Local doctoral student urges a revival of African aquatic skills
Aquatics in the Black community is often plagued with stigma and has been for some time. But local Ph.D. student and athletic trainer Ayanna Rakhu believes that there is reckoning in the Black community’s return to the water.
Ayanna Rakhu is currently completing her degree in kinesiology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. “I am all things fitness, wellness, alignment and health,” she says, “and I have a background in athletic training.”
While Rakhu just recently received her scuba diving certification from the U of M, her passion for swimming began at an earlier time and a very significant season of her life when she was pregnant with her daughter,
“Being pregnant with her brought me back to myself. When I was pregnant, I just had this urge to swim,” she says. “The connection was just intense, and I remembered the importance of water in my life.”
After five years, Rakhu is actively continuing her mission in health and aquatics.
Diving for slave ships
While there is not much Black representation within the aquatic field, Rakhu has developed a mission that links back to the Black community. “I had the opportunity to take the [scuba diving] course at the University of Minnesota, and I found out about a group called Diving with Purpose. They are a group of Blacks and Africans that go diving for slave ships.”
Rakhu believes that through her voyage back to the water, to the depths of the sea, will not only allow her to uncover the earliest relics of the African people being brought to America via the transatlantic slave trade, but perhaps also counteract the false stigma that has kept the Black community ashore.
Aquatics and maritime in Black history
In her studies, Rakhu has uncovered startling factoids about how aquatics have played a major role in Black history. “We [Black people] were the best swimmers, divers, fishermen, boaters; if you go back to the 1400s, Europeans were not swimming. That was something that they stole from us. They were barely sailing boats, and they used us for their maritime work,” she explains.
Water was also integral to childhood development. “When you think about Africa, on each side there are coasts. Even inland there are so many rivers and bodies of water. As African people, we were taking our kids to water before they could walk. We were teaching them to swim before they could walk.”
Changing the narrative
Expecting to graduate with her doctorate in summer 2021, Rakhu has centered her dissertation topic on the Black community’s return to the water. “If I’m going to go back to get this Ph.D., it has to be about something that I am passionate about, aquatics, and the importance of Black people swimming not only for recreation but for healing and also for occupation.”
She encourages Black families, especially mothers, to embrace the water and to pass it on to the next generation, much as she shared a bond through water with her own daughter during her pregnancy. “It’s something that we need as an option for our kids. [Tell them, you can be a fisherman, you can sail ships, you can scuba dive, you can be a lifeguard, you can teach swimming lessons.
“It’s about creating a new narrative where Black women are teaching their own children how to swim, and we are not reaching out to these predominately White organizations. It’s about releasing that generational curse.”