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[Film] Wade in the Water: A Journey Into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture

by A.M. Larks

“Wade in the Water: A Journey Into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture,” an award-winning documentary, beings a with a voiceover singing the slave-era spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” while a stick-figure cartoon character learns to surf. The pictorial nature of the images and impressionistic style lends to the timeless mood the viewer feels. Coupled with the tone of the culture-specific reference presented by the voiceover, the film’s message is established: Black people have been surfing for forever.

“Wade in the Water: A Journey Into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture,” was shown on June 17, 2023, at the Oakland Museum of California to a sold out crowd. The audience was diverse in every way shape and form, drawing all ages, races, ethnicities, and even nationalities with some hailing from other countries. The excitement was palpable, the atmosphere was welcoming, and the enjoyment unanimous as indicated by the laughter that flooded the room on several occasions.

The film itself is broken up into easily understood chapters (origins, pioneers, challengers, spirituality, and the future), which detail the history of Black surfing from its beginnings in Africa to the current day in movements and countries across the globe. These chapters unfold through the perspectives of individual stories of surfing, underscoring the pervasiveness of surfing throughout Black History.

The purpose of the documentary is to record the historical and modern testimonials that prove that, yes, Black people surf but also as evidence that there are still racial barriers in the predominantly white, male sport of surfing. This film then serves as an argument and a rallying cry to fight racism through joy and passion. Overall, the film has to set the historical record straight, dismantle stereotypes, verify the ways that racism has infiltrated the sport and pleasure of surfing, and be uplifting —which is a lot to do in an hour and half. Despite this hefty task list, “Wade in the Water: A Journey Into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture” accomplishes all of it in a seemingly effortless manner.

Black surfing and aquatic culture have a long history, as the first recorded surfing was in 1640 (prior to any recorded surfing in Polynesia) in Atlantic Africa. As Atlantic Africa has few natural harbors, surfing, swimming, and the ocean were a vital part of life and developed based out of need. Water as a dominant feature of Atlantic African life continues to be the case even today. In its recitation of history, the film points out that there is a lack of record regarding surfing during the time of the global slave trade, which is intentional. But history written by the victors, (in the case of United States, white male slave owners) is not the only evidence that matters. Evidence of the tradition of surfing and aquatic culture can be proven by looking at the artifacts of the time and also inferred from the documented rules in place regarding water life. For example, wooden boards (similar in appearance to surf boards) crafted by slaves have been found all along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. Additionally, that the punishment for slaves who ventured into the water was so intense for those escaping via the water and that they were made examples of, further evidences that Black water culture did not end or pause with slavery, it just went underground (or rather underwater as the case may be).

It is not just the historical record of a more distant past that the film sets straight, but also one of a modern-day U.S. “Wade in the Water: A Journey Into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture” documents the history of Black surfing culture in the U.S. back to the 1940s and highlights iconic figures, both women and men, all the way to the present day. This representation is necessary because as the film itself notes, “Hollywood is so responsible for what the world knows as beach culture, particularly American beach culture, and Black people [have been] excluded.” And as many of the Black surfers noted, being black gives them a different experience in the water than the traditional white surfer. Documenting this history and creating these communities answers the questions of “who do I look up to.”

A major theme of the film is the joy and passion for surfing, so much joy is had that for many it is spiritual experience. Being in the water—for Black people especially—represents safety, blessings, home, meditative time, and healing. The representation in this film and the emphasis on the spirituality ultimately says, “We have a connection to the ocean and that there is more history of Black people in the water than what they teach us.”

This connection to the water is what led to the founding of the many organizations featured in the film (like Black.Surfers, Black Surfers Collection, Color the Water, Sofly Surf School, and more). With the communal need for black and brown people reclaiming space in nature and to fight racist barriers precluding them from those spaces with joy (in this case joy for the water and this sport) these organizations stand for the principle that passion trumps adversity, every time.

In fact, this film only exists due to communal support and personal passion. The director, David Mesfin, a surfer himself, began this project out of his love for surfing, having never before directed a film. The executive producer, Beyin Abraha, also a surfer, had never executively produced a film prior to this one. And to top it off, the film had sponsors, but not full sponsorship. Regardless, passion prevailed, collective passion. The community rose to support this film and fill in the gaps. People with archival footage provided it gratis and others were all too happy to give an interview or share connections and knowledge.

Ultimately, the viewer is left with a feeling that the tides are turning. The world of surfing is changing (“the water is getting more colorful and more seasoned,” as one of the Q&A panelists opined). This film is a necessary part of that journey to a different future. As Kayiita Johansson, Founder of Black.Surfers pointed out, “The fact that ‘Wade in the Water: A Journey Into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture’ was being shown in Oakland, on the weekend of Juneteeth, was its own lifting of the veil.” And indeed, it was.

For more information on “Wade in the Water: A Journey Into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture” please visit or on Instagram @davidmesfinart. The film can be viewed at the various events and film festivals listed on their site and is currently seeking a distributor and hopes to be streaming in 2024.

A. M. Larks’s writing has appeared in NiftyLit, Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Five on the Fifth, Charge Magazine, and the ZYZZYVA and Ploughshares blogs. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current assistant managing editor and blog editor, as well as the former photography editor at Kelp Journal, the former fiction editor at Please See Me, and former blog editor at The Coachella Review. A. M. Larks earned an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside at Palm Desert, a JD, and a BA in English Literature.


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