When My Black Children Learned to Swim, I Learned Even More

When LaTonya Yvette’s children are in the pool, they laugh, frolic, play—and unknowingly upend decades of fraught history between Black people and bodies of water.

boy in goggles and towel illustration
Photo: Illustration by Joelle Avelino

Children first become comfortable underwater by learning how to hold their breath, so when my children, River and Oak, began to learn how to swim in the summer of 2018, it was the first thing their teacher taught them. Inhale, purse your lips, and push bubbles out as you go.

They had won the swim classes in a city lottery that year and loved the experience. In 2020, before we sheltered in place, the kids had their second round of swimming lessons at the local YMCA. Now the lesson was to allow the water to support them. They crouched, poised to jump in, their little toes curled around the edge of the pool, knees pressed against their pouty, shivering lips, arms stretched out wide, calling on some kind of power I think only children know. Their teacher guided them as they jumped, then hoisted their wet-suit-heavy bodies halfway out of the cold water. "Try again?" she said. Again and again they jumped, until their old fears were former ones.

During quarantine, evening baths were our only connection to water, a way to pass the hours, days, and months. I'm a born-and-bred New Yorker, and so are my kids. We made the most of what our city offered us in a trying time. But this past summer, given the opportunity to stay at a friend's COVID-19-safe home with a pool, I watched my kids literally jump back in. They remembered what they knew, as easily as my son's toes wagged in the water, my daughter's skinny limbs swayed from side to side, their curls soaked and woven into their long eyelashes, nested beside their wide and joyful mouths.

This image, my Black children happy in the water, is part of a bigger account of being Black—and of being a Black city kid. Accessibility to kids' swimming classes, in New York City and across the country, has historically been tied to wealth and class, effectively perpetuating racism and classism. I have countless photos of prior summers in which my children run through splash pads with their bare, chunky feet, smiling and laughing. But this particular joy in the pool, of their full bodies connecting with the water, how they allowed themselves to trust it so easily, despite everything they had experienced that spring, was one of the most powerful sights I have beheld as a mother and a woman. It wasn't just the happy faces of kids in a pool or only their remembered comfort with the water. It was a boundless freedom, something tangible and beautiful that they learned they had a right to access, and that they could. Because I'm lucky enough to be their mother, I can too.

LaTonya Yvette is the founder of the lifestyle blog LY and author of the book Woman of Color and is currently working on a memoir and a children's book. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's June 2021 issue as "Black Parenting Joy." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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