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As summer approaches, magazine stands fill up with swimsuit issues. Even when magazines are advertising watches, cars, or shoes, they often showcase swimming pools and beaches. This year, with the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement drawing attention to systemic and institutionalized racism, many of those images feature Black models, and that seems convincingly up to date and, yes, in the swim. But mixing Blackness with water to create unexpected, attention-grabbing images isn’t new: It’s been a quarter century since Tyra Banks was thrilled to be the first Black model on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Almost a century before that, at the height of European colonization in Africa, the French painter Henri Matisse drew crowds by appropriating the flat planes of African wood sculptures to paint White women at the beach in his “Le Luxe II” painting (1907–1908). How can we still be surprised? What would it look like to create truly innovative images around swimming and race? To move forward, it helps to understand the past: in this case, a story that started 3,000 years ago in the late Bronze Age, when the Greeks and Romans were first getting to know Egyptian culture.
When I started researching the history of swimming, I was surprised to find that Europeans were mostly non-swimmers, while Africans were much more skillful in the water. Today, after all, Black tweens drown in swimming pools at 10 times the rate of White tweens. But as an archaeologist focused on the ancient Mediterranean, I soon realized that swimming fit right in with the many other African cultural practices adopted by Europeans.
In the early Iron Age, starting around 1000 BC, wealthy Europeans began to display their wealth by importing luxuries and adopting pastimes from their more sophisticated Egyptian neighbors. Greek aristocrats wore necklaces of Egyptian glass beads and read Herodotus’s account of his visit to the Pyramids. Greek sculptors learned from Egyptians how to carve the life-size stone sculptures we call kouroi, and Greek architects learned from them how to roof temples with stone. Aspiring Greek scientists like Aristarchus and Archimedes were educated in Egyptian universities. Wealthy Europeans wore linen tunics under their native wool togas. European poets and playwrights, accountants and officials wrote on papyrus imported from Egypt. And along with all these other luxury imports, Egyptians also impressed Europeans with their ability to swim.
Swimming appears in many Bronze Age African images. Egyptian fishermen dive for their nets. Women swim in ponds, and swimming women are carved into the handles of spoons. In African poetry, lovesick men swim rivers to reach their sweethearts. On the wall of an Egyptian tomb, a powerful governor boasts that as a child, he had swimming lessons with Pharaoh’s children. Meanwhile, further north, Europeans couldn’t swim. Nobody swims in the Bible, or in Homer’s Iliad. On the painted walls of Minoan palaces, only dolphins and fish swim. In Greek frescoes from Akrotiri, men who fall into the water thrash and flail and drown.
So along with all the other things wealthy Europeans were learning from Egyptians in the early Iron Age, they also wanted to learn to swim. It’s a syllogism: If sophisticated luxuries came from Egypt, and swimming came from Egypt, then swimming, it seemed, must also be a sophisticated luxury. Swimming appears fairly suddenly in Europe around 700 BC. Homer’s shipwrecked hero Odysseus swims for two days and two nights and makes it to land, where he finds the princess Nausicäa doing her laundry. About the same time, a painting on a wine pitcher from southern Italy also seems to show a shipwrecked sailor swimming. On the Athenian François Vase, a man leaps from a boat and enthusiastically swims to shore. In a tomb painting from central Italy, two boys climb a cliff and dive off. Another tomb painting, from southern Italy, shows a boy diving from an artificial platform. On Athenian red-figure vases, women (perhaps Amazons) swim and dive as well.
But although in Africa most people could swim, in Europe swimming seems to have remained an elite privilege. Most Greeks and Romans never learned to swim; most swimming pools in Roman baths are only about three feet deep. Julius Caesar promoted his own swimming, but he contrasted it with the poor swimming of the troops he commanded. Plato associated swimming with writing; the emperor Augustus is said to have taught his grandsons both to read and to swim. It’s this Roman association of swimming with privilege that makes us repeatedly surprised to see Black swimmers today.
The Romans themselves soon became uncomfortable with the knowledge that in Africa, even ordinary people could swim. They knew it: Pliny described East Africans swimming to hunt sea turtles, and Algerian boys swimming in the bay of Hippo, competing to see who could swim the farthest out. Plutarch recounted how Cleopatra’s divers played a prank on Mark Anthony when they were fishing, hooking a salted fish on his line for him to draw up. But by the time Plutarch and Pliny were writing, the Romans had conquered Egypt and the rest of North Africa. Africans were their subjects, and no longer their superiors. Perhaps that’s why Roman artists started to mock African swimming. Roman wall paintings show Africans swimming foolishly and comically sexualized. The mosaic floors of Roman baths depict caricatures of Africans with textured hair and oversized erections. It’s probably no accident that Roman villa owners stepped on these images of Africans as they walked barefoot to the pool.
When a new fashion for swimming swept over Europe and its colonies in the 19th century, the colonizers adopted these Roman ideas. They thought of their own swimming as representative of their White privilege, and they thought of African swimming as comical or simply wrong. For decades, scientists suggested (falsely!) that Black bodies couldn’t float. But when we know better, we can do better: We can revive the earlier European view that admired and emulated African swimming. Instead of setting swimming and Africa in opposition to each other, we can embrace swimming’s African origins. We can step out of the way and let Black and Indigenous people enjoy the water.