International Mother Earth Day 2016: SoCal Black Surf Culture
By Leah Gillis
While every day we should be respecting the earth, around the world Earth Day, today, is one marked for us to do it. With people planting trees and harvesting fruits, climbing mountains and cleaning up the oceans, from Brazil to Vancouver and St. John to Ghana, it’s a day we all give thanks for our planet earth.
Let’s face it: the best part of nature is when we get to enjoy it, a fact brought into clearer focus when I spoke with Alison Rose Jefferson, a Los Angeles based historian with a specialty in African American leisure. Access to the beauty of Los Angeles beaches historically by African Americans was not something I had actually thought much about, despite living here. Luckily this woman is doing important work documenting it.
For example, Nick Gabaldon was California’s first documented African American and Mexican surfer, living in the early 1900s. He will be celebrated on June 4 with Nick Gabaldon Day by Heal the Bay and other Southern California groups that host a day of beach fun. And as Jefferson told me,
The Ink Well was the nickname known for a Los Angeles beach area frequented by African American. The image that comes to mind from the name seemed insulting to me, but Jefferson explained how its initial meaning was evolved by African Americans.
“From what we understand, that name [Ink Well] was the name that white people used to talk about sites like the beach near Pico and one near Martha’s Vineyard and one in North Carolina. It’s the name to illustrate the color of the people who frequented those places. And so that’s where the name comes from generally. We don’t have any other way to understand that. It was a derogatory term, but then African Americans repurposed it, to get rid of the negativity that whites put into it.”
Jefferson continued to explain, “In terms of the one here in Santa Monica, I found no written references to it as that [Ink Well], it’s been passed around through oral traditions, and in more contemporary times, in the last 10 years or so, the same has been put in print. And that’s through popular media and some scholarly publications.”
The site was landmarked in 2008 as The Ink Well, with Jefferson contributing to the writing on the plaque.
While there may be misconceptions about blacks and swimming, surfing is the same, however as Gabaldon proves, not only do blacks surf, but they’ve been doing it and well, for years.
If you didn’t know about Gabaldon then maybe you don’t know that there is a Black Surfers Collective that gives kids free lessons, encouraging all kids to learn to surf with their Pan African Beach Days. Their goal is to promote diversity in surfing, what better way to celebrate the earth than by everyone taking part in its glorious activities, with equal access.
Maybe this Earth Day, alongside cleaning up somewhere, we all vow to enjoy it more, especially when we realize how some people historically had challenges in doing so.
In addition to Pan African Beach Days, the Black Surfers Collective is a lead partner organization of Nick Gabaldon Day. This group came up with the programming in 2011 and Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Conservancy, among other organizations began supporting the event in 2012.