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Family/Youth Last Updated: Mar 10th, 2011 - 17:08:13

A Black Parent's Confession
By Mark Anthony Contributing Editor
Feb 4, 2011, 17:07

I suppose that years from now, my daughter will have little memory of the recent North Carolina YMCA swim
championships. Yes she walked away with the 50-Yard Freestyle championship in her age group, lowered several of her times and anchored two championship relays, but in many ways if was just like any other meet.

Except the meet was not held on any other ordinary day; it was the 82nd anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.. I couldn't help being reminded that if it were only 40 years earlier--in a state like North Carolina--my daughter might not have been allowed to even swim in the same pool with her White peers, let alone stand on the blocks and believe that she could be the fastest swimmer in any of the competitions.

Not to put any additional pressure on my daughter, I let the significance of the date sit quietly with me (though not quite given the Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone soundtrack that accompanied our drive to the aquatic center), ironic given the fact that most swim meets in contemporary America would register as a minor Civil Rights-era notable; It's simply far too usual for there to be only a handful of Black swimmers competing at meets in which competitors often number in the hundreds.

And indeed, to judge by the number of adults, who randomly walk up to my daughter and her parents to comment on how fine her swimming technique is, I'm sure my daughter is more than aware of the race politics that are at play. As a White colleague remarked to me, comments about my daughter's swimming technique--however innocent and even thoughtful--are apropos to the backhanded compliments middle class, educated Blacks receive about how "articulate" they are, as if there is some incompatible strain of Blackness that resists societal norms.

At twelve, my daughter is of a generation of young people whose lives are not ordered by race--that's the job of their parents, who at least have a responsibility to make their children aware that despite best intentions (somewhere Edmund Perry is sighing), there will be many moments in their lives when race and gender, and class and religious preference and sexual orientation will matter.

Thankfully, the only burden she takes onto the starting block is whether or not she will be able to drop her times, and that is as it should be. Nevertheless, my daughter and I have begun to talk about her unasked for role in this small post-race, racial drama. The conversations are borne out on the number of times that parents of younger Black swimmers have sought her out to meet their swimmers.

It has taken my daughter some time to realize that forty-plus year after Dr. King last walked the earth, the idea of a Black swimmer--and one who can compete at the highest levels, as she aspires--is an oxymoron. At any given swim meet, there's going to be another Black swimmer that will see my daughter and others like her, and say "that can be me."

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University and the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking For Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities. He is a regular columnist for and the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Neal is also a Black Swim Parent, who resides Durham, NC with his family, where his daughters swim for the YMCA of the Triangle Area (YOTA).

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