Black People Don’t Swim

Black people don’t swim jokes are funny. Like most jokes they’re funny because they reveal some level of truth. At a cursory glance it would seem that black people don’t like pools or beaches and are somehow cultural predisposed to loathing water, but clearly that’s not actually the case. It is true that many black people do not like to swim/can’t swim, but thats largely because black communities are more likely to be located in cities where access to pools and beaches are limited. There’s also the joke that black women don’t like to swim because they don’t want to get their hair wet. But thats a different discussion entirely. (Black Hair = Can of Worms…)

I chose to write about this particular image and the black people don’t swim joke because of how it relates to the particular history of black students at Amherst College. The Black Student Union’s meeting area is named the Gerald Penny Memorial Center. Gerald Penny was a black student who attended Amherst College back in the days when part of the requirement for graduation was a swim test. He was from New Orleans and his father was a mailman. Like most inner city black youth, Gerald Penny could not swim. Despite this fact, he was forced to take the swim test anyway. Gerald Penny drowned while trying to complete the swim test, and while a host of  students and faculty watched.

In 2006,  Anthony Marx, who was then president of the college at the time, (He’s currently the president of the NYC libraries. And he was arrested for drunk driving a library car last year… very amherst of him…) gave a speech about Gerald Penny and how his “sacrifice” reminds us that we should “create a community of differences consciously, mindful of what we can do and not yet have learned”. And while his speech was very sweet and inspirational, I think that for black students the story of Gerald Penny has always carried a different meaning. It was always a reminder that the college would let you drown. The point of the story wasn’t that he should’ve refused to get in the water, but that no one reached their hand in to save him.


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