Be it at local beaches, public swimming pools, or open fire hydrants, “the water” has often formed the backdrop of America’s long and ongoing history of racial conflict. In 1919, whites’ efforts to ensure segregation at Chicago’s beaches sparked nearly a week of race rioting on the city’s South Side. In the decades leading up to World War II, whites, as historian Jeff Wiltse notes, “quite literally beat blacks out of the water” at municipal swimming pools.1 In 1949, whites in St. Louis attacked black bathers following the order by the mayor to integrate public swimming pools, and in 1966 police harassment of black children frolicking in the spray from an open fire hydrant sparked more rioting in Chicago, this time on the city’s West Side.
As one might expect, the water’s endurance as a site of exclusion for African Americans meant that it also served as a setting for sustained Civil Rights struggle. In the early 1960s, at beaches and pools ranging from Warren, Ohio, to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, black Civil Rights activists organized a series of “wade-ins, using the water to take aim at whites” “massive resistance” to integration in the wake of Brown v. Board. But despite widespread success in integrating public beaches and swimming pools, a flourishing culture of aquatics within the African-American community remains unrealized to this day, and perhaps no activity betrays this as starkly as American surfing. Despite significant market expansion in recent decades—especially in the context of a growing population of female surfers—the sport remains overwhelmingly white. Ted Woods’s 2011 documentary White Wash seeks an explanation as to why, and in addition to historicizing the enduring racial homogeneity of surfing, provides space for African-American surfers to articulate what it means to participate in a sport where their presence is often seen as a form of cultural trespass by blacks and whites alike. In terms of crafting a popular history of the racial politics of surfing, the film is more often than not successful. However, it ultimately wipes out as a result of its insistence on decoupling the current demographic profile of surfing from the material conditions confronted by African Americans in the post-Civil Rights Era.
Using interviews with a wide range of professional and amateur surf historians, as well as black surfers themselves, the first part of the documentary effectively debunks myths about the growth of surfing in the U.S. as the outcome of benign cultural interchange, situating it squarely within the history of European colonialism and American capitalism. In fact, European missionaries banned surfing in Hawai‘i in the nineteenth century, and the sport only gained wide purchase among whites in the United States after entrepreneurial boosters in Hawai‘i repackaged it as a tourist activity. Moreover, new historical evidence suggests that Africans living on the coast of what is now Ghana practiced wave riding before slave traders established a beachhead there, forcing many local coastal communities inland. So, while early surfing was decidedly non-white, its transmission happened almost entirely on terms dictated by whites. [End Page 532]
The film continues by outlining the reasons behind the underrepresentation of African Americans in surfing. The legacy of slavery looms large in this story, as slave traders and owners did their best to stamp out African aquatic culture in order to minimize slaves’ ability to escape by swimming. After emancipation, de jure segregation in the South and de facto discrimination in the North and West limited blacks’ access to beaches and later public pools. This protracted history of exclusion, according to Woods and his interviewees, fed popular ideas about blacks’ allegedly “natural” aversion to water and watersports like surfing—an idea that has only gained popularity in recent decades as African Americans have excelled more and more in terrestrial athletic pursuits while their representation in the elite tiers of sports like surfing and swimming remains miniscule. The documentary is at its strongest at this point, deftly juxtaposing the role of racial violence in African-Americans’ absences from aquatic culture with first...