We used to play Nigger Under the Woodpile at the pool

By Christopher Cudworth

Getting back in the pool after years away is a sensory immersion.

Getting back in the pool after years away is a sensory immersion.

The back of my hands smell like it. The pool. Like chlorine. I swam today the best I could, without treading too much water.

Payed attention to the way my arms cut past my ears. The hands, gripping water and letting it go. And the breathing. Don’t forget to breathe when you swim, people. But when all else fails, know how to tread water.

The hardest part for me is getting the breathing down. The swim strokes feel natural enough because I started swimming as a kid and swam with the Swim Club at Meadia Heights Pool south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We drove around to other pools in the area for swim meets.

Getting there

Swim Clubs. All skin and chlorine.

Swim Clubs. All skin and chlorine.

I can remember the hot feeling in my face when a seventh grade girl sat on my lap the whole way to one of the meets. There were six of us jammed together in our swim suits in the back of some big old Buick. The girls with their summer hair falling over their faces giggled and shot glances at each other while the boys in their skimpy Speedos sat on the bottom row stiff and nervous. We were younger, these were older girls. Some even had breasts. Their warm thighs touched our warm thighs.

When we piled out at the pool it was wise for us to grab our towels for the walk to the gap in the chain link fence where the pool entrance awaited us. We were 4th or 5th grade boys. Surely the girls knew we suffered under their weight, yet we would not trade it for the world. That’s how it is with all relationships. A burden we welcome. Without the weight we feel alone.

Competitive Swimming

Then we plunged into the pool and tried to become weightless. That’s what you do when you go swimming. Float forward as fast as you can. For us boys with skinny bodies the floating required constant effort. Our strokes were frantic and full at the same time. Arm over arm over arm. Spray and kick and breathe and spit. Finish the 50 yards and try to stop breathing manically at the edge of the pool. Who touched first? Did I win?

We learned flip turns. Backstroke. Breast stroke (hee hee, we were 5th graders) and even butterfly. That was a tough one.

Moving on

Summers came and went. We grew older and for some reason Swim Club dissipated. Some adult probably lost interest. So we seldom raced anymore.

Yet we had all this youthful energy, and all these competitive instincts inside us. So we used the deep end of the pool to play a politically-incorrect game  called Nigger Under the Woodpile. There were no black kids at our pool, so no one felt nervous about the name of the game.

The Rules

Treading water.

Treading water.

We’d start with one swimmer treading water by the rope at the point where the deep end of the pool sloped up to the 6 foot deep area. Then we’d all try to dive into the deep end and swim past the rope before getting caught. We’d dive all the way to the bottom of the deep end, 10-12 feet down where our ears hurt from the pressure, and try to swim low along the concrete, touching bottom as we went, to slip under the rope before the person waiting by the rope could catch us.

In other words, those of us trying to get past the swimmer treading water were the niggers. At that age I could never figure out if that was meant to be an insult or not. The object of the game was to be the last one caught. It seemed to me that was something of an honor. Yet there was that word. Nigger.

Nigger politics

The word “nigger” is still a bit of choice cultural invective. Sure, it’s true that many black comedians use the word in defiant glee. And justifiably so. Taking ownership of a word like that, which implies some sort of racial inferiority, and spitting it back out like pool water is the right thing to do. Own it, don’t groan it.

The 1960s

Of course it was 1965 back when us kids used the word nigger in our swimming game.

It did not occur to us why there were no black children at our country club swimming pool, and our main goal in life was to get the darkest tan we could in the summer months. Our skin turned brown and tan lines were crisp as lines of chocolate on our bodies. The white skin of our butts resembled the Coppertone Girl. Our main goal was to be tan and happy.

But in truth, the game Nigger Under the Woodpile was hard. If you were the person on the rope, catching that first swimmer was a Major Deal. Without help you could go several rounds standing on the rope, treading water while a raucous line of 15-20 kids made fun of you from the edge of the pool. You’d feel rage, then fear and finally determination trying to tread water and not get tired. Then they’d dive in again and if you were lucky, finally some tired swimmer would get caught, and there’d finally be the helper you need, and that would make the game slightly easier. Soon another would get caught, and another. Then there’d be 10, then 12, then 15 kids all waiting to catch the next nigger trying to get under the woodpile.

Tables turned

Or was it the other way around? Who really was the nigger? Was it the kids trying to get past the rope or the person standing on the pool rope when the lifeguards would yell at us if we were too tired from still trying to catch the next swimmer and stood on the rope to cheat.

I used to get confused about the whole nigger thing. But I did not dare try to figure that out or ask someone what the game really meant. All I knew was that the word Nigger was not a good word. I knew not to use that word when playing with my black friends at the school grounds in downtown Lancaster where my brother played his baseball games. I liked those kids. We had fun together, playing tag and throwing baseballs around. Race didn’t matter.

Awareness

Were race riots properly labelled?

Were they properly called race riots?

But race was an issue, I knew. I watched lots of TV in the 1960s and race riots were some of the lead stories. Something in me felt compelled to listen and learn. We talked about it some in school. It all added up to social awareness. Things were clearly changing in the world, but it wouldn’t come easily. Society was treading water between surges of progress.

Already we’d lost John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, both shot by someone the authorities seemed to want to hide from us. My young mind understood that the Kennedy legacy had stood for a brand of justice worth pursuing, yet some people hated it. It struck a deep chord with me that someone hated them for trying to do the right thing and make society a better place for all to live. It made me suspicious about the world to think that conspiracies could be afoot, and that guns could accomplish so much harm. It also occurred to me for the first time that people could be aggressive in hiding the truth if they felt they had to. I saw that even among my friends. Truth was a harsh divider.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The man who saw far beyond black and white. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The man who saw far beyond black and white. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Later a conspiratorial fate would strike Martin Luther King, Jr. It made me angry to think that someone thought it was right to shoot another person because they did not agree with what they had to say, or because they were black. What did that even mean?

It would not be until later in life that I would come to understand anything about what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was actually about. What I thought I knew back then was that he was fighting for equal rights for black people. It turns out what he was really fighting for was equal rights for all people. He perceptively realized that prejudice was in fact a burden on everyone, both the perpetrators and the oppressed.

“I have decided to stick with love,” he said, “Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Out of darkness

How brilliant, I thought. People don’t know how much work being prejudiced and hateful really is. It’s like being that person on the rope in the swimming pool, waiting for everyone else to come at you and you’re feeling all alone and very tired. At that point it doesn’t matter who the nigger is. Hate makes us all niggers. Love removes that stigma. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” King also said, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Liberal faith

It all made sense to me perhaps because I was a churchgoing kid. It also made sense because my mother was a school teacher. She consistently told me to treat everyone well. Later in life she would become a Unitarian, and I used to kid her about that by reciting a joke that went like this: “What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Klu Klux Klan member? Someone who burns a question mark in your lawn.”

She’d laugh, but she took her liberal faith seriously. As do I. People who knew her loved her intellectual side. They also knew that she loved friendship and equality. She taught me that at the heart of all faith is respect, then trust, and love. You can’t have one without the other, and it applies to all people.

Devoutness

When she died in 2005, I organized her memorial service at the Unitarian Congregation she attended. Some friends commented afterward that it was the most devout such event they ever attended. That made me happy, because it seems that liberal faith is so often criticized as being inferior to the more conservative brand. It’s simply not true, unless you value social dogma more important than considerate living.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. captures the challenge of that balance with this quote: “Nothing in this world is more dangerous that sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Which aligns with a quote from noted humorist Mark Twain, who once said, “All you need is ignorance and confidence, and success is sure.”

Costs

But what cost do we pay for ignorant success? That is the principle upon which oppression wrongly moves, and through which prejudice gains the dark wings of power.

When I grew old enough to wrestle with theology and actually read some of the speeches made by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it helped me realize that here was a man with far greater insight than me, who understood suffering and inequality in ways that I perhaps never could, yet who advocated peaceful resistance to even the most brutal kinds of repression, prejudice and injustice.

Sure, Reverend King had flaws. He succumbed to temptation here and there. That’s why we have the Lord’s Prayer. To remind us that we are all flawed people, and that forgiveness is something we must work for, and offer equally.

Innocence lost and found

I think back to the “innocent” days of playing Nigger Under the Woodpile in our country club pool and the bright, sunny afternoons we spent tanning our skin, eating mustard pretzels and drinking Coca-Cola. Some of us recognized there were things wrong with the world, but what could we really do about that? We were just a bunch of skinny kids in a swimming pool. Or were we?

It that pool had been racially integrated, we might have more readily learned more about the people a large portion of American society in that era still called niggers. We would certainly not have continued playing “nigger in the woodpile,” because we’d have had black friends all around us. Fortunately, we’re getting there. We’re not there yet, but the “pool” of America is becoming more integrated. That’s where society has made the most progress.

The next generation of adults seems like it finally sees race less as a factor in friendships and culture. In fact it’s the opposite. It’s like you’re not really grown up unless you have diversity in your friend network. What a great thing. What an absolutely overdue insight.

I Have A Dream

I can’t speak for him, but it seems like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have loved that type of society, where people are seeking insight rather than exclusivity when it comes to race. His great speech “I Have a Dream” is worth a watch because it calls us all to a better world. We have a black President of the United States. Yet there are so many issues beyond that fact that remain to be addressed.

Learning how to think

It’s all part of an education we all need. This is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had to say about learning: “The function of education is to think intensively and think critically. Intelligence plus character––that is the goal of true education.”

It has taken time and perhaps a different path than even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might have imagined, but America may be coming around to the point where racial equality is the norm, not the exception. It is a rather sad that the party of Abraham Lincoln that helped end slavery in America now seems obsessed with voter suppression and other closeted attempts at racism, but we’ll see how that washes out in the end. 

All kinds of diversity

It struck me one day while listening to a series of black musicians on Spotify that the brilliance of their music defies categories. It also taught me that I’m still treading water in terms of understanding all that blacks and people of other color have had to face in a society that has too long leveraged social imbalance as a means to gain (and maintain) social privilege and power. I’ve always felt there is some shared constitution in discrimination with creative people, but that connection has yet to be fleshed out, shall we say.

The day known as Martin Luther King Day is Monday, January 20. I’m going to try to do something other than tread philosophical water in the days leading up to the holiday. The woodpile is still there, you see. We still need to cross it to think and work, to earn our keep––and freedom.

It’s just time we called it something different, to stop living in separate worlds as if that gives us greater insight. It doesn’t. And it can’t. 

Swim practice

These are the things I thought about today while I swam. I haven’t done the sport in years, and it’s hard to make progress. That’s what our sports and our memories can teach us. How to make progress. WeRunandRideLogo

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About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @gofast and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and at 3CCreativemarketing.com. Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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2 Responses to We used to play Nigger Under the Woodpile at the pool

  1. JimRoberts says:

    This guy is obviously a Jew or a cuck. What a pathetic piece of liberal guilt and attempted “coming of age” tale. I bet those girls sitting on your lap was all the action you ever got until women realized they could use you as an ATM.

    • Well, that’s an interestingly racist, misogynistic response. So glad you shared it. And it’s not about liberal guilt at all, but about the fact our nation have grown past the levels of stupidity and casually racist habits that once dominated our culture. But perhaps angry fucks such as the likes of you have obviously never grown up one whit, and likely never will. So have fun voting for Donald Trump and flying your Confederate flag. Dickwad.

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