely chickened out when it came time to jump off the diving board. So now, 25 years later, I'm revisiting my fear to shatter the myth. I'm gonna make my Things Black Folks Just Don't Do handbook lighter - one line at a time.

Tomorrow: an update on my first week of lessons.

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