I was having a conversation with a gentleman the other day about why the swimmer Simone Manuel’s gold medal winning performance in the Rio Olympics was such a big deal among so many African-Americans.
“I am proud of her, too,” he said. “But I am proud that she is an American swimmer who won the gold medal.”
He explained to me that he doesn’t see color, and that if you are a citizen of the United States that you are an American.
You may have guessed by now that my friend is white. Of course, he doesn’t see color because as a white person his life in not impacted by the color of his skin.
He can’t possibly understand the anxiety of being stopped by a policeman in a traffic stop for no reason, or being followed around a store, or litany of other things that impact one’s life when they are black.
Therefore, it is practically impossible for a black man to explain to my friend, and most white people who feel that way, why many black people celebrate an accomplishment such as Manuel’s beyond the scope of simply winning a race for her country.
My white friend may know of the history of America, and its failure to treat its black citizens equally. But there are generations of black men and women in America who experienced that discrimination.
I was brought into this world at MeHarry Hospital, a segregated hospital in my hometown of Nashville, Tenn. My first breath on earth was taken in a segregated facility.
It didn’t end, there. I never in my life had the opportunity to to go swimming in the so-called ‘public pool’ at Centennial Park in Nashville, because only whites could swim there.
There are literally dozens of more examples of discrimination in my lifetime, and I am still a relatively young man.
And, of course, this was prevalent in black communities throughout America. My white friends may not be aware that in Flint, MI., blacks were only allowed to swim at the Berston Field House swimming pool on the day before the pool was to be drained and cleaned for white swimmers.
It is clear someone determined that once these niggers get in the pool, be sure to drain it and clean it afterwards.
Further, that mode of operation was standard in most cities and most swimming pools around the country, not to mention the perceptions that ‘blacks can’t swim’ (Remember Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis, who essentially said blacks weren’t smart enough to manage in major league baseball, and didn’t have the ‘buoyancy’ to be good swimmers?)
So, yeah, when an African-American woman becomes the first of her race to win a gold medal in swimming, it means a lot more than merely winning an Olympic event.
It is a victory for every kid who wasn’t allowed in a public pool, every kid who attended segregated schools, and every black person who was not granted the promise of equal rights that come with being an American citizen.