Finding My Place In The Water

Learning the aquatic history of Siraad Dirshe’s ancestors gave the writer and budding surfer a newfound sense of belonging in the water.
Finding My Place In The Water

The magnetic energy of the ocean has always pulled me to its shores. 

Each summer on the InkWelI of Martha’s Vineyard I would shriek with excitement as the frigid water of the Atlantic tickled the backs of my ankles. On annual family vacations to Barbados, I carefreely floated atop the Caribbean Sea’s aquamarine waters. Though  a child, the ocean felt like home, providing a sense of peace I rarely found on land. As an adult, my deep connection to and reverence for water evolved into a passion of chasing coastlines. Until recently, I’ve attributed this aquatic affinity to being a water sign, but it runs so much deeper than that. Black folks have a long, and troubled, history with the water, and as I learned the depth of those stories, I gained a greater understanding and clarity of my own. 

In 2019 I stood on Africa’s Gold Coast –– the same jagged shore and forest green waves my ancestors were forced to leave four hundred years prior. Visiting Ghana’s Kokrobite Beach, my toes touched the side of the Atlantic Ocean I’d only read about in books. Standing there, in awe I’d finally returned home and witnessed Black bodies gleefully bobbing and weaving with the pulse of the ocean. They weren’t just floating aimlessly with the ebb and flow of the ocean wave’s small bumps; these folks –– my folks –– were intentionally propelling themselves down, across, and against the crest trough of each wave. I was captivated by their levity and the sheer joy let out in their shrieks.

I was familiar with surfing via the 2002 movie Blue Crush, but I had never seen, or even fathomed, that Black folks surfed too. I’d always deemed the sport inaccessible and out of my grasp because the only people I’d ever seen on a board didn’t share the texture of my hair or the color of my skin. Yet, seeing the smiles smeared across the faces of kids who glitzed and glided down waves on worn down boards was so palpable,  I instantly had a newfound fascination –– I needed to learn how to surf.  

Soon after returning stateside, I booked a lesson with the surf school that appeared at the top of my Google search –– 18 miles away from my home in Harlem in Queens, NY.  But the deep resonance I felt with Ghana’s surf culture lay in stark contrast to the displacement I felt standing next to perfectly toned blonde-haired folks on Rockaway Beach. As I twisted and contorted my body into the unforgiving neoprene wetsuit the thrill I’d been enthralled with just a few weeks prior felt like a distant memory. I pushed those feelings to the side and instead did my best to wade into the water, as the instructor screeched about the importance of strong paddling. 

At that moment it was nearly impossible to remember why Ghana had left such an imprint on me; or why I was so drawn to the ocean in the first place. In the waters along Queens, New York, I was surrounded by folks I typically used the ocean to find solace from; I left the lesson conflicted. I hadn’t enjoyed this aquatic experience, but I didn't want to abandon the opportunity to learn how to glide atop the ocean. 

So, I turned to my ancestors for help. 

I’ve spent the better part of my career telling and centering the stories of Black folks. We’ve systematically been erased from Western cultural phenomenons, like sustainability and herbalism, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I learned that the same applied to aquatic sports, including surfing. Yet, I was. As I continued to trek weekly from my apartment in Harlem to the sandy bungalows of Queens in search of the feeling I felt in Ghana, I educated myself on the sport because I know the type of empowerment that can come from knowing the truth. I stumbled upon Kevin Dawson’s illuminating, and affirming, book Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora, just as my summer of surfing started to close out. 

I devoured each page of deeply thorough and dense research; it instantaneously flipped my understanding of the ocean and my relationship with it. In the first chapter Dawson, a surfer and Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Merced, shares that, “swimming pervaded Africans’ muscle memory. Along with walking, talking, and reading, swimming becomes virtually intuitive, once learned, and is one of the easiest skills to carry to the Americas.” My mind was blown when Dawson confirmed that it was my ancestors who taught the Europeans who arrived on their coasts how to swim. “From the fifteenth through the late nineteenth century, the swimming and underwater diving abilities of African-descended peoples regularly surpassed those of Westerners. Most white people could not swim,” Dawson continues in the first chapter. 

Reading this affirmed that the pull I felt towards the ocean was centuries old and deeply diasporic. The Ghaninain’s I’d watched surf down waves weren’t an anomaly; they were simply carrying on a legacy that originated on those same shores. Armed with the knowledge that, “the earliest written record [of surfing] was penned on the Gold Coast during the 1640s,” according to Dawson, an assuredness and connection to the sport, I’d yet to experience washed over me. 

Last year, when I found myself yet again attached to a styrofoam board in Los Angeles, California I was confident. Not in my skills –– since those are still very much a work in progress –– but in my right to chase waves despite still not seeing many folks who look like me in the lineup. I know that I belong there, and that it’s imperative I share the deep and rich history Black folks have had with the water with others. As I continue to chase waves and share stories that illuminate the truth, I hope to inspire other Black women to dive in and inspire them to explore their own relationship with the water.

Tags: Body of Ideas , CUUP BodyTalk , CUUP Swim , Siraad Dirshe , Surfing

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