4 min read

Atena Writes to Reclaim the Water

As promised, more details about my project in-progress…
For years I assumed terror was just a Black girl's lot in life. Now? I want the water back.

- Atena O. Danner, Fear of Water

[Image description: Within the POOL exhibit in Philadelphia, PA, Atena stands in front of a large poster featuring a photo of a large group of young Black people in bathing suits and swim caps, posed along the edge of a swimming pool.]

Inspiration for the Project: Swimming

It really hit me as I was listening to Janelle Monáe’s song, Waterslide.

I’ve heard the nonsense about Black bodies being unable to swim: racist pseudoscience to explain what history makes clear (if you happen to know the story). In recent years I’ve learned the extent to which Black people are unable to swim in this and other countries, and that it was not always so; our ancestors were highly skilled swimmers, surfers, divers and canoeists. That lineage has been significantly lost and now, in 2023, most of us cannot swim to save our lives. Literally.

According to the drowning and submersion report released by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) there are “stark racial disparities in drowning fatalities.”

Out of the 63 percent of all drowning fatalities involving children whose race is identified, African American children made up 21 percent of all drownings.

For older children – aged 5 to 14 with race identified – 45 percent of drowning deaths involved African Americans.

Water is life. Yet our people are dying in the water, and passing fear of swimming down generations. According to another study from the American Academy of pediatrics:

Some of the contributing factors to higher drowning rates, particularly among Black children, are poor swimming skills in both children and their parents, lack of swim training during childhood, and lack of lifeguards at motel and hotel pools

The fact is our ancestors had the skills and cultural knowledge to swim and navigate waters that non-swimming Europeans considered hellish and treacherous. And yet the contemptible mythology persists that Black people are naturally inferior in the water.

Healing Justice and Reclaiming the Water

Look around and notice how many Black people are telling water stories. These stories are surfacing all around us.

I am working on a book of narrative verse and poetic prose that explores histories of how aquatic culture has been stolen from Black people in the U.S. branches of the Diaspora, including some history and speculative poetics to conjure healing along the lineages and waterways where these harms have taken place. I hope to inspire Black people to reclaim aquatics and to move toward embracing swimming as a source of pleasure, joy, and healing (thank you, Janelle Monáe!) in addition to being a lifesaving skill. I have begun writing and am engaged in ongoing research, including my own swim lessons.

[Image description: Atena at the pool of Comfort Suites Hotel, with a towel draped over her shoulders, and a swimming cap on her head.]

This work is informed with a healing justice and social justice lens, rooted in my organizing and activist life where I amplify movement work with my creative work in and around Chicago. I often write pieces to share at events led by local organizers, and have led groups in musical protest and collective song to unify and focus group energy at events. I’ve been a part of Lifted Voices for 9 years; a collective that has provided radical education, direct action training, and mutual aid support in defense of Black and Brown women, femmes and queerfolk. I am also part of an org called Surviving the Mic, which supports survivors of gender-based violence by cultivating brave creative spaces where survivors can generate and share writing and receive survivor-centered facilitation and feedback. Working with these groups has provided me with priceless education about how creativity and social justice are each necessary to the other.

The Writers’ Retreat: Roots. Wounds. Words.

My acceptance into the Roots. Wounds. Words. (RWW) Winter Retreat will help me carve out wider spaces to build this current project. The purpose of RWW is to advance social justice through the creative work of BIPOC writers. Look around and notice how many Black people are telling water stories. These stories are surfacing all around us. The stories of how our aquatic lineages facilitated survival, resistance, and freedom have been suppressed for too long, and I am called to help bring them forward. During this writing retreat I plan to write more, read more, and connect with other artists.

In the lineage of Lucille Clifton, Toni Morrison, and my mother, Marilynn Danner, I write when I can, according to available time and space. The RWW writers retreat will help me make a lot of progress in a small amount of time. My goal as a writer is to communicate love for my people, offer respect to the reader, and remind folks that they/we are connected in ways that call us to action. You can help bring this project to life with your support!

Support Atena and Bring These Stories To Light

I’m about halfway to raising the cash I need to pay for the retreat tuition. Here are three ways you can support this exciting work:

Money: Please invest in the telling of these important stories and reclaiming of histories by donating to my Roots. Wounds. Words. Givelively fundraiser. Donating through this site is tax deductible!

Sharing: Share this post! Share my fundraiser page! Share my Instagram and Facebook (and ugh, Twitter) posts to help me get eyes on these hopeful requests.

Interaction: Shower these fundraising posts with likes and hearts and comments. Your interaction energy helps prevent my posts from getting suppressed.

Thank you for your attention and your energy, whatever form it takes. I look forward to sharing more of my work with you!

In solidarity,


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