The color gray is the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Jalama Beach, dark, flat, and nearly black. At age ten, during a trip to the beach with my family, I stand in the path of a wave curling like a gray tongue, daring it to wash over me. Instead, the ocean gobbles me whole and rolls me in its mouth while I open mine to scream. Gray tastes like salt and sand. Brine. Gray stings my eyes and the back of my throat. It surges inside me while my hands search for the peaceful blue of the sky or the brown purchase of a shore. Gray is a merciless color. It is unforgiving.
Jim Crow–era segregation in the United States prevented Black communities from equitable access to public swimming pools. White—most often elite—communities enjoyed well-maintained pools that were commonly available, while Black communities patronized facilities that were smaller, often in disrepair, and drastically fewer in number. As a consequence, fewer Black people learned to swim. The day before the United States Senate approved the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the hotel manager at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida, poured acid into the hotel’s pool. He was trying to harm the Black and white swimmers who were protesting the whites-only swim policy.
My first swim lessons took place when I was five or six years old at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, by my grandparents’ house. It seemed fitting that the only public pool I knew for most of my adolescence was named after a civil rights leader and located in a predominantly Black neighborhood. I learned to swim over several weeks, but all I remember from that time is dipping my feet in the water to see if it was cold, and one day when I hung off the edge of a different swimming pool by my fingertips. I was dangling between my mother’s legs, when she pushed my head underwater and ordered me to swim. My fingers raked the pool and my mother’s slick brown arm. I broke the surface crying and gagging on chlorinated water. My mother does not remember this ever happening. I remember the acidic burn creeping into my lungs.
Three months after I quit the biology doctoral program at Utah State University, I packed a duffel bag for the Galápagos Islands. I barely had any money. I had forfeited my scholarships when I quit, and most of my dinners were eaten straight from the can. Sitting in my cold basement apartment watching classic kung fu movies and avoiding the other graduate students, I was biding my time until my lease ran up and I moved back into my drafty, spider-infested bedroom at my parents’ house. Enduring repeated racist encounters off campus, and my growing incompatibility with my advisor’s research project, made it clear that it was time to return home to California.
I didn’t know if I should go, if I deserved to go. At twenty-three years old, I already felt like a fraud.
I had just filed the official paperwork to leave the program when my former undergraduate advisor, Dr. Sibdas Ghosh, called to invite me to audit a ten-day field biology course in the Galápagos. As a previous top-performing researcher in the biology department, he thought it fitting that I tag along on a trip that “not everyone gets to do.” And perhaps, along the way, I would inspire and mentor the undergraduates, too? Dr. Ghosh didn’t care that I had just quit. He thought the trip might do me some good. Maybe change my mind. I could hear the familiar glee in his voice. “You just need a break. You’ve worked hard,” he said. I imagined him leaning back in his office chair, his scuffed dress shoes propped up on his desk, and his head cocked back as he smiled in satisfaction, reeling me in. Of course, I still had to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A few ego strokes was all it took; I said yes and depleted my moving budget to pay for the airfare and program costs.
Since the day I had arrived in Utah, I’d tallied the years it would take me to earn my doctorate before I could leave for warmer climates and for locations where my blackness wasn’t an anomaly. The Galápagos was my chance at an early escape, but the idea kept me up at night. I didn’t know if I should go, if I deserved to go. At twenty-three years old, I already felt like a fraud. Quitters didn’t get to travel the world. They didn’t get to be role models. Then there was the matter of the islands themselves. A beautiful place surrounded by waters that would hold me hostage. Yet the archipelago, idyllic and removed, seemed like the perfect place to reclaim myself.
I was nervous the day I met Dr. Ghosh, another advisor, and the undergraduates at the San Francisco International Airport, but I relaxed when I recognized some of the seniors. I said hello to Derek, Megan, and David, who had been a close friend. As we waited for our flight, I got to know the other students too. They asked about my doctoral studies and I answered honestly. Some of them were unsure of what they wanted to do after graduation, or if they wanted to get a doctorate at all, and they found my responses and my academic career change comforting. Despite how the trip went, I thought, I had at least debunked some illusions and better prepared them for graduate life. As we boarded the plane, I held these assurances close to my chest and reminded myself that I was capable of being the example they needed me to be.
I often think about what it’s like in the middle of the ocean. Not the depths that host mystifying creatures. But the surface, where water and sky kiss. I wonder, Is the middle of the ocean an infinite quiet? Could it swallow me whole and leave me shivering with my own thoughts? Would I go mad living out there, an island unto myself?
Standing along a shoreline in any place, on any coast, a magnetic pull stretches from the far distance, across the ocean, willing me forward. Revelations hide behind the waves rushing toward me. A force thrums beneath the crashing, beckoning me to walk into the water to find the answer.
The first day we gathered around the pool in my high school physical-education class, my body shook. The memory of my near drowning at ten years old rattled to the forefront of my mind, and I was once again immersed in the spinning darkness, water stinging my eyes and my skin. The bitter cold plunged up my nostrils and down my throat. My body twisted, spiraling in an abyss, until a surge of water pushed me upright, then tossed me gasping onto the shore. My parents, sitting on a blanket a few hundred feet away, hadn’t noticed that I had nearly died. This harrowing moment had accompanied me whenever I approached a body of water in the years afterward. There, on the pool deck, it pressed against the back of my eyes, and beside it were the questions the white girls in my P.E. class had asked me minutes earlier in the locker room. Is it true Black people can’t swim? Are Black people afraid of water? I heard you can’t get your hair wet; can you?
For two months, I felt mildly comfortable in a body of water. For two months, I felt free. I passed the class with an A and drove a stake into the stereotype that Black people can’t swim.
I swallowed down trauma every midday for two months to prove that I could do what was believed to be impossible. I swam. I stuck to the shallow end because our instructor prohibited girls who weren’t advanced swimmers from diving in the deep end. But I secretly wanted to glide over the deep to test myself. To see if I could make it across the pool or, if I sank, pull myself up from those terrifying fifteen feet. Instead, I learned the backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly stroke in three feet of water. For two months, I felt mildly comfortable in a body of water. For two months, I felt free. I passed the class with an A and drove a stake into the stereotype that Black people can’t swim.
“Are there even Black people in the Galápagos?” I can’t remember who asked me this first, my sister or my mother. But they were not the only ones to do so. The question “Are there Black people in ________ ?” is more of a temperature gauge than an admission of ignorance. What they—usually friends and family—are asking is: “Will you be safe?” I already knew that Ecuador’s history would tend toward a largely mestizo demographic. However, I couldn’t stop myself from typing a similar question in the internet search bar days before my trip. It was a habit I maintained for every new place—city, state, or country—that I traveled to. The answer would help me adjust my relative comfort and expectations when in an unfamiliar space.
On the plane to Quito, an elderly Ecuadorian woman walking down the aisle stopped to ask me about the in-flight meal service. She approached with a distinct familiarity as she spoke to me in Spanish. I responded in kind, then settled into the realization that I might actually look the part of someone who belonged, someone who knew where she was headed.
We descended into the capital in the middle of the night. The well-lit roads were amber snakes curling through the city. Their beauty captivated me, and I knew that I would let this place swallow me whole.
After just half a day in Quito, our assigned naturalist guides escorted us by plane to Baltra Island, then by boat to Santa Cruz Island, the second largest among the Galápagos. We toured the island’s various vegetation zones by bus—passing cactus, mangrove trees, scalesia shrubs, and ferns—and visited Los Gemelos, the Twin Craters, before ending the day at our new hotel. We celebrated our arrival over dinner, gorging ourselves on fish, fruit, potatoes, and too many drinks. Along with a few other undergraduates, Megan, David, and I wobbled out of the restaurant and down the street. I got sick in a planter of flowers that were vibrant even in the dark. I remember thinking that it was a shame I had marred that place. That I couldn’t even keep it together in paradise. Not that it mattered. Everyone around me was similarly intoxicated.
Someone found a map and we followed it down several dark streets until we stopped at an alley that ended at the Pacific Ocean. While the others huddled together, I shuffled to the sea wall. Waves churned upward, opening and closing like a mouth begging, gnawing. I stared at the water rising and breaking beneath me. I wanted to know what it would be like to breathe in the saltwater, to feel the sting in my lungs by choice and not by accident. To be welcomed by the waves and not flattened by them.
A hand pulled me backward. “You’re too close,” a voice said. But I was not close enough. I gave the Pacific one last look before I let the hand lead me away. I went to bed, my mind stuck on the blue-black of the water, how it sounded as it crashed against the sea wall. How I could hear the neediness in my breathing as I closed my eyes and let the ocean spray dampen me.
What I love most about the water is the feeling of being submerged. The way it holds me like a womb. How it caresses my skin and strips away dirt and stress. It’s gentle. I become like new. Beneath the water, there are no unsaid expectations. It is open to my every whim. I twist my body and dart like a ballerina inside a watery stage. I am capable of anything.
Why haven’t we seen more Black swimmers?” A white reporter for Channel 17 in Buffalo, New York, asked this question during an interview with Charles “Charlie the Tuna” Chapman, Jr. In the undated archival footage, the two sit near a swimming pool at the Humboldt YMCA in Buffalo. Their voices echo across the tiling.
Chapman, the first Black person to swim across the English Channel, in 1981, responded, “I think the reason is because for so long, Black people have not been exposed to swimming and they believe that they’re going to drown because they have a lot of different water-related accidents and drowning. So consequently, the majority of the population is gripped in fear of water.”
I awoke hungover and bleary eyed. On my hotel room’s balcony, the sea breeze soothed my ailing body. Below me, blue-green tides rushed onto the shore. Brown pelicans stood guard on rocks dotted with red and gray crabs. Offshore, a cluster of sailboats bobbed in the water.
I stripped off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants, and dipped my feet in the teal water. The relief was instant.
We checked out of the hotel, and our guides led us on a walk from our hotel to the Galápagos National Park. Lush vegetation lined the walkways. The researchers lectured about preservation and Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise, while the undergraduates took copious notes for the reports they would have to submit. I wandered along, thankful that I was not obligated to do anything except chaperone. I could barely internalize the information as I scribbled my own notes. Jitters roiled through my body. I wanted to unzip my skin and set it aside. When hives broke out across my arms and my vision blurred, I realized I was suffering from a combination of my hangover and an episode of physical urticaria, a heat-induced condition I had been diagnosed with two years prior. Sometimes these episodes resulted in fainting. Our naturalist guides hailed a truck that drove me to the pier nearby, where I could cool off by the water.
On the pier, the ocean breeze was a salve. With nothing to do but wait, I sat and marveled at the beauty around me. Pelicans alighted on the shore and basked in the sun. Fish darted around the ocean floor. Turtles swam along the currents. I earnestly searched for the penguins that I’d learned were a unique feature of the Galápagos Islands. Staring at the water, I wrestled with the urge to dip my body in it. I wasn’t sure if I could do that, or if I should—whether being in the water would disrupt the island’s preservation. Even if I needed permission, who was I supposed to ask? I stripped off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants, and dipped my feet in the teal water. The relief was instant. People milled around the pier, unloading crates and bags of rice from boats. Others waded through the shallow water, dragging their goods behind them on small dinghies. No one looked to the young woman sitting by herself. I belonged in their tableau, another figure woven into the tapestry of their everyday life.
Alone with my thoughts, a reckoning rose inside me. I thought about the sea wall from the night before and the unquenchable thirst I’d felt. I finally asked myself, Did you want to jump off the wall? Do you want to die? But I fumbled my answer. I didn’t know how to be honest with myself. I wasn’t ready to confront whatever truths I might have admitted. Mercifully, the advisors and students arrived. We boarded three speedboats headed for Isabela Island, a two-and-a-half hour ride away, where we would visit a tortoise center and go on a horseback ride to the island’s volcanos.
Each boat ride we took would end at a different hotel or field station and with another research activity—visiting educational sites, snorkeling, cave exploring, hiking. I savored the rides between islands. Sitting in the back of the boat, the aquamarine water lapped up at me. I closed my eyes and let the air and the spray of this enchanted sanctuary wash over me.
I have a relationship with the water, but it’s complicated. I yearn for it in the way that a lover craves their partner’s touch or a child wants their mother’s comfort. Sometimes I pretend that the waves licking up toward me are the ocean’s way of saying that it yearns for me too. I dream of it, but when the ocean appears, I realize that I’m actually having a nightmare.
Every boat ride between the islands was the same. Dr. Ghosh and our other advisor would load into one speedboat with some of the students. I chaperoned the ones I knew and a few of their friends in the second boat, while the third boat carried our luggage. We picked through a pile of mildewed and rotten life vests like drawing straws. Then the roar of the motor filled the air as we skipped across the ocean for hours. Our joy melted into anxiety, then mild panic, the farther out into the water we went. I watched Megan and the others steel themselves against the rocking boat. Occasionally David would beg the boat captain in Spanish to slow down. We only ever slowed to let Derek, who was often seasick, empty his stomach into the water.
The waves rolled and bucked. We skimmed so far off them sometimes that we flew several feet in the air. The motor would cut and we’d hear the silence that stretched for miles around us. When we landed with a thud, the captain had to pull start the engine. Then we were off again, clinging to our seats for dear life as we flew across the water, speeding and stalling, speeding and stalling our way toward land.
We were at the mercy of the Pacific. Every bump knocked us loose in our seats. The students toppled into each other or slipped to the floor. I tried to appear stoic and calm to allay their fears. But every bump felt like we were colliding into outcrops of rock instead of waves. And each one jostled questions closer to the front of my mind, reminding me that I was not in control. What if the boat crashes? Will you survive?
The nightmares spawn in my childhood and will grow through the birth of my own first daughter. In them, there is no end, no horizon, just a sheet of hazy gray strangling me and the sound of water rushing in my ears. The ocean fills my belly with each inhale. When the saltwater rips apart my insides, I awaken, my eyes burning and my bedsheets damp with sweat.
Who am I to place the expanse of the ocean in my mind and try to bring it under my control?
U. S. racism spun the stereotype that Black people can’t swim into a fear, a genetic inability, a deficiency—all of which were spoon-fed to the public as truth. This “truth” kept Black folks from water-related activities. We didn’t swim because we didn’t get wet; we didn’t canoe because we didn’t own boats. We couldn’t get stranded in deep waters because we were afraid of water in the first place.
I believed that being unable to swim—after all of my lessons and all I had been through—would be a personal failing.
When I was just shy of eighteen years old, my father began playing a game of hypotheticals about our family’s demise, though it really was less of a game and more of a pointed examination of our collective inability to swim in very specific situations. The game that was not a game would start with my father saying, “If our boat crashed and we had to swim to safety, what would you do?” Or he’d ask, “If we were stranded on a desert island and had to swim to shore, how far do you think you’d make it?” If we were on an airplane (which wasn’t our common mode of travel), canoeing (which we never did), or on a cruise (which none of us had been on), my father wanted to know how we’d fare if we were suddenly upended or crashed into the ocean.
Life vests were not allowed. Neither were rafts, dinghies, or other flotation devices. In every scenario, no matter how outlandish, my father concluded that he would always be the lone survivor because the rest of us—my mother, sister, brother, and I—couldn’t swim.
I fought to prove that I could swim and that I wouldn’t be among the hypothetical dead. I believed that being unable to swim—after all of my lessons and all I had been through—would be a personal failing. Plus, I wanted to be in the water. But what I was mostly trying to disprove was that I had internalized the falsehoods fed to people like me.
On day five, waves doused the ramp as we headed toward our boats. A menacing gray mass of clouds loomed on the horizon. The pit of my stomach sank and I could tell by the pursed lips and slack faces of the others that they felt the same. We shouldn’t be boarding boats as a storm crept to us in the distance. Dr. Ghosh and the other advisor insisted that we’d be fine, and that we couldn’t retreat because our course schedule would be delayed if we waited for the storm to pass. So we boarded the speedboats anyway.
I donned a life vest and laid another at my feet within reach, just in case, as we sped directly into chaos. The black, choppy waves pushed us into the air and it seemed like we were flying, then falling forever, never going to land until we did. Everyone’s body jerking. Everyone’s sunburned faces paler than they were when we first boarded. Tension hung in the air, thick and uncomfortable, below the darkening clouds. The sky and the sea were rolling twin entities nearly indistinguishable from each other.
Our captain pushed the speed boat to its limits. He stopped smiling and looking at us, his face grim and focused. Within fifteen or twenty minutes, we had lost sight of the other two boats. The need to find land urgently pressed in on us, taunted us as the waves rose higher.
Caught alongside a particularly treacherous wave, our boat tipped to the side and water rushed in. Screams filled the air as the students tumbled from their seats into the center of the boat. I braced myself against the back of the boat, my thoughts exploding like sparklers as my last moments alive seared into my mind. Then the boat righted itself. The captain restarted the engine and we lurched forward.
I am always searching for a safe place for my body. A place where I can be me, completely.
The next island was nowhere in sight. We wouldn’t survive if we capsized. Then and there, I admitted to myself wholeheartedly that I wasn’t the best swimmer. No amount of pretension would save me. I closed my eyes, waves pounding over me, and asked God for protection. I begged for my life. Maybe it was the stress or exhaustion, maybe the constant rocking of the water—tender even in its violence—but somewhere in the middle of praying, I fell asleep.
I awoke to the feeling of my body moving into the air. I opened my eyes to see our boat falling from a wave. Being loose with sleep, my body had lifted from my seat. In a split second, I fell backward out of the speed boat. The ocean tugged on my right arm, pulling me under.
The truth is that I am always searching for a safe place for my body. A place where I can be me, completely. A place where the shape of my body doesn’t matter. Where I am required to do nothing except commune. I believe that water is that place. It slaps me down, it pushes me away. Yet I continue to believe that the water will offer salvation if I keep trying. If only I’m able to drift out far enough.
When someone asked, early in our trip, I said, “Yes, I can swim.” The fervency of my response was an attempt to continue plunging stakes into a myth that refused to die. There was no use in saying I was only good at the backstroke or that I knew the butterfly stroke, like the legendary “Charlie the Tuna” Chapman. That I only felt marginally comfortable in the pool and only if I was alone. I didn’t say that if I couldn’t see or touch the bottom of a body of water, I forgot all sense of myself. I didn’t say that if I were wading in the ocean, I feared that I would drown and become part of the frothing water.
The truth about swimming, no matter who you are, is this: it doesn’t matter how skilled a swimmer you are, if the conditions are wrong, the smallness of your body succumbs to the vastness of the water around you.
Did I want to die? No.
As I fell out of the boat, my body tensed; my mind sharpened. Waves clawed at my back. The sky tumbled above me. No one was coming to my aid; they were probably too frightened to let go of their own unsteady holds on the boat. I instinctively reached out with my free hand, grabbed ahold of whatever I found, and pulled myself upright and back into the boat. Megan, David, and the others stared at me, horror washed across their faces. But I’d found an answer: when actually living one of my father’s hypotheticals, I didn’t let the water take me.
Waves clawed at my back. The sky tumbled above me. No one was coming to my aid; they were probably too frightened to let go of their own unsteady holds on the boat.
A mile or two before we reached San Cristóbal Island, the storm relented. When we reached the pier, we wordlessly dragged ourselves from our boats and trudged down the street to our hotel without our luggage—that boat had stalled somewhere in the ocean. As we gathered ourselves over the following days, even when our luggage finally found us, no one spoke about our journey in the storm. Whatever feelings it evoked among our group, everyone kept quiet. We still needed the boats to travel between the islands to reach our lodgings and planned activities. We were still reliant on the water despite its fickle nature.
On our last day in the Galápagos Islands, we had the option of doing whatever we wanted. Most folks avoided the water and decided to go hiking. With my time in paradise waning, I wanted to do something I rarely got to do: ocean kayaking. Given the trauma of our journey across the Pacific’s waters, I should’ve done anything to avoid the ocean. Yet, in the nights following our ride through the storm, I had wandered to the nearest pier, stared out at the water, and tried to understand it—and myself. The ocean was wild and uncomfortable, but I loved how, in its best form, it made me feel free. I wanted to leave the islands with a little bit of that freedom tucked away with me.
Megan asked if she could join me. I’d figured that, after all the time she’d spent in the past few days accompanying me to buy tchotchkes from sidewalk shops and bumbling about town between our expeditions, she’d had enough of me. Yet she’d never been kayaking before and wondered if I would show her what to do. We rented a two-person kayak and set off from a beach near our hotel. The waves propelled us back to shore every time we attempted to break through them. A hotel worker saw us struggling, waded in the water, and pushed us past the surf as we cheered.
We wove around the sailboats that crowded the harbor, our kayak rising and falling in time with the anchored boats as they bobbed in the water. Metal clanged overhead as cables and lines knocked around masts in the wind. Breaking free of the harbor, we followed the coast toward a local beach, Playa del Amor. Our arms ached and sweat dripped down our brows, but we paddled steadily once we found our rhythm. At first I asked Megan about her thesis research or her fiancé and impending wedding, but she and I soon welcomed the tranquility that came with our silence.
When we heard only the waves crashing against the rocky shore in the distance and the squawking of sea birds, I asked if we could pull our paddles in and just sit. The water rippled around us. Large shadows glided beneath the kayak. Stingrays, maybe sharks. I was nowhere near the middle of the sea, but still I felt deeply connected to it. In a moment of mutual communion, I gazed at the sprawling oceanic blues and let the currents carry me along