The Black surfers paddling out for the love of the ocean

The Black surfers paddling out for the love of the ocean

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A Great Day in the Stoke at Huntington Beach is a celebration of Black surfing and a call to make surfing inclusive for all.

A Great Day in the Stoke might sound like a cheesy name for an event. But it’s actually brilliant. It references A Great Day in Harlem, an iconic photo taken by Art Kane in 1958 that features 57 of the most prominent Jazz musicians of the day. Commissioned by Esquire Magazine and featuring the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie and Pee Wee Russell, the image immortalises a golden generation of African American musicians who wove Jazz music into the patchwork quilt of the American cultural experience, forever.

On the 40th anniversary of Kane’s image in 1998, XXL Magazine commissioned photographer Gordon Parks to shoot 177 Hip Hop artists and producers at the same location, creating another iconic image – A Great Day in Hop Hopwhich announced Hip Hop’s arrival as the dominant force in American pop culture.

Building on this tradition, African American surfers came together at Huntington Beach on September 16 for A Great Day in the Stoke, to celebrate Black surfing and push for full inclusion of the Black experience within the surfing community. Like the Jazz and Hip Hop artists who gathered in front of that East 126th Street Brownstone, these surfers represent a generation determined to dismantle barriers to People of Colour in surfing and make a powerful statement of the Black surf community’s strength and unity.

This is the second year that surfers from across the US and around the world have met on Huntington Beach to create a safe space for Black surfers to connect, compete and celebrate stories of Black pioneers who have been surfing since the 1950s. And, of course, they took a huge group photograph to honour the occasion.

Founder and event director Nathan Fluellen is ecstatic with the turnout of around a thousand. Nathan is the creator and host of Escape with Nate: In Search of Black Utopia and award–winning World Wide Nate: African Adventures, where he encourages People of Colour to travel and experience the world. Following decades of Black people being excluded from the water, Nathan stresses that this event is open to everyone – and A Great Day in the Stoke fills Huntington Beach with music and lively interaction. As surfers enter the water, they run through a human tunnel to the sound of encouraging cheers.

A Great Day in the Stoke truly has the feel of a family reunion – which makes Tony Corley and Rick Blocker its proud uncles. Tony fell in love with surfing in the heady days of the early 1960s. After spending years as one of the few Black surfers in the line-up, he began spreading the word that he was looking for other ‘Black Surfing Brothers.’ Among tons of positive responses, he received an anonymous, spelling-error-riddled letter full of threats, racist sketches and slurs about why Black people should stay out of the water.

The threatening letter did nothing to dent Tony’s enthusiasm for bringing Black surfers together – in fact, it illustrated perfectly why his efforts were so necessary – and he has continued growing the Black Surfing Association since its foundation in 1975. Tony has been supported along the way by visionaries such as Malibu surfer Rick Blocker, who first ventured into the waves in 1964 and, for decades, has carried the mantle of Black surfing historian and advocate.

Few beaches have played a bigger role in the evolution of surf culture than Huntington Beach, California, aka Surf City USA. The beach, pier and wave fill chapters of professional surfing history books, from the early US Surfing Championships in the 1960s until today. HB hosted the notable OP Pro events of the ‘80s that saw legends like Occy, Curren, Frieda Zamba, Barton Lynch, Pam Burridge and Sunny Garcia in pro surfing’s halcyon days, battling in front of not only huge live crowds but national television audiences (plus the little OP Pro Riot incident of 1986). Today, HB is the site of the World Surf League’s US Open of Surfing, where World Tour heavies mix it up with top Qualifying Series rippers each summer as part of a massive boardsports festival.

But California has some skeletons hanging next to the wetsuits in its closet. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, Jim Crow laws were adopted by states and municipalities to enforce all-White spaces and prevent Black people from equal participation in society. Despite The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbidding segregation, it failed to entirely root out systemic racism, whose effects are still felt to this day.

“A Great Day in the Stoke celebrates Black surfers’ existence without the burden of protesting another tragedy against Black bodies.”

A Great Day in the Stoke

Ted Woods’ 2011 documentary White Wash and numerous surf scholars have documented how Jim Crow laws kept Black families away from the waves, beaches, swimming holes and even public pools – to the point where generations of African Americans have grown up with little-to-no connection to the water, much less to surfing. With such minimal representation of People of Colour, many in the Black community have long seen surfing as an Anglo-Saxon sport, e.g. not for them. For decades, Black surfers have faced barriers to break into White-dominated line-ups.

Like many beach towns, the very White, coastal city of HB was not particularly welcoming to Black families as it grew. While surfing looks like a groovy and accepting subculture from a distance, its history contains plenty of instances that suggest otherwise.

In Southern California, only two beaches weren’t segregated. According to the California Historical Society, there was a Black Beach Club being built in 1925 on the shores of Huntington Beach, specifically for families from Los Angeles, where the coast had already been staked out by White communities. As it neared completion, thousands of African Americans began arriving here for events and recreation. But shortly before the Black Beach Club official opening, it was burned to the ground and never rebuilt.

“In the US, because of our dark history, past generations didn’t have access to the water,” explains Paul Godette. “We didn’t have water skills. We were uneducated to surfing and beach culture because of systemic issues. Then with coastal development and land grabbing from where African Americans lived near beaches, it’s a whole lot to overcome.”

Now 28, Paul grew up in Rockaway, Queens, NYC’s de-facto beachfront, a dependable surf spot, just a short train ride from Brooklyn. His father was a surf fisherman, Paul was a skater then trained to become a lifeguard, so surfing was the next logical step.

“You think one plus one equals two, but surfing isn’t that easy,” he laughs. Eventually, he earned a spot in the line-up. “There weren’t many Black surfers when I was growing up. But there were enough that I knew I’d be fine.”

Paul attended the 2022 event and competed this year, which filled him with inspiration. “It was amazing to surf with all these professionals that I’ve been watching online like Shama Beckford from Jamaica and Charif Fall from Senegal,” Paul reflects. “Connecting with the Black surf community in California, to see what they’re doing, to catch up and maybe get a session or two – it really felt like a family reunion with a competition thrown into the mix.”

“I feel so much love and support that I want to take back to my own community.”

S’nenhlanhla Makhubu

Many of the surfers here today participated in paddle-outs (a ritual for surfers to honour the dead and end hostilities) held in reaction to the police murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, as well as other racial incidents in the water. But A Great Day in the Stoke was conceived in 2022 as an event to celebrate Black existence and give surfers an invitation to enjoy the water as they are – without the burden of protesting another tragedy against Black bodies.

Nathan considers the growth in female participation a highlight of the event, with 17 competitors this year, to last year’s six. He adds that 75 people have taken part in the beach yoga and surf lessons, and tourism organisation Visit Huntington Beach is one of his sponsor partners.

21-year-old South African surfer, S’nenhlanhla Makhubu not only attended the event but won the Women’s Division. Growing up in Durban, she was the only Black surfer in the water. South Africa’s own brutal history of racial oppression is well-known and Apartheid also kept non-Whites out of the water. Her father is a lifeguard and her mother is a traditional healer. Their childhoods were very different to her own.

“When my parents were growing up, they would swim in rivers and lakes, but the beach and the ocean were not part of their culture,” S’nenhlanhla explains. “Because my father became a lifeguard, he would take me after school to play at the beach. Today, Black people come down to the beach because they live in town, close to the water.”

She credits the nonprofit Surfers Not Street Children that offers surfing to underprivileged children in South Africa and Mozambique for teaching her and many others to surf. She has competed for years but is now more focused on fitness and a career in sports management. “Surfing isn’t only about competing but also a way for kids and adults to heal, creating an opportunity for them to be their best selves,” she says.

“Huntington is very accommodating and it’s been a big turnout,” she says, adding that just being on the beach in Huntington with female surfers close to her age feels uplifting. “There’s yoga, food and music. It’s a very vibey day. I feel so much love and support that I want to take back to my own community,” she says.

“Great Day is a dope event,” Godette muses, “It brings together Black surfers from all around the globe. Huntington is already a famous surf destination and this puts Black people surfing front and centre for American surf culture.”

Much like those African American Jazz and Hip Hop musicians did in decades past.

Find out more about A Great Day in the Stoke, which returns to Huntington Beach on September 14, 2024.

Follow writer Jon and photographer Earl on Instagram.

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