Black Swimmers and Diasporic Understandings of Water

“Black Swimmers” (Photo: Arek, Flickr).

James “Jim” Clarke was a Guyanese-born celebrated swimmer and diasporic pioneer. I first learned of him through a photo at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool where he was presented alongside other honored Black figures from England and the diaspora. Clarke is pictured in black and white, fitted in what appears to be swimwear of his time that is pinned with medals from the height of his swim career (1908–1910). It is one of the few photographs of him in circulation in the few articles that tell of his life and his local celebrity. Several scholars, including Jacqueline Nassy Brown and Ray Costello, briefly reference Clarke in their books on Black Liverpool. However, there appears to be no full-length scholarly work on Clarke’s life and swimming career.

As a Black man who swam and saved drowning people, Clarke’s swimming skills endeared him to many; his Blackness accentuating his prominence. As an uncommon story in places like the U.K. and U.S., especially during his time (but also in ours), Clarke’s life does the needed work of bringing into view the peripheries of Blackness, that is, what Black people are less known for: swimming and other aquatic activities. This association is stronger in other parts of the diaspora, but particularly in the U.S. context, figures like Jim Clarke wade us into the less discussed histories and capacities of Black people and notably what Black people do and can be.

The sparse accounts of Clarke’s life document his birth in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1886.  Presumably he first learned to swim in the country’s many waters. At fourteen, he stowed away on a cargo ship bound for Liverpool, arriving there in 1900. Priests found him alone and took him to the presbytery before the Crawfords, a white Irish family living in the Vauxhall neighborhood, took him in, applied for his residency, had him baptized as Catholic, and adopted him. He lived what seemed to be a family-centered life, working on the docks like so many in the renowned port town. In 1914, he married a white Irish woman named Elizabeth Murphy, and the couple had thirteen children.

Accounts of Clarke’s life in Liverpool document him as a runner and a boxer, but revere and remember him for his abilities in the water. He swam competitively for various clubs including Wavertree and Bootle, and helped win several North Lancashire League cups while swimming for Everton. Over his multiyear career he earned fame for his Scotland Road and Vauxhall area, a place that was known for its European immigrant communities. Presumably he also played water polo and captained the Woolton Polo team. Most strikingly perhaps were his synchronized swimming routines that he performed well into his later years.

Clarke’s athletic notoriety also derived from the people he rescued. Because of his strength as a swimmer and his lung capacity, locals, including the police, called upon Clarke to retrieve people from the city’s many bodies of water. On the River Mersey where he worked as a docker, Clarke rescued fellow dockworkers and seamen; in 1911 he received an award for saving a man from the West Waterlook Dock. He also was known to aid children in his neighborhood struggling to stay afloat in the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Police used his skills for more somber tasks, summoning him to recover drowned bodies. These experiences and his passion for swimming led him to advocate for and provide swimming lessons to children, as well as to coach the police swimming and boxing teams.

Jim Clarke

Clarke’s skill as a swimmer, most importantly a Black swimmer, is commemorated in Liverpool. He died in 1960 reportedly from tuberculosis. Twenty-six years later in 1986, he was the first Black man to have a street named after him in the city and had plaques dedicated to him by the Vauxhall History and Heritage Group and the Liverpool Aquatics Centre.

In terms of the diaspora, what do Clarke’s swimming gifts and Blackness represent? Jim Clarke was neither a racial revolutionary nor a social activist, or so it seems. He and his Irish wife resided in predominately white European immigrant neighborhoods. His likeability and generosity won hearts, and also may have made him a racial exception or token, given his transgressions. Liverpool’s prominent role in slavery and the triangle of trade that built the British Empire brought an early Black presence to the city and a longstanding Black community with which Clarke could and might have engaged. Racism, only briefly mentioned in these limited biographies, was presumably as omnipresent in Clarke’s life as the waters in which he swam. The city’s history as a port town with a diverse population may have buffered some forms of virulent racism, but both John Belchem and Jacqueline Nassy Brown document the particular trials of race relations in this international and migrant built city. Clarke’s lung power acts as a metaphor for his capacity to withstand what inevitably was not an easy passage across the Atlantic and into his new life in early twentieth century England. Despite his fluidity, strength, and ability to swim, he entered England as a Black colonial boy.

Jim Clarke’s story redirects the conversation about how Black people, specifically in the U.S., navigate water and offers a nuanced awareness. Beyond spiritual and religious uses of water in Black life, racial narratives in the U.S. primarily present the relationship between Black people and water in the literal and metaphorical wake of the Middle Passage, in the hold of slavers or dying at sea. The traumas of this foundational event are compounded by the history of the segregation of beachespools, and the Navy. Historian Tyler Parry speaks to the fracture in this relationship as “the weaponization of water” resulting from the long legacy of structural racism and racial terror in the U.S. This legacy, he writes, has led to a fear-based relationship with water for Black people and a diminished cultural value, which he highlights in the glaring low numbers of Black children in the U.S. without swimming skills. A figure like Jim Clarke does not counter this history. Juxtaposed with accounts of Black people’s aversion to water, Clarke’s story initiates a conversation about Black people’s strength and comfort in water and the possibilities that extend from looking at this fundamental relationship when alive and active and unbroken.

As an American born Black woman of Guyanese descent who has had a competitive aquatic life, I am drawn to Jim Clarke’s story. But his story is not unique. His aquatic journey threads together the undercurrents of diasporic history and life, overdetermined and overlooked within dominant threads of Black intellectual thought. Black people’s sturdy and intimate relationships with water are less explored and float on the peripheries of how Black life is discussed. So too are those Black spaces like Guyana or even Liverpool, whose diverse racial and geographic lineages put pressure on overly essentialized understandings of Blackness. But it’s in these spaces, such as in coastal Georgetown for example, where Jim Clarke likely learned how to swim and appreciate water, and where other, sometimes disruptive, narratives of Blackness emerge. Swimming is not simply about leisure, but a quality of life skill, and a fundamental relationship with an element, both necessary and urgent. Recognizing the value of the relationship, its metaphors, and how it is already present are vital to the physical liberation of Black people to move freely and confidently in waters of many kinds and to the ideological liberation from constrained racial ideas of Blackness that persist.

This work has already begun. The history of Black seafarers has been documented in text. W. Jeffrey Bolster’s and Ray Costello’s books on Black seafarers in the U. S. and England respectively are a few of the accounts that shed light on Black maritime history. Costello collaborated on the current Black Salt exhibition on Black British sailors at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. This exhibit features Captain Belinda Bennett, who in 2016 became the first recognized Black woman captain in the commercial cruise industry. In recent Olympics, Black swimmers and gold medalists such as Simone Manuel and water polo player Ashleigh Johnson help unravel the crude and pervasive stereotypes that Black people can’t or don’t swim.

Hopefully one day soon the fullness of Jim Clarke’s story will be restored through archives such as Liverpool’s newspapers or by speaking with his remaining descendants. And there are other Black people like Clarke who saved lives, traversed oceans, who have made, worked, and steered boats, who understood tides, the stars, and who have plumbed dark waters. These figures near and far highlight relationships, activities, and experiences that give greater dimension to our understandings of our own personhood and how we occupy and inhabit space—two of the central ways anti-black racism narrows Black life. Stories like those of Jim Clarke, teach us how not to drown by purposely guiding us into less chartered terrain as a needed part of a liberating and life sustaining project of Blackness.

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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Comments on “Black Swimmers and Diasporic Understandings of Water

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    Thank you for enlightening me about the famous Jim Clark, I am sharing this with our history group.
    Sherry Sherrod DuPree

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    An enlightening and thought provoking piece about Jim Clark by Celeste Henery! On Black diasporic aquatic culture, I’d like to also recommend Kevin Dawson’s Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora. U Penn Press, 2018.

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