Continuing the theme of The Black Experience in NYC, NYCgo celebrates unique Black subcultures, communities and affinity groups through this new video series, The Freedom to Be. The series highlights NYC’s endless and often unexpected opportunities for Black communities and affinity groups—acknowledging the five boroughs’ abundance of vibrant ideas, expressions and cultures. A celebration of the diversity within Black culture in NYC, the series underscores the contributions of these communities and groups to NYC’s dynamism.
In this first episode we highlight the Black surf community in the Rockaways, hearing perspectives on the experience from author and former journalist Diane Cardwell, as well as the CEO of the NYC chapter of the Black Surfing Association, Lou Harris.
Diane Cardwell: My name is Diane Cardwell and I live in the Rockaways. I saw live surfing for the first time on the beach in Montauk, and I was just captivated. I stood there for about an hour and I watched and I thought, Oh, my God, maybe I could do that. I came back, took a lesson, was awful, but got to my feet for just a little while and was just completely in love with that feeling of grace and speed and power and just freedom, and I thought I need more of that in my life. I was like, I can get on a New York City subway. I can get on the A train and be out at a surf lesson within an hour. When I first started surfing in Rockaway Beach, there were very few other Black surfers in the water. There was really only one, Lou Harris, who lived here.
Lou Harris: My name is Lou Harris. I'm the East Coast founder of the Black Surfing Association. I live here in Rockaway. I've been here about 15 years. My connection to the Rockaways dates back to the late ’70s when my mother used to bring my twin brother and I during the summer when we were out of school. I could still hear the wood bouncing from the boardwalk, and we saw people surfing. The guy that I connected with on the beach is Brian “BJ” James. He gave me notoriety in the neighborhood, another Black surfer, and I’ve been swimming 45 years. Living in the Rockaways is like no other. It's different because it's a kind of place where you could surf and then an hour later go see a Broadway show, be at the museum. The Rockaways is definitely an inviting community for surfers coming from all walks of life. The best part about teaching people how to surf is seeing them catch their first wave. Their eyes light up and they paddle right back to go get another one, and it's a great feeling. To me to be a Black person and surfing, it means a lot. It means that I'm breaking down the stigma, changing the stereotype. What it feels like to be in the ocean is you are extremely free. It’s therapeutic. It makes you forget for a little bit.
Diane Cardwell: Everybody comes here in the pursuit of having a good time. Young Black kids who may have not felt like they had a place in the ocean or a place in the surf community now see that they do. And what that ends up doing is not just diversifying surfing, but it also gives them a sense of the importance of stewardship of the ocean and that is better for everybody. I would hope that the Black surf community in New York continues to grow and continues to get even more exposure, so that more and more Black people can see that surfing is an option for them in New York City.