My first reaction to a recent story about the Outdoor Recreation Center in Wendell, N.C., and its stated pool guidelines that “No baggy pants, no dread-locks/weaves/extensions or revealing clothes will be permitted or you will be asked to leave” was one of whimsy; it seemed so ridiculous. That is until my 16-year-old daughter, who has swum competitively and worn locs for a decade, quickly stated her displeasure with the rules with an emphatic “that’s racist” (and I won’t state the descriptor that she added).
The private pool’s owner, John Freeman, has been quick to deny the opinions of the many on social media who reacted much the way my daughter did. Regardless of how Freeman might feel about his pool’s guidelines, they betray a clear history of rules intended to keep blacks out of such private and public spaces.
Much has been made, especially in North Carolina, about the role of lunch counters in the struggle to desegregate public and private spaces in the South, but swimming pools were also the site of vicious battles over segregated places of leisure. In 1964 in St. Augustine, Florida, a man threw acid into a pool at a group of swimmers who were staging a “wade-in” to protest the segregated pool. A race riot broke out in Pittsburgh in 1931 when whites challenged a group of black swimmers who were legally allowed to be in the pool. And as recently as a decade ago, a largely black summer camp was denied regular attendance at a private swim club that had previously agreed to let them use the pool, after white club members complained.
No less offensive are rules against baggy pants — sagging — hair weaves and locs. Many municipalities have attempted to make sagging a criminal violation. Morehouse College, which produced noted figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Spike Lee, even demanded that it’s students adhere to a dress code that outlawed sagging, among other things. So while sagging has been criticized across the racial spectrum, the common thread is that it’s been aligned with the perceived criminality of young black men.
And though hairstyles might seem innocuous — though you might ask the generation of blacks who wore afros in the late 1960s and early 1970s about just how innocuous — weaves and locks are anything but. Ask black women who face additional scrutiny from TSA agents when traveling by air, often because of the perception that these women are transporting illegal substances.
In this era of BBQ Becky, Waffle House Wally, Coffee Shop Cindy and Dollar Store Dick, who collectively believe they have been ordained to police the behavior of darker hued people, the Outdoor Recreation Center’s apparent six-year-old rule of course caught the attention of some pool-goers. Indeed my daughter had her own confrontation a few years ago with a Swimming Pool Sally at the local YMCA, where Sally informed my daughter (with powers invested by her delusions) that she couldn’t swim in the pool with her locs. At the time, we could shrug off the member’s comments as that of a misinformed bystander, as my daughter was a member of the YMCA swim team and swam at the pool five days a week.
Sadly, though, we now live in a moment when so many of these interested observers have been weaponized, and often in collusion with law enforcement, to police black behavior. These antics are a reminder that in many sectors of our communities there are some who still hold to the belief that “No Blacks Allowed” even if they won’t say it out loud.
Mark Anthony Neal, Ph.D., is the department chair and James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University.