It Is Safe to Swim? Wade In The Water: Drowning in Racism Tells the Story of Desegregating South Florida Beaches

Clayton Gutzmore

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Courtesy of Cathleen Dean

Documentaries are a form of filmmaking that challenges conventional thinking along with educating the audience on certain topics. A documentary that recently premiered uncovered the history of Black people and their relationship to water. Wade in the Water: Drowning in Racism is a short film about the struggles of desegregating the beaches and the pools in South Florida.

The film also touches on the spiritual connection that people of African descent have had with the water. The phrase Black people don’t know how to swim has been extremely damaging to people of color for years. This documentary opens the argument that maybe Black people became this way because historically they have been kept out of the water, “People of color have been denied access to the beaches and the pools. Because of that, they didn't learn how to swim. In African American culture and parts of Caribbean culture, the default message to keep your children from drowning was to stay away from the water. For white children, the message was learn how to swim,” said Cathleen Dean, director of Wade in The Water.

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Courtesy of Cathlean Dean

Wade in the Water: Drowning in Racism debuted on South Florida PBS on June 15. The documentary is available to watch online at wptb2.org. Dean has been working on this film since 2019. She was inspired to create it when she was taking swimming lessons to train for her first triathlon. She joined the non-profit organization Diversity in Aquatics (DIA) for lessons and she encountered Bruce Wigo, The CEO and President of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Wigo had in his possession an art gallery detailing the history of Black people and swimming. Wigo, along with his associates in DIA, had a vast knowledge of this history and information that the public may not know. Dean began her research. She found archival footage from the Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Archives of the protest that happened in South Florida.

Dean wants to use the documentary to not only enlighten viewers of what Black people went through back then but also motivate them to use the resources of today to get more Black people involved with water, “Learning about the obstacles that separated us from our historical connection to the water, we can start making our back. We can take advantage of the access we have and enjoy the water” said Dean.

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Courtesy of Cathlean Dean

Diversity in Aquatics provided gems of information in the documentary. The goal of the organization is to eliminate the drowning disparity among historically underrepresented populations. A few members of DIA hope Wade in the Water will impact people to make swimming a part of their routine, “a healthy relationship with water can affect spiritual health, physical health, and social-emotional health. The water can be a place where people go to be restored, to destress and increase resiliency,” said Thaddeus Gamory, Director of Community Engagement and Programming for DIA.

Gamory elaborates how he saw a tremendous change in people who introduced swimming into their schedule. Gamory has had veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) get a better handle on it after swimming for a while. Those same veterans progressed to become swim instructors.

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Thaddeus GamoryCourtesy of Cathlean Dean

Gamory also had injured athletes cut their recovery time in half because aquatic rehabilitation was fit into their regimen. Gamory also shares that there's a financial impact tied to swimming, “We need to make people aware of what's really at stake when you don't swim. Having that skill can affect your economic access to jobs and opportunities here in South Florida,” said Gamory.

Wade in the Water was selected for the Juneteenth Showcase of the Miami International Film Festival (MIFF). On June 19, the documentary was screened at the Tower Theater in Miami. Jaie Laplante, executive director of MIFF, was excited to host a screening of a film he considered essential viewing, “Wade in Water is essential viewing. Anyone who cares about South Florida, where we are, where we came from, and where we are going needs to watch this film,” said Laplante.

The documentary is just the tip of the iceberg regarding this topic. Dean wants to expand on Wade in the Water. She is currently seeking funding to share more of the stories from that era. During her research, she met individuals who participated in the protest back then. Dean believes this can become a feature-length film and screen nationally.

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Clayton Gutzmore is a freelance journalist in South Florida. His work has been published in several print outlets including The Miami Times, The Miami Herald, The Atlanta Voice, and Variety Magazine. Gutzmore is a 2016 graduate of Florida International University. He is also a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, The Online News Association and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.

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