“Black people can’t swim” is a negative stereotype that has stuck around for years, and highlights the potentially negative relationship between Black people and water. However, director and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Cathleen Dean challenges that notion with her documentary, “Wade in the Water: Drowning in Racism.” The film reveals the history behind how Black people were kept out of the water due to racism and uncovers the special connection people of color have had with water.  As a result, Dean wants “Wade in the Water” to motivate more Black people to embrace the water and to encourage them to add swimming and other water activities into their daily routines.

Director and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Cathleen Dean

“The impact I’d like to leave on every audience that sees the film is that everyone should know how to swim. It’s unacceptable that Black children are drowning at six times the rate of Caucasian children,” Dean said. “As a community, we need to connect to the water for health, spirit, spirituality, and wellness. When there isn’t a connection, it is a huge loss.” 

“Wade in The Water: Drowning in Racism” premiered in 2021 at the Roxbury Film Festival in New England. The film has had a remarkable run as it has screened at multiple festivals, including the Miami International Film Festival, The World House Documentary Film Festival at Stanford University and San Francisco Art House Film Festival. “Wade in the Water” also aired on PBS and won an Emmy in the Societal Concerns category. Most recently, the documentary was featured at the Morehouse College Human Rights Film Festival in Atlanta..

“Showing at Morehouse College is huge for me. It’s huge for Diversity in Aquatics. They are an organization trying to restore the swimming programs at HBCUs across the country,” Dean said. “Morehouse College revamped its swimming program. So it’s super special that the film is going to screen there.”

“Wade in the Water” highlights the historical, spiritual, and cultural connection people of African descent have always had with the water. The film also explores the protests in Broward County, Florida to desegregate the beaches and pools. 

Dean was inspired to create the film when she took swimming lessons to train for her first triathlon. She joined the non-profit organization Diversity in Aquatics for swimming classes where she encountered Bruce Wigo, CEO and president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Wigo showed Dean an art exhibition he curated that chronicles the history of Africans and swimming.

“It was such an amazing exhibition; it spoke to me as an artist on so many levels. I want to share that story with the community and, hopefully, with the world that we had a very strong cultural connection with the water. Africans were the preeminent swimmers of their day before the slave trade and Jim Crow segregation,” Dean said.

The documentary has left an impression on those who have seen it. She said people have either picked up or returned to swimming after they watched “Wade in the Water.” In fact, Dean explained how people approached her a while after the screening and shared how they got back into the water.  

“I know of people who may have swam as a child but then started swimming again as an adult for health and wellness. It’s important to educate people who may not realize why their families didn’t have a swimming tradition. It’s highlighted in the film that if parents didn’t swim, they would encourage children not to go by the water as a form of protection,” Dean said.

Swimming is one of the best exercises anyone can do. It is a full-body workout with no impact on your joints or knees. According to Harvard Health Publishing, water supports and cushions the body. Also, swimming is often recommended for people with arthritis and other chronic conditions. The CDC adds that people are able to exercise longer in water than on land because of the lack of pressure on the joints. Even better, swimmers have about half the risk of death compared to inactive people.

What’s next for Dean is telling more water stories of people of color. She’s received the Artist Innovation Grant from Broward County’s cultural division and shooting has already begun for her next film, “Water is Medicine.” Dean is taking a plunge on this subject so more people of color can see the beauty of the water.