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Riding the Waves to Freedom: SoCal Blacks and the Surfing Culture

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"White Wash" movie poster.

Around my neighborhood the smoke is still clearing and blocks of confetti-like debri are still being swept up the day after the Fourth. It's not my favorite holiday, and not just because of the big cleanup: uncritical patriotism and flag-waving rubs me the wrong way and always has. Year after year, the exaltation of freedom and self-determination necessarily excludes important parts of the American birth narrative that by their very nature challenge all that exaltation -- slavery, for instance, which was subtly but deliberately written into our Constitution. And then a hundred years of racial segregation sanctioned by law and by custom wove racial inequality into the very fabric of the country. I could take all the fireworks if behind all the dazzling light there was some heat of this truth.

Wishful thinking. But the heat turns up in unexpected places, like the 2011 documentary "White Wash," a fascinating look at the history of blacks and the very SoCal pastime of surfing. I know the stakes don't sound very high -- equal access to surfing doesn't rank up there with access to famously contested spaces like lunch counters and public schools. Yet it does matter, for the same reasons that freedom to do anything matters. And as the film shows, it's the middle-class, leisure time, culture-defining activities like surfing that perhaps represent the last but still critical obstacle to full and meaningful integration for blacks in modern times.

Written and directed by Ted Woods, a white L.A. transplant and surfer who was drawn to the subject via fellow surfers who are black. "White Wash" looks at racism through the unlikely prism of water. One thing it examines is the history of black exclusion from all water sports, surfing being one of many. For much of the twentieth century the caste system of Jim Crow extended to public swimming pools, with amenities like swimming lessons, as well as public beaches. While segregation was not official state policy, local restrictive covenants kept blacks from living in surfside municipalities like Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach (both these cities did have special restricted areas for black beachgoers -- the Inkwell in Santa Monica, Bruce's Beach in Manhattan).

After those restrictions fell away, aspiring black surfers still faced resistance, not just from whites but from other blacks skeptical of getting involved in a supremely cliquish, "white boy" sport like surfing. More than one black surfer attests to this double-faced disbelief in the film. "White Wash" also deconstructs the enduring myth that blacks avoid water, aren't good swimmers, and have no discernible cultural background in water sports, certainly not in surfing.

One of many revelations for me was that the classic '60s surf movie "The Endless Summer" omitted facts in order to portray a group of Ghana natives as completely ignorant of surfing until the blonde Americans show up to give a demonstration. Historians counter that the people of Ghana and other countries along the African coast were more than familiar with the practice and had been doing it for generations -- until the slave trade along the coast effectively interrupted such activities. "Imagine if that film had told the truth," one black surfer says almost wistfully. Yes, imagine. But doing that would have disturbed the cherished narrative of surfing, which in many ways represents the larger, cherished American narrative of invention and frontiersmanship led almost exclusively by whites.

"White Wash" screens this Saturday, July 7, 2 p.m. at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park. The nature of the subject and its argument for equality should mean that it will also screen across town at the Getty, or at some largely white institution close to the ocean and to heart of our uniquely waterborne Southern California dream of freedom. But don't hold your breath.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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