Thursday, April 09, 2009


When I went to the Organization of American Historians conference, I attended a panel by black women professors telling their stories of what it is like for us in the academy—the challenges, the classroom questioning of authority, the dismissal, the please-can-you-serve-on-every-committee, the isolation, the feeling of being an impostor.

But that is another post. I bring up that panel because of what happened to me when I heard Dr. Ula Taylor speak. She spoke about all those pains and about the hurt that results from the much-too-soon loss of black women like VeVe Clark and June Jordan. But she also spoke about healing, about how she soothes and comforts and heals herself by swimming.

And I started to cry. Because for the longest time, I have wanted to write about water.

Yes, water.

Because of my heat- then chemically-straightened hair, I was taught that water was my nemesis. I could not lie back and pretend to float in the tub. My sister and I could not run under the water hose or the sprinklers on sweltering Louisiana summer days. I could not play in the rain. On Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, when our family went to the park, the girls could only go so far into the water.

And I could not swim. Never even learned.

I wanted to so badly, because somewhere along the way, I realized I loved water in my hair, on my scalp. I think it was when I first had to wash my hair on my own—I’d always believed I didn’t have the expertise necessary to deal with that “difficult” part of me, but college-induced poverty changed my mind.

That water on my scalp--the first warm rush, the later, slow trickles--made me think longingly of swimming. What it would be like to immerse my whole body, to have water move in its gentle lap-lap-lap as it caressed my skin?

But my "whole body" was the other issue. How could a fat girl learn to swim? What would I wear? I was (am) too fragile to reveal myself like that. I do not want the pitying, disgusted gaze of others.

I am afraid the pitying, disgusted gaze will be mine.

So I learned to suppress the desire to swim.

Mostly. Sometimes it overwhelms me.

Like when my son is swimming and I dangle my feet in the pool, bathe them in the cool, silky water while the sun warms my back.

Or when we spend holidays near the water and I, very quickly, trail one of the babies’ feet or hands through it. Just so they’ll know the delicious feel of it.

Those moments are fleeting, subordinate to my attachment to my bone-straight hair and my internalized body shame.

But I want to be like Dr. Taylor. I want to find healing and peace in the water. It's not that I think water is somehow magical. The appeal is rooted somewhere in something both literal and figurative--how the weightlessness we feel in water is a temporary reprieve from all that we carry, all that brings us/holds us down. So, I know there is something there for me.

Why else would I crave it so?


RageyOne said...

Embrace the water! You deserve it, and you want it. Don't let society tell you that you can't. Based on my read of you, I don't beleive you to be a person to let "those in teh know" stifle you for too long and this has been long enough. Don't you think? Take the first step and find a suit that appeals to you, they exisit! Get into the water so that you can experinece what you crave. You CAN do it and you SHOULD.

elle said...


I love you!

cripchick said...

damn, elle. i think these conversations around healing are so powerful, thank you for writing this.

elle said...


Girl, I've had you on the brain! It's good to see you.

Leslie M-B said...

Wow. This is a powerful post. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

You definitely should get yourself some swim lessons this summer. I've never been a particularly strong swimmer (though everyone else in my family is), but I love floating and dog-paddling around.

If you want to minimize the trauma to hair (especially of chlorine, which will damage anyone's hair, pick up a good, tight-fitting swim cap. Not glamorous, but practical.

Plus, swimming is the best exercise in the world, and the feeling of partial weightlessness is fabulous.

Go for it!

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...