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Surfing for Freedom: Black Surfers and Reclaiming Cultural History in Los Angeles

In 1991's surfing bromance "Point Break," former Big Ten quarterback and F.B.I. agent Johnny Utah infiltrates a notorious ring of "surfing bank robbers" led by the late great Patrick Swayze's Bodhi (short for Buddhavista of course). They play beach football, go night surfing, and eventually end their relationship in a confrontation on an Australian beach as 100 foot waves from a fifty year storm crash on the beach. "Point Break's" ridiculousness has long been acknowledged, from Keanu Reaves performance -- "I am an F.B.I. agent!" -- to Swayze's mix of extreme sports and white Eastern mysticism; yet the film, and others like it, also perpetuate a problematic vision of surfing and a form of historical erasure: surfing as a white-only sport. Along with Frankie Avalon movies of the fifties, like "Beach Blanket Bingo," and more traditional surf films like 1966's "Endless Summer," 1994's "Endless Summer II," or 2003's "Step into Liquid," popular culture has long portrayed the sport as a sort of reservoir of bohemian, if also, in some cases, with a large helping of agro-masculinity and whiteness.

Yet, if one traces surfing back to its beginnings among Native Hawaiians and follow its course to Southern California, you find a much more complicated story that highlights how the sport's history has been distorted, and that California today serves as a departure point for efforts to re-establish the pastime for the people of color with whom it originated.

"It's not about some sport thing," Oceanside's Patrick "Quashi" Mitchell told documentarians in 2013, "it's about taking me back to where my ancestors came from and [how] they [got] to where they were." Founder of Quashi Surfboards International, Mitchell referred to surfing's origins among people of color in Hawaii, a fact not lost on the slowly growing community of fellow black surfers.

Duke Kahanamoku at Huntington Beach, 1965 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Before European and American dreams of imperial expansion in the Pacific, Hawaiians had long engaged in what would become known as the sport of surfing. As the 2011 documentary "White Wash" points out, the arrival of Calvinist missionaries resulted in the erasure of Hawaiian culture, most notably the practice of surfing. To Calvinists, surfing appeared pagan and the sport's mixing of the sexes scandalized the European interlopers. By the end of the 1800s, surfing had largely vanished as missionary schools and European influence blotted out the archipelago's rich cultural history. Yet, some Hawaiians continued to surf or fled for other environs, carrying surfing across the globe to England, Australia, Washington State, Oregon, and, of course, California.

Despite this transnational dispersal, surfing did not reappear in the then-U.S. territory until the faltering of Hawaii's economy, which at the time had relied on plantation production of sugar and pineapples extracted by a multiethnic/racial cast of migrant laborers. As tourism came to increasingly define the archipelago's economy, surfing, due to the calm ambassadorship of Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku and others, was popularized among Europeans and Americans alike. A world champion swimmer, Duke earned Olympic gold and silver at Stockholm in 1912, double gold at Antwerp in 1920, and silver at Paris in 1924. At age 41, he earned bronze at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics as an alternate on the U.S. water polo team. Though today many would consider Duke black, his physical export to the U.S. and elsewhere to popularize swimming and surfing recast his racial orientation such that "through images of male Hawaiian bodies, [white tourist officials] ensur[ed] that those bodies were clearly understood to be brown not black." Yet Duke's racial ambiguity led spectators to take him for black, American Indian, and even East Indian, notes Cal State L.A.'s (CSULA) Michael Nevin Willard. Print articles presented Duke's racial identity as "multiple and contradictory." 1 In these ways, Duke slipped through the fissures of western, particularly American, racial hierarchies.

Popular culture of the time reinforced such ideas. Writers like Jack London traveled to Hawaii and stood in awe at the exploits of figures like Duke. "He is Kanaka and more, he is a man, a member of the kingly species that has mastered matter and the brutes, and lorded it over creation," London wrote with mouth agape in 1907. Though transfixed by the skills and calm of Hawaii's native surfers, London nonetheless encouraged his fellow Americans and Europeans to paddle out into the surf: "What that Kanaka can do you can do for yourself." 2 Unfortunately, London's admiration disguised a troubling racial logic. London's work, as noted by Willard, suggests that whites need only replace their Hawaiian counterparts riding the waves to achieve "manly civilization." When the legendary Outrigger Canoe Club, founded by white surfer Alexander Hume Ford, opened its doors in 1908, "white men replaced brown men, took over Waikiki Beach, and positioned themselves as sources of surfing, by redefining it and freezing it as a preservable object under the civilizing influence of tourism." By the 1930s, the club had become arguably the most exclusive organization in the American territory, and one in which whites made up the predominant membership. 3

If for average Hawaiians surfing had been something you did, akin to fishing or swimming, as one "White Wash" interviewee noted, it became an identity that combined Polynesian lifestyle with the rugged Western frontier of California. Unfortunately, surfing intersected with a nation that rigidly segregated its public and private spaces. Once embedded on American shores, the sport grew in popularity, but in ways that denied people of color access, creating the idea that surfing had originated with whites.

Duke Kahanamoku practises his golf swing while riding his surfboard towards shore. A long pier stretches outwards in the background, ca. 1925 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library


The Importance of SoCal

"We came to the West Coast for a dream of beauty, freedom," black surfer Rick Blocker told "White Wash" documentarian Ted Woods. "[California] offered the ocean, the sun, the mountains, this wonderful playground." Los Angeles of the early 1900s impressed even W.E.B. Dubois: "Out here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities or your possibilities." Unfortunately, although the state never imposed legal, formal segregation, many public spaces remained racially divided through zoning, racial covenants, and use of violence/intimidation. Historically beaches and pools may be sites of leisurely repose, but when race entered the picture they could become whirlpools of discrimination. The presence of a young black man on a segregated beach sparked the legendary Chicago Riot of 1919. During the 1940s and '50s the integration of municipal pools in locales like St. Louis and Pittsburgh often led to violence and conflict. 4

Even with these formidable obstacles, L.A.'s black population resisted, frequently setting off for the beach especially in the early decades of the twentieth century. 5 Critically, in Los Angeles, and California more broadly, a certain flexibility existed, noted UCSB doctoral candidate, public historian, and Santa Monica expert Alison Rose Jefferson at this year's conference for the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Unlike Eastern and Midwestern counterparts, where lines of segregation had been more clearly drawn, the Golden State's proximity to both Mexico and Asia and its relatively recent establishment created much different racial dynamics than counterparts elsewhere. California historians like Jefferson, Cal State Northridge's Josh Sides, and CSULA's Mark Wild have demonstrated that interracial interactions occurred much more often than the city's one-time moniker, "The White Spot" suggests. 6 As Jefferson pointed out during her OAH presentation, sites of leisure like beaches were often reserved for whites, but as documented in her own research, evidence suggests individuals or individual families in California did find access to white beaches on occasion. However, these places provided no facilities for black patrons -- no place to rent a swimsuit, no changing rooms -- making large gatherings impossible.

Caption reads: 'Grace Williams, Albert Williams, Mary Mingleton, Willie Williams (no relation) in the segregated section of Santa Monica beach known as the Ink Well' | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In the face of discrimination and segregation, blacks nonetheless carved out spaces for themselves at Bruce's Beach at Manhattan Beach and the Inkwell in Santa Monica. These leisure spaces mirrored others across the nation, like 63rd St. Beach in Chicago, America's Beach on Amelia Island in Florida, and Chicken Bone Beach in Atlantic City. On these sandy vistas, blacks would gather and celebrate individually and communally.

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In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Nick Gabaldon, an Angeleno of Mexican American and African American descent, graduate of Santa Monica High School, and Santa Monica College student, waded out into the Pacific to reclaim a connection to his cultural roots and those of L.A.'s larger black community. Despite racial barriers, Gabaldon sought out the best and toughest surf out there. He entered the beach at the only "socially acceptable" access point for him at the Inkwell, then paddled "12 miles north to Malibu Surfrider beach," noted Black Surfers Collective member John Williams in 2013. Gabaldon's courage, fortitude, and talent embodied that of the larger black community, as he sought out the off limits but renowned Malibu surf break considered one of the best in the world. Regrettably, as much as Gabaldon loved the ocean, in June of 1951, the Pacific claimed the pioneering surfer for itself.

Still, Gabaldon and others set in motion a reconfiguration of black life. In the 1950s and 60s, "wade ins" by African Americans protested segregated beaches, and gradually opened up more spaces for black Angelenoes to enjoy a respite by the ocean. African Americans, Jefferson asserted in a 2013 article, "made California and American history by challenging racial hierarchies when they occupied recreational sites like the Bay Street/Inkwell site, and public spaces at the core of the state's formative, mid-20th century identity."

In 1974, Tony Corley appealed to the black surfer diaspora around the world in Surfer Magazine, "Stand up and make yourselves known, [Black Surfing Brothers]. It could be the beginning of a hot wave of color." Working primarily in central and northern California, Corley formed the Black Surfing Association (BSA), which still operates today. Demonstrating SoCal's critical place in such developments, the first letter Corley received came from David Landsdowne, black surfer, "White Wash" interviewee, and Los Angeles surfing contest participant and organizer. Unsurprisingly, Corley also received numerous coarse, racist letters threatening him with violence, but the creation of the BSA helped to suture ties between far flung surfers, and other organizations followed.

"It's structural," asserted surfer Dedon Kamathi. "I'm not saying individual acts of racism ... I'm talking about laws. The structure of the American System." Structural racism, like housing segregation, undercut black Americans' social mobility and access to resources, but it also created an internal resistance or skepticism regarding surfing. With no access to beaches and pools, much of aquatic culture came to be seen as framed by whiteness. Numerous black surfers in "White Wash" confide that even in the black community there exists a sense of misunderstanding, and even rejection, of the sport as white. "Black people don't surf, stop trying to act white," fellow African Americans would sometimes tell surfer Rusty White. Knowing peers like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, who also engaged in prototypically white sports, must have endured similar comments. White shrugged it off telling documentarians, that sports were "all white at one point," so really who cares. Female black surfer Andrea Kabwasa related a similar attitude: "I can do whatever I want, what do I want to do? I want to surf."

Nick Gabaldon

On the East Coast, Michael Green founded Urban Surfwear after an encounter with surfers on the subway hiking out to the Rockaways to catch a wave. Surfing, Greene related, filled a "void in me." In 1996, Rick Blocker, today a Leimert Park resident and member of the Malibu Surfing Association, founded blacksurfing.com in order to "[p]romote awareness of and provide education about Black surfing worldwide," encourage conservation efforts, and to cement a sense of community while bringing the sport to marginalized communities. In late 2011/early 2012, the Black Surfers Collective emerged taking an active role in local stewardship and conservation efforts. Since its formation, the BSC has taken the lead in organizing Southern California's Black surfers.

In 2008, L.A. and Santa Monica finally recognized the Inkwell and Nick Gabaldon's place in their metropolitan histories by designating the beach a historic landmark. On June 1, 2013, the Black Surfers Collective, Heal the Bay, and the Surf Bus Foundation commemorated Gabaldon's groundbreaking efforts with Nick Gabaldon Day, which promoted conservation and beach stewardship and provided surfing lessons to kids from neighborhoods like Watts and Willowbrook. (The first such commemorative day occurred the previous year, but garnered no media coverage.) "[D]ozens of inner city kids ventured splashing and laughing into the gentle waist high peaks near Santa Monica Pier to get their first taste of surfing," wrote Surfer Magazine scribe, Justin Housman. "Many of these kids had never before even visited the beach. No longer a far-flung and exotic pastime for those kids; surfing that day became a very real and very pursuable activity."

"White Wash's" closing images mix scenes of "wade ins" with African Americans teaching other African Americans how to surf, pointing to a camaraderie and growing sense of community between black surfers. Perhaps equally important, noted Rice University historian Krista Comer, the image of a male surfer teaching a female surfer how to surf illustrated a non-gendered ideal of no small importance, considering the tropes of masculinity that have long been attached to the sport. Near the conclusion of "White Wash," Blocker notes that because of the racial barriers and obstacles standing in the way of black surfers, their enjoyment of the sport might exceed those of others. "As we're riding waves, we experience more gratitude, liberation, and freedom than the average surfer." Blocker described a "double liberation" that Comer suggested, for female surfers when one adds sexism, might create a sense of "triple liberation".

In the end, overcoming racism and prejudice from whites and skepticism from fellow African Americans only made surfing that much more enjoyable, a hard won victory in an ocean of historic opposition.

_____

1 Michael Nevin Willard, "Duke Kahanamoku's Body: Biography of Hawai'i" in Sports Matters: Race, Recreation, and Culture, Eds. John Bloom and Michael Nevin Willard, (New York: NYU Press, 2002), pgs. 13-14, 19, 25.
2 Jack London, "The Cruise of the Snark in Sports Matters: Race, Recreation, and Culture", Eds. John Bloom and Michael Nevin Willard, (New York: NYU Press, 2002), pgs. 15-16.
3 Michael Nevin Willard, "Duke Kahanamoku's Body", pg. 19.
4 Jeff Wiltse, "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America", Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 2007
5 Alison Rose Jefferson, "African American Leisure Space in Santa Monica: The Beach Sometimes Known as the Inkwell, 1900s-1960s", Southern California Quarterly Vol. 91. No. 2 (Summer 2009), pgs. 155 - 189.
6 Josh Sides, "L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present", (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003; Mark Wild, Street Meaning: Multiethnic Neighborhood's in Early Twentieth Century Los Angeles, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).

About the Author

Ryan Reft has a PhD in urban history from the University of California San Diego. He is co-editor of the blog Tropics of Meta.
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