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Simone and the Ghosts

August 12, 2016

We celebrate these great Olympic victories. Last night, Simone Manuel became the first black woman to win an individual swimming gold, and my Facebook feed went wild.

There’s always that one person, though.

“Why does it have to be the first black this or the first Mexican-American that? Why can’t we all be just Americans?”

First, here’s the homework: read Jeff Wiltse’s “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.”

Now we can talk.

It’s a big deal because Simone Manuel is not standing on the podium alone. She is standing there surrounded by ghosts, those potential winners who were never allowed to compete – or worse yet, to never imagine they could.

Simone, because of when she was born, was able to achieve her Olympic dream. Who knows how many dreams were lost along the way when children were told:

  • You can’t come in here
  • It is illegal for you to use this facility
  • Don’t get above yourself
  • Your kind aren’t good at this
  • This isn’t for you
  • You don’t have the type of body that will enable you to win
  • Go back where you came from

The same person asking “Why the first black…?” will probably now wonder “Why do you keep talking about this stuff? All you are doing is dividing us.”

You know how when someone does something that really pisses you off and then you confront them and they say “Yeah, yeah, what happened, happened and you need to get over it and move on”? Does that make you feel better? No, it makes you even more mad because they’re acting like it is you who have the problem.

What you need is for them to say “I’m sorry, that was awful, I should not have done that and I promise to never let it happen again.”

That’s what we need to do as a country. Not brush past our racist past and present, but take a clear look and acknowledge the past while working for a better future.

So while I’m celebrating  Simone Manuel (and Simone Biles and Michael Phelps and all the other Olympians who have worked so hard to get to the top), I’m listening to the whispers of the ghosts around her, gathering them in my arms and saying, “I’m sorry. It was awful. You deserved better. I will do what I can to make sure it never happens again.”


  1. August 12, 2016 15:49

    I grew up in the segregated South. Blacks were not allowed in the “white” pool and guess what? There was no black pool. If you want more homework, also read “The Water is Wide” be Pat Conroy.

    • September 2, 2016 16:02

      Wow, Carolyn. That is some sad history.

      Yes, I read “The Water is Wide.” Good book. Also a good song!

  2. August 17, 2016 15:33

    I have a Facebook friend, who I knew vaguely in high school, who is black. She started an interesting conversation about how it is not ONLY the white prejudice that holds back blacks, but also black prejudice. She is in no way giving racist whites a pass, but brought up how in her childhood, and now her daughter’s, black girls who wanted to swim (or read certain books, or do certain activities) were teased/criticized by other black girls for ‘trying to be white’. I can’t speak to that, I’ve never lived it or witnessed it, but it did bring in another element to the conversation that I hadn’t considered before.

    • September 2, 2016 16:03

      Yes, there is always the call of some of our own to know our place, to stay where we are. I got teased for being a smarty pants, a know-it-all, the kid who put her hand up too much in class. The old metaphor is crabs in a bucket – one crab is trying to escape, while the ones below pull it back down.

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