Intro “Can we see the men that fall down”
“Mommy and daddy”, I would say as a little boy excitedly, as we got closer to the beach, “can we see the men that fall down”? My mother would always entertain my lack of vocabulary and say, “what men”? I would say, “the men in the water”. She would laugh and say, “sure” but ever the teacher, she would follow up with, “you know they call it surfing” and I would say to her with a mischievous smile, “but I like watching them fall down”. Because to me, the magic of surfing at that young age and now in my 40’s is that people go out to the waves on a board of varying sizes knowing they are going to fall, even looking forward to a wipe out or falling off the surfboard. While my earliest memories of surfing are mostly happy times, there are times in my family’s experience and my personal experience where the beach has been an unwelcoming place even before I got to the waves. In this paper I hope to share with you how I became a “man who falls down” and who enjoys helping others enjoy the fall.
My 1st Wave
When I was 10 years old I caught my first wave at Tamarack Beach in Carlsbad, California and little did I know it was very much like when my West African ancestors who caught theirs on a small board, laying flat on our bellies as I learned when I later watched the film White Wash (1). Sure there are other documents that show that there was surfing in ancient Hawaii and most surfers trace their learning how to surf back to Hawaii but I am a Black surfer and this is my story. My cool older friend, most people in life get one, Gaano Gadson was a 16-year-old Black man who had a car and a job. He always brought beautiful women and girls of all ethnicities with him in his car, a 1980 Monte Carlo. It looked like a beige hat riding down the street. He was tall, had a California curl (not to be confused with the more chemically laden Gheri curl), with a blonde streak down the middle, and loved to go to the beach. On this day he let me borrow a “boogie board”. I said it a few times to make sure I was getting it right. I thought, it was a Black American vernacular thing (i.e. get down and boogie baby) that helped to name the board and being that I loved Black people, I was down with the get down. Well, I was not a good swimmer but Gaano and the women were on their boogie boards kicking and paddling their way out to bigger waves and I went right along with them. We laughed and told funny stories and just enjoyed the sun and cool water. Then, out of no-where it seemed to me, yet seemed to Gaano know, because he told me to” hold on!" Immediately after that I was taken by a wave. All I could do was hold on and try not to scream because water would have been in my mouth. The wave shoved me down in the ditch and then back up on top of itself, I spun around in a 360 degree turn on top of the wave, then a 180 where I was going backward, and just before I got used to that Idea, I was flipped over like a washing machine and before I could finally scream, “HELP”, the ride was over and I had fallen into a hole in the sand underwater but was still about 10 yards from shore. I tried my best to swim but then a thick white wash wave just pushed me and the board separately to different parts of the beach and I laid their exhausted yet I had a smile on my face. I had fallen—in love.
But You’re Not a Strong Swimmer
I came home and told my parents I wanted to learn to surf but they told me, “we got you all those swimming lessons but you are still not a strong swimmer”. I replied without missing a beat, “but the board will keep me up”. My mother was skeptical but my father obliged my joyous yet incessantly annoying requests for a boogie board. Over the years when I was a teenager and especially when I learned to drive I went boogie boarding whenever the chance presented itself a few times a year. However, when I wanted to learn to surf in high school my parents were not as enthusiastic. I thought it was something I did but I started to put the pieces together slowly over the next 20 years because I gave up on surfing but never forgot how much I loved that waves. I went to college in a land locked area (North Alabama) and I chose a profession as an educational psychologist that kept me very busy early in the morning when most people surfed. However, I never forgot the joy of the waves.
Faith in the African Diaspora
When I was in college, I attended a historically Black college that was actually more multicultural than anything I had experienced before or since. I met Black people from the Caribbean, England, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Germany, Kenya, The Netherlands, and a strange place called New York. All of them were determined to live their dreams. When I returned home for graduate school at San Diego State I had a little time one day to watch two films, Step Into Liquid (4) and Endless Summer II (2). ESII was an update of an earlier classic film titled, The Endless Summer (3). The more modern films were so beautifully done I felt the same way I did as a little boy and I asked a friend to let me borrow a surf board after a trip and a failed lesson in Kauai. I came home to California from the Hawaiian Islands and in a month I was up surfing. I taught myself my own bad habits but I was surfing!!! As I become more addicted to surfing I finally saw this older classic film, Endless Summer and the so called surfer humor in the film as they talked about Black people from Africa and White people from Africa. They mocked the Black people when they went surfing in Ghana yet lavished praise on the White people, especially the White women in bikinis in segregated South Africa (Azania). They failed to mention the segregation in the USA or in Azania during their jokes. They did not mention it in their updated films either. I was a little down about this mostly White person’s sport I had grown to love but I had faith in the concept of Sankofa (5) and the power the ancestors that Black life had asserted itself and thrived. I went on a search, much like the founder of the Black Surfing Association (BSA) (6) Tony Corley had done over 30 years prior to me.
I searched the internet for anything related to Black surfing. I found the BSA and a film called White Wash. Both the BSA and the film highlighted the history of swimming being segregated in the USA and by extension, beaches where Black people could learn to surf were segregated. Once I saw the film and read about the BSA I realized, my parents, decades ago in their kind hearts did not want me to be disappointed by being met with segregationist minded people at the beach or in the water. Surfers can be very territorial over their breaks but my mother who was raised in the 1950s and 1960s segregated Southern USA knew just how violent White people could react if a lone Black person dares to enter what had been an exclusively White space. I understand why they had so weakly supported my efforts to surf when they had supported me so strongly in every other area in life. My mother and I have grown since then. I did learn to swim better because I wanted to surf stronger. She talks more about the segregated South in public and is my greatest fan when it comes to my surfing. She often tells random strangers she meets, “You know, my son surfs! Here, let me show you a video of him on my smartphone”.
Conclusion – I fall down
Today, I surf every week and most weeks 2 or 3 times a week! This year is my 10th year of surfing and I plan to catch over 1000 waves in a year. I also have the privilege and honor of being a part of the Black Surfers Collective (BSC) (7) that helps to bring diversity in the surfing line-up by teaching all types of people to surf but especially many people who live in site of the beach but who have never been to the beach for similar histories as I wrote about above. I did not start surfing until I was 35 years old. Twenty- five years seemed like nothing because that desire to surf never left me and now I cannot imagine a time in my life when I was not a surfer. For me, and many of my friends, to be a surfer is a state of being. We talk with the Creator in the water and the eternal Creator answers us with waves of abundant power and joy, thus time stands still and changes. For 50 seconds of joy (i.e. 5 waves at 10 seconds) a surfer will paddle around for 50 minutes but leave the water only remembering those 50 seconds. A spiritual healer and friend of mine says, “You are only at home in the water”. I am not sure what that means but when I think about it I want to fall down and smile.
Dr. Brandon E. Gamble is a surfer who grew up Oceanside, California in the United States. He is an American version of an African. He became an educational psychology college professor at Cal State University Long Beach so he could have more time to surf and develop his business as consultant and personal coach.
1) White Wash DVD - https://www.amazon.com/White-Wash-Ben-Harper/dp/B005EHNXPI
2) The Endless Summer DVD - https://www.amazon.com/Endless-Summer-Robert-August/dp/6305837384
3) The Endless Summer II DVD - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Endless_Summer_II
4) Step Into Liquid - https://www.amazon.com/Step-Into-Liquid-Laird-Hamilton/dp/B0001FGBUC/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1475596817&sr=1-1&keywords=step+into+liquid+dvd
5) Sankofa defined - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sankofa
6) Black Surfing Association - http://www.blacksurfingassociation.org
7) Black Surfers Collective - http://www.blacksurferscollective.org