On Katrina Anniversary, Examining a Fear of Water

On the eve of the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, essayist Meri Danquah examines her phobic reaction to large bodies of water.

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ED GORDON, host:

After Hurricane Katrina, many people are thinking about ways to help themselves in the face of a devastating flood. Essayist Meri Nana-Ama Danquah decided one thing she could do is learn to stay afloat.

Ms. MERI NANA-AMA DANQUAH (Essayist): The other day when I told a friend that I'm learning how to swim, he said, yeah, you and the 20 other Black folks who ain't afraid of water. I didn't find his wisecrack particularly amusing, considering all I've been going through with my swim teacher, Annie.

ANNIE (Swim Teacher): Okay, Meri, I want you to get in and put your head in the water.

Ms. DANQUAH: Okay, wait. It's so cold.

ANNIE: Oh, you can do it. Just jump in.

Ms. DANQUAH: No, I can't jump in. I'm scared.

ANNIE: Okay.

Ms. DANQUAH: How deep is it in there?

ANNIE: It's about five feet deep.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

ANNIE: Okay. That was good.

Ms. DANQUAH: Now, I can't speak for the rest of my race, but for as long as I can remember, my relationship with water has been marked by two powerful emotions: love and fear.

(Soundbite of crashing waves)

Ms. DANQUAH: I've moved a lot, from coast-to-coast and continent-to-continent, but every single one of my homes has been near an ocean. I've always been fascinated by the sea. It's mysterious, magical. I enjoy looking at it, listening to it. I love the water - just as long as I don't have to get in it.

(Soundbite of crashing waves)

Ms. DANQUAH: With the exception of my bathtub, the very thought of being immersed in any container or body of water is enough to bring on a full-scale panic attack. I have no idea where this fear came from. The closest I've ever come to drowning was when I stooped too close to the spout at a public water fountain in the park and sprayed myself in the nostrils.

Still, somewhere deep in my psyche is this irrational and unshakeable feeling that letting myself walk, wade, or even splash in the water would somehow be the death of me.

(Soundbite of swimming lesson)

ANNIE: Get your head under, get wet, get...

Ms. DANQUAH: Yeah. That's easier than done. Head under, okay. Oh gosh.

ANNIE: You can do it.

Ms. DANQUAH: All right.

ANNIE: I'll do it with you. Ready?

Ms. DANQUAH: Okay.

ANNIE: One, two, three.

Ms. DANQUAH: Yeah. Okay, sorry. I'll do it now.

ANNIE: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BEBE(ph) (Ms. Danquah's Friend): A lot of my Black girlfriends don't like to swim cause it messes up their hair.

Ms. DANQUAH: I talked to my girlfriend Bebe and Sloan to get their thoughts on why we seem to be so darn afraid of getting wet.

BEBE: I mean, I've also heard dialogue about the subconscious of African-Americans, where like our parents didn't like to swim, and their parents and their parents, going all the way back to, I think, coming over on the boat. I'm talking about them slave ships.

SLOAN (Ms. Danquah's Friend): Economics plays a big part. You're out in Oklahoma, like where I grew up. You know, it's like one neighborhood pool and every child is trying to be in that neighborhood pool.

BEBE: And, you know, my boyfriend doesn't know how to swim and he said it's because his body won't stay buoyant in the water. Now I don't know what that's about...

Ms. DANQUAH: Hearing what they had to say, not to mention reading the numerous articles which indicate that each year, black people make up a disproportionate number of drownings. Well, it only made me that much more determined to keep my butt on dry land.

But I realized that sometimes that choice isn't our to make, if you know what I mean.

Unidentified Man #1: Everything I own, basically speaking - except the car that we are in - is underwater.

Ms. DANQUAH: Hurricane Katrina hit a little too close to home.

Unidentified Man #2: We are providing hoists off of rooftops, flooded areas, cars...

Unidentified Man #3: People on the rooftops, and some people still on their house. We rescued a young lady. She was in the house, she couldn't get in the attic. And I don't know how she survived but she made it.

Ms. DANQUAH: As I watched footage of people clinging to the tops of trees and literally swimming out of their attic windows, I decided that it was probably time to confront, if not altogether conquer, my fear of the water.

(Soundbite of choir singing spiritual song Wade in the Water)

CHOIR: Wade in the water, wade in the water, children...

Ms. DANQUAH: It took me a little while to work up the nerve, but this summer, I bought myself a bathing suit, goggles, and a very waterproof cap - and I signed up to take the plunge.

(Soundbite of swimming lesson)

ANNIE: That's great. Okay. Are you feeling comfortable?

Ms. DANQUAH: Yeah.

ANNIE: You want to try the breaststroke?

Ms. DANQUAH: Yeah.

ANNIE: And you can come up for breath on every stroke.

Ms. DANQUAH: Okay. All right.

ANNIE: That makes it a little easier.

Ms. DANQUAH: All right. Come up and...

I found myself in the shallow end of a pool doing an awkward breaststroke next to preschoolers. That's right, a bunch of baby Jacques Cousteaus; crawling, and butter flying, and diving as confidently as aquatic animals.

(Soundbite of swimming lesson)

Unidentified Man: Are you really learning to swim?

Ms. DANQUAH: Yes, I am learning. Why is that surprising to you?

Unidentified Man: You're 40-something.

Ms. DANQUAH: I am not 40-something, little boy.

This was, to say the least, quite humbling. Learning how to swim hasn't made my fear miraculously disappear, yet. What it is doing, though, is teaching me how to relax, how to stay calm and maintain control in the face of that fear. The more at ease I am, the less vulnerable I feel, the simpler it is to become weightless, to float, to have fun. At least now I know that come hell or high water, if left to my own devices, this is one Black person who is definitely going to survive.

(Soundbite of swimming lesson)

ANNIE: Good. You're doing great, Meri.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

(Soundbite of choir singing spiritual song Wade in the Water)

CHORUS: Wade in the water, wade in the water...

GORDON: Meri Nana-Ama Danquah is a writer living in Los Angeles.

That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit NPR.org. And if you'd like to give us a comment, call 202-408-3330.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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