Simone Manuel made Olympic history on Thursday when she became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event. She also set an Olympic record by finishing the 100-meter freestyle in just a mere 52.70 seconds, tying with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak.
Swimming pools in the United States have a long history of racial segregation and this history makes Manuel’s historic win all the more meaningful. In an interview, she made it clear that absolutely none of this is lost on her when she took the opportunity to talk about race and police brutality in America.
It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” Manuel said Thursday. “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.
Manuel said that race is something she has “struggled with a lot.”
Coming into the race I tried to take weight of the black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not ‘Simone the black swimmer.’
“The title of black swimmer suggests that I am not supposed to win golds or break records, but that’s not true because I train hard and want to win just like everyone else.
She then added that this medal isn’t only for her, but is also for those who have come both before and after her.
This medal is not just for me. It is for some of the African Americans who have come before me,” she said. “This medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find love and drive to get to this point.
The full weight of this accomplishment cannot be fully realized without taking into account the history of segregated swimming pools in America. Not so long ago, African Americans were forbidden from using white pools and were brutally beaten if they dared to act in defiance of the law.
Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters, explains that “there were two ways in which communities racially-segregated pools at the time. One was through official segregation, and so police officers and city officials would prevent black Americans from entering pools that had been earmarked for whites. The other way of segregating pools was through violence.”
Wiltse notes that one of the driving factors behind the segregation of swimming pools was the belief that black people were dirty and had diseases, so sharing water was just out of the question.
According to the book, Tragic Hollywood, Beautiful Glamorous And Dead, a Las Vegas hotel once drained their entire pool because Dorothy Dandridge, an African-American actress and singer, dipped her toe into the water.
While headlining at a major casino in Las Vegas, she was treated like an infectious disease instead of the star she was. She was not allowed to mingle with the guests, eat in the public dining room or use any of the hotels public facilities, including the front door. Despite all of this, she and Earl decided to take a little dip in the pool, in direct defiance of the rules. Before she even had a chance to slip into the water, the manager came running out. He created a huge scene, screaming and yelling that she was not allowed to do that. Humiliated and angry, Dorothy dipped her foot in the pool in righteous indignation. Later that evening, she walked past the area again and saw that the pool had been drained and was being scrubbed clean from top to bottom, by black employees.
It never ceases to amaze me how far we can come and yet, at the exact same time, how very, very far we still have to go when it comes to racism in America. But Manuel’s gold-medal is one step further towards the promised land of true equality and her accomplishment will drive the generations that come after her.
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