Black Surfers Reclaim Their Place on the Waves

On an overcast day on the cusp of summer last year, a group of surfers gathered on a historically Black beach known as the Ink Well in Santa Monica, Calif., with messages written on their boards. They were preparing for a paddle-out — a ritual for surfers to honor the dead — in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd. The messages on their boards read “Black Lives Matter” and listed the names of those killed by law enforcement.

“It’s just been a battle to survive, all of it, all of the time, just for the right to be,” Sharon Schaffer, the first Black woman to become a professional surfer, said that day in an emotional speech. She was referring to the racism she’s experienced in surfing and in her career as a Hollywood stunt woman and actor.

“I had to develop a voice right away to scream: ‘I got it — it’s mine, my wave,’” she said, and the assembled surfers cheered in response. “I have a right to be on this wave.”

On President’s Day of this year, an argument in Manhattan Beach, Calif., over wave priority turned ugly when a white man repeatedly called Justin Howze, a Black musician who goes by Brick, and his fellow Black surfer Gage Crismond a racial slur. The incident inspired Mr. Howze and Mr. Crismond to organize a paddle-out in protest, which attracted well over 100 Black surfers.

These recent paddle-outs raised awareness both of the fact that Black people do indeed surf and that they often do so in the face of hostilities both subtle and overt. The events also demonstrated the sense of connection and community among Black surfers whose networks have been steadily developing for decades.

Of course, Black people surf for the same reasons as anyone else — the feeling of weightlessness and propulsion, of being in perfect harmony with the energy of the wave. But surfing with other Black people can also foster a profound sense of healing, of being seen and understood, and of finding kinship through an experience shared with people who know your culture and history in an ocean that your ancestors may have traversed.

As Black surfers are increasingly coming out into the open — surfing together in organized groups, experiencing and sharing the joy and freedom that surfing can provide — they’re also assuming a more visible presence in the sport’s larger ecosystem, whether as brand ambassadors for major sponsors, as publishers in surf-related media or as contenders in elite competitions. These surfers are also participating in a tradition of activism and cultural pride around Black surfing — a history in which some of the surfers themselves may not be fully versed.

The first time Selema Masekela, a surfer and founder of Mami Wata, a lifestyle brand, saw another Black surfer in the water in California, he paddled right over so that they could exchange origin stories.

“I didn’t even need to know him to know what it took for him to be out there,” said Mr. Masekela, who recently published “Afrosurf,” a book celebrating surfing in Africa. “There’s so much you have to do on land to make the choice to even go. Then there’s the outright potential for aggression and the constant processing of micro-aggression.” The code-switching he said he needed for surfing “had become like a subliminal superpower.”

In taking their place in the waves, people of African descent are reclaiming lost traditions. The contemporary practice of surfing derives from Polynesians who settled Hawaii, but the centuries-old African practices of wave-riding — whether on boards or in canoes — evolved independently, historians say, in multiple spots along the West African coast.

“The vast majority of us are descended from African people who were coastal, ocean-dwelling people, and yet most of us have been disconnected from that aspect that was a crucial part of our ancestors’ identities,” said Natalie Hubbard, a surgeon and surfer who is part of the Laru Beya Collective, which encourages surfing and water safety among underserved youth in the Rockaways in New York. “I think there’s a power to, as a person with African ancestry, connecting with the ocean because you’re also connecting with a part of your heritage.”

Despite surfing’s roots in Polynesia — and the fact that one of its most famous early ambassadors, Duke Kahanamoku, was dark-skinned enough that whites-only establishments tried to refuse him service — surfing gained popularity on the U.S. mainland in the 1950s and ’60s primarily as a white sport. American surf culture at the time was typified by the music of bands like the Beach Boys and by movies like “Gidget” and “The Endless Summer.”

Many Black Americans, meanwhile, had all but lost their connections to the African traditions of wave-riding, severed by centuries of enslavement, violence and legal segregation. They were systematically excluded from public swimming, beaches and water-sport culture by Jim Crow laws, racial terror campaigns and the real estate practice of redlining. The effect for many Black people was an overriding sense that sports like surfing just weren’t available to them and that the culture of surfing wasn’t open to them.

Yet there is a robust, if complicated, history of surfing among African-descended people, especially in segregated and historically Black beach communities around the U.S.

It was the Ink Well beach, for instance, that produced surfing’s first documented Black star in the late 1940s. Nick Gabaldón learned to surf as a teenager at the Ink Well on a board he borrowed from a lifeguard. But Malibu Surfrider Beach, which is 12 miles to the north and was in practice reserved for whites, was known for having the best waves around. So, in a feat of extreme determination, Gabaldón began paddling the 12 miles from the Ink Well to Surfrider, eventually becoming a popular fixture at that beach until he died in 1951, at 24, trying to surf between the pilings of the pier.

In the years following Gabaldón’s death, a number of Black surfers — most notably Montgomery Ernest Thomas Kaluhiokalani, known by the nickname Buttons — made inroads into professional surfing, competing in events and becoming icons of their local breaks, with some earning national attention. Over time, access to the water and to surfing opened up for Black surfers, as a culture of beach activism took root.

In much the same way that Black civil rights activists claimed a right to occupy a space where they were told they didn’t belong — a Woolworth’s lunch counter or a seat at the front of the bus — Black beachgoers put themselves into segregated waters during “wade-ins” that started in the late 1950s. These actions were met by a law enforcement response similar to other civil rights protests: police indifference that allowed white people to brutalize protestors or, as documented in “White Wash,” a 2011 documentary about Black surfing, officers wielding truncheons against surfers.

“There’s a long history of whites being profoundly uneasy with the notion that Black people should even have any leisure time at all, and there’s a long history of efforts to suppress that,” said Andrew W. Kahrl, the author of “The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South.” He added that surfing “is one way to challenge the fictions of white supremacy at its most fundamental level — to refuse to reduce oneself to being merely a laborer, and to reclaim your body.”

Even now, surfing can seem to embody a kind of protest or conscious transgression for Black people: a commitment to occupying spaces traditionally considered off-limits.

It was through a Los Angeles experiment in busing in the ’60s that Rick Blocker met the kids who introduced him to skateboarding and then to surfing. But it wasn’t until he came across an open letter in Surfer magazine written by Tony Corley, who was looking to connect with other Black surfers, that he gave much thought to how broad the Black surfing community might be.

Mr. Corley went on to form the Black Surfing Association (B.S.A.) in 1974, with Mr. Blocker and a handful of others as early members. Through an article about the B.S.A. in Surfer, Mr. Blocker learned the forgotten history of the Ink Well and Nick Gabaldón, which he felt compelled to help preserve and share.

After Tony Corley wrote this open letter to Surfer magazine (his mailing address has been redacted here), he connected with Rick Blocker and others. They went on to co-found the Black Surfing Association.

What began in Southern California has blossomed into a global movement, spurring the formation of groups dedicated to encouraging Black people to surf. The surf industry — often criticized for promoting the sport as the near-exclusive province of white men — is taking note, as popular brands provide sponsorships, equipment and other support to Black surfers and organizations.

Textured Waves, for example, is an online initiative that focuses on issues of representation in surfing. Chelsea Woody, a surfer and cofounder of Textured Waves who also has a promotional relationship with Vans, says that representation is important because it can make a tangible difference in people’s lives. Ms. Woody, who works as a nurse and grew up playing basketball and running track in suburban Washington State, far from the coast, experienced the power of representation in her own life when she was exposed to surfing at 17 while watching the film “Blue Crush.”

“I saw Michelle Rodriguez and I was like, ‘She kind of looks like me and I would love to do that,’” Ms. Woody recalled. Now she serves as a surf double for Vinessa Antoine, who plays a lawyer and surfer on the Canadian legal drama “Diggstown,” which takes place in Nova Scotia. The show helped spur the creation of a program to increase participation in surfing among Black Nova Scotians.

The Laru Beya Collective in New York, which was inspired by the East Coast chapter of the B.S.A., also seeks to promote both a sense in Black surfers that they belong in the water and a sense of responsibility for the effort to steward the ocean in which they surf.

A few Laru Beya surfers are now training for their first competition — the traditional path for surfers to build a professional career. Black surfers have yet to excel in professional surfing as a group, due in part to a lack of experience: The best training for professional competition involves practice in different kinds of waves and conditions at a wide variety of surf breaks, something that requires both mentorships and money. Until recently, major brands had been slow to embrace ethnic diversity, making it challenging for Black surfers to sustain the support that makes competition in international events possible.

Ms. Schaffer, who is among a handful of Black surfers from California who have competed professionally, recently announced a partnership with Red Bull to help sponsor promising young Black surfers. She said that in her own professional career she had trouble finding support and sponsorships. She secured a few years’ worth of sponsorships when she was competing, “but because I didn’t really know what I was doing, I couldn’t keep it going,” she said. “I didn’t understand how the machine worked.”

Entering the qualifying series — in which hundreds of surfers compete at dozens of events to amass points in order to join the elite world tour — is an expensive undertaking, according to Ashton Goggans, editor of the surf magazine Stab. “You’re basically self-funding an around-the-world trip each year,” he said.

But the competitive landscape is bound to become more diverse as more Black people train for and enter competitions, some with their eyes on the 2024 Olympics, experts say. (Surfing was included as an official Olympic event for the first time in 2021.) Mr. Goggans pointed to a surfer on the Jamaican national team, Elishama Jeshurun Beckford, as someone with promise; he recently participated in a Stab-organized contest where his performance “blew everybody’s minds,” Mr. Goggans said.

How do Black folks find meaning in the great outdoors? On September
19, we look for answers (and fresh air) with forager Alexis Nikole;
historian Blair Imani and more. Join us for the third episode of our
virtual event series Black History, Continued.

The internet and social media are also allowing Black surfers to follow a different path toward success, eschewing competition and attracting sponsorships by making and posting their own photos and films.

Hunter Jones, a team rider for Body Glove, does not compete but produces his own surfing content. “I was just surfing because I loved it and I never had that mindset of, ‘OK, I want to be on the world tour and compete against Kelly Slater,’” he said.

Mr. Jones wants to be an example for the next generation, one that might include Farmata Dia, the daughter of Senegalese immigrants and a Laru Beya mentor who grew up in the Rockaways and became hooked on surfing after a single lesson.

A living link to Africa’s aquatic heritage, Ms. Dia dreams of opening her own surf shop in Senegal some day and bringing more attention to the surf culture and its origins.

“I just want to surf, bring people to surfing and share the knowledge,” she said.

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