The Role of Water in African American History

The incoming EPA will likely lean toward less oversight over state public health programs – and lax enforcement is one of the causes behind the Flint water crisis. (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Flint, Michigan continues to confront a water crisis that, by all accounts, is a human tragedy. In 2014, the state of Michigan took control of the city’s finances after an audit projected it would face a $25 million deficit. To cut spending, the state redirected Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. However, the state neglected to take the necessary precautions for the pipeline and large amounts of lead crept into the city’s tap water. Residents soon complained their water looked, smelled, and tasted “funny,” but were ignored for 18 months until the crisis became undeniable. The city is majority Black and 41% of its population lives below the poverty line. Such communities are historically easy to ignore if they hold no representation. By December 14, 2015, Flint declared a state of emergency, and one month later, Michigan governor Rick Snyder requested federal aid to install “lead-free pipes” throughout the city.

While news outlets reported on the water crisis consistently throughout 2016, its national exposure severely decreased the next year under presumptions that federal interventions resolved the high toxicity levels. On April 9, 2018, NBC News reported that out-of-state contributions have already dwindled since the crisis “no longer grabs daily headlines.” For a time, the state of Michigan provided free water bottles to Flint’s residents, but governor Snyder recently announced the state will soon cancel this service. The maneuver is done under the assumption that Flint’s water has passed all federal tests for contamination. Residents question the veracity of such reports, however, with one contending, “My water stinks. It still burns to take a shower. There’s no way they can say it’s safe.” Given the government’s slow response to the initial complaints, they have legitimate reasons to be suspicious.

Flint’s saga reveals many issues in how America treats its poor and restricts their access to the most necessary of resources, but it also prompts a few questions regarding how we conceptualize and envision history. What role has water played in the lives of Black Americans from colonization to the present? Have historians unfairly privileged land-based models and ignored how people of African descent participated in aquatic activities? Has this been detrimental to how African Americans experience water and view its importance in their ancestral history? One finds that water holds a dual role in the history of Black culture and intellectual thought. In one sense, water is an arena for resistance that liberates, nourishes, and sanctifies a people, but it can also be weaponized by hegemonic forces seeking to degrade, poison, or eliminate rebellious populations.

Water was often present during key moments in the Black experience, but scholars often treat it as ancillary to the broader narrative. In Undercurrents of Power, Kevin Dawson argues that histories of slavery usually prefer land-based models contained within the plantation, and people rarely consider how enslaved people engaged with water for purposes of labor and recreation. He contends that Atlantic African societies resided near oceans, lakes, and rivers that allowed them to weave “terrestrial and aquatic experiences into amphibious lives.” He proves that Africans taken in the slave trade were intimately familiar with water and their maritime skills surpassed those of Europeans, most of whom came from colder climates and rarely learned to command moving water without a ship. Accordingly, enslaved people of African descent were used as divers, swimmers, fishermen, and sailors in various parts of the Americas.

Outside its strictly physical importance, Ras Michael Brown and T.J. Desch-Obi reveal that water was a central feature in the spiritual practices of Africans on both sides of the Atlantic. Brown examines how ancestral water spirits (simbi) remained a fundamental component of religious practices connecting the living with the dead, while Desch-Obi contends that certain African martial arts relied on practitioners crossing the “kalunga,” which he describes as “an entire cosmological system that understood bodies of water to be bridges connecting the lands of the living and the realm of the dead.” When the kalunga was crossed the practitioner could commune with the ancestors in a space that was literally inverted, even to the point that people walked with their feet pointing up. The physical manifestations of this philosophy are most distinctly preserved in Brazilian capoeira, though Black combat traditions in other areas hold similar links.

Enslaved people understood water’s practical use in escaping slavery, braving rivers, lakes, and rainfall to evade the sensory power of the bloodhounds. According to former slave William Walker, the most effectual means in evading dogs was to saturate his footprints in water, and other runaways noted they dived into swamps or streams to conceal their scent. Many researchers even maintain the popular spiritual “Wade in the Water” holds a literal interpretation, as it equates maritime engagement with resistance to slavery. This knowledge of aquatic spaces allowed Black people to creatively challenge the terrestrial brutalities of the Old South.

Water’s culturally symbolic importance resonated across generations, embodied by Langston Hughes’s 1920 poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Hughes charted African American history using four noteworthy rivers in the Middle East, Africa, and America. The short piece begins with a reference to Black people’s role in the dawn of civilizations and ends with allusions to American slavery. Inspired by the beauty of the Mississippi River, Hughes understood that, despite its majesty, that body of water held a critical role in preserving and expanding Black chattel slavery. It was the channel through which slave traders delivered Black bodies to toil under King Cotton. In many respects, Hughes’s poem encapsulates how Black Americans confront aquatic spaces throughout the United States. Though used by Black people for purposes of resistance, they also exemplify the violence of American racism.

Positioning water as a tool of violence in Black Atlantic history requires one to revisit the slave ship. In Slavery at Sea, Sowande Mustakeem notes that Africans held a deep-seeded appreciation for the ocean, but as they were transported across the Atlantic this vast body of water began to symbolize “a repository of bodies, death, pain, and suffering.” Historian Alexander Byrd likened the slave ship to a “floating stockade” that confined its cargo and prevented their engagement with the ocean. He even notes that, despite popular conceptions that captives willfully threw themselves overboard to escape a life of slavery, “documented suicides were relatively rare” and most Africans suffered their depression in confinement. Though many people understandably celebrated the last words of Black Panther antagonist Erik Killmonger, when he wished to be buried in the ocean with his ancestors who refused the denigrations of slavery, one must realize the ocean primarily served as a dumping ground for Europeans to unceremoniously remove the bodies of captives they deemed unworthy of sale. The 1781 Zong Massacre, in which the captain of a slave ship threw 133 diseased Africans overboard to collect insurance money, illustrates this concept in horrifying fashion.

Slave ships do not encapsulate the entirety of aquatic violence, however, they were only the beginning. Lynch mobs in the Jim Crow South relied on rivers and streams to dispose of the mangled bodies of Black southerners. Teenager Emmett Till is one noteworthy example. Urban areas throughout the North racially segregated public pools, and, as shown in the Chicago race riots of 1919, if a Black person crossed into the white section, death and devastation followed that individual and their community. Governments also fail to protect Black communities from water-based natural disasters. Prior to the devastations of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where local, state, and federal governments failed to prepare poor, predominantly Black communities throughout the Gulf Coast for a category five hurricane, Black communities in the same region were previously devastated by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. After this event hundreds of thousands of African Americans had their homes destroyed and were placed in relief camps for lengthy periods. After their release, most fled North to escape the physical and emotional pain associated with this memory.

It seems no coincidence that water’s involvement in structural racism has led to the popular adage that “Black People Don’t Swim” in the United States, a stereotype that holds devastating consequences. Researchers note that 70% of African Americans lack basic swimming skills and Black children are 5.5 times more likely to drown than other children. If one is apt to pursue the reasons why Black Americans hold a unique aversion to swimming, this essay provides a starting point for explaining why many rejected the activity. The weaponization of water takes many forms, and Flint, Michigan, serves as the most recent example. Once a symbol of spiritual renewal and physical pleasure, water is transformed into an entity of terror in African America, causing many Black people to fear it and reject its cultural value. Black communities must be empowered to reengage water and claim freedom from structures designed to hurt them and ignore their pain. Reclaiming water as a cultural space might be a good place to start.

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Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Assistant Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.

Comments on “The Role of Water in African American History

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    As highlighted in the Washington Post article referenced, the lack of access to public parks and swimming pools had a huge impact on the Black community’s ability to learn to swim. Because of segregation, Black children played in ditches and creeks. And subsequently would drown because of the dangerous conditions.

    My mother in Louisiana produced a documentary about this very issue in the movie “Baton Rouge’s Troubled Waters”:

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