On Thursday night at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, it took 52 seconds for Manuel to swim the fastest. And when she touched first in a tie, claiming an Olympic gold medal along with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter swimming finals, she claimed victory not only for herself but for an entire community.
“This medal is not just for me,” a tearful Manuel noted. “It is for some of the African Americans who have come before me. This medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find love and drive to get to this point.”
The significance of Simone Manuel’s victory rests not just with yet another swimming gold for the United States or another mark in the overall medal tally. Its importance even transcends the fact that she became the first—yes, in 2016—African-American female swimmer to win an individual Olympic medal.
Her joy and the importance of her victory cannot be understood outside of America’s bloodstained Jim Crow archives. Manuel's merely standing on the blocks and jumping into the water was a challenge in and of itself to “America’s most racist institution”: the swimming pool. And as she physically made history in Rio, she symbolically swam upstream against the long-standing history of exclusion and violence in America’s "contested waters."
Rather than integrate pools, rather than open up spaces of leisure and pleasure to African Americans (and Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans), white America closed public pools throughout America, protecting a separate and unequal future that continues today. The result: As of 2010, 7 out 10 black children could not swim. Black children are three times more likely to drown than their peers.
Manuel's victory was not just a triumph over this violent history and the persistent inequalities that are both ignored and normalized with racist arguments about a lack of black buoyancy. It is a victory for those who engaged in sit-ins, those who have been denied access to pools, those who found the police called when they attended pool parties, and those who fought and persevered within competitive swimming.
It is a victory for those competitive black swimmers who were told that they didn't have it, who were doubted, denied access to specialized coaches, and told their dreams and passions were unrealistic.
It is a victory for Maritza Correia McClendon, who was the first African-American woman to make an Olympic swim team, earning a silver medal as part of the 400-meter relay team. It is for Lia Neal and the next generation of black swimmers.
It is a victory for the many black girls who have endured being stereotyped and ridiculed, who have been mocked and criticized for being too concerned with their hair—factors such as pool access, finances and white supremacist beauty standards erased in order to perpetuate racist and dishonest narratives.
It is a victory for an Ohio girl, who in 2010 was told that the chemicals she used in her hair made the pool cloudy. When she arrived to swim during Memorial Day, she was confronted with a sign emblazoned with the words, "Public Swimming Pool, White Only" hanging from duplex’s pool gate.
It is a victory for the 60 kids in Northeast Philadelphia who in 2009 were kicked out of the Valley Swim Club because they “would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club.”
It is a victory for Takeitha Warner, 13, JaMarcus Warner, 14, JaTavious Warner, 17, Litrelle Stewart, 18, LaDarius Stewart, 17, and Latevin Stewart, 15, who in 2010 drowned in Louisiana's Red River. It is a victory for countless more African-American youths who drown, and their families, who have been casualties of American racism. It is a victory for those unnamed children whose lives will be saved, finding inspiration and opportunity to jump into the pool in light of Manuel’s victory.
It is a triumph for black youths who in 2015 were told to “return to Section 8 housing” after they tried to attend a pool party in a McKinney, Texas. It is a victory for Dajerria Becton, who was tackled and thrown to the ground by Police Officer Eric Casebolt for merely trying to swim.
It is a gold medal shared by those civil rights activists who risked their lives during swim-ins at pools and beaches throughout the 1960s. In the 1960s, Robert Hayling, a leader in the St. Augustine, Fla., civil rights movement, along with members of the NAACP Youth Council, engaged in wade-ins and swim-ins to protest white-only pools and beaches. Among the protesters were J.T. Johnson, who is black, and Al Lingo, who was white, both of whom jumped into the whites-only Monson Motor Lodge swimming pool in 1964. James Brock, its owner, responded by dumping acid into the pool, and the police responded by arresting the protesters.
Thursday night was a victory for them and countless more civil rights activists, who demanded the freedom to swim, who fought for the freedom in swimming.
Simone Manuel’s victory is for all black parents who taught their kids to swim, who spent countless hours and thousands of dollars amid a culture of stare and glares, exclusion and microaggressions. Mark Anthony Neal wrote about these sacrifices in The Undefeated: “Even as middle-class parents, my wife and I had to re-evaluate our own priorities because of both the financial and social costs of the sport."
It is a victory for so many black female athletes whose contributions in the sporting arena are merely a footnote in some history books. Simone Manuel, like members of the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team, like Wyomia Tyus and Serena Williams, is not only dominating on the playing field but also saying, “Black lives matter” outside the arena.
It is a victory not only over the past and the persistence of racial inequality inside America’s pools, but also for the future of black girls and boys, for an entire community.
It is a victory for black joy.
But at the heart of this story is just a girl. A girl with intense drive and vision. A girl who has excelled when the world told her she couldn't and told her she shouldn't. A girl who, even in her shining moment, put her people on her back—as so many black women and girls have done before her and will do after her.
So, while Manuel's historic win carries weight, it is our victory because it is her victory.
It is a victory for freedom.
David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullman.