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Gus Fleming, a former Encinitas resident who died in 2008, frequently surfed at Swami’s. Photo courtesy of Fleming Collection
Columns Waterspot

Waterspot: Is surfing diverse?

In the early 1960s, surfing in Southern California was dominated by young white males. This makes no sense since light-skinned people are more prone to skin cancer than darker ones. But we were young and foolish and years away from terms like “white privilege.” 

Our perception of what a surfer looked like was reinforced by the Beach Boys anthem “Surfin’ USA” when they sang that surfers wore “a bushy bushy blond hairdo.”

Like many surfers of my generation, I took the lyrics to heart and peroxided my raven black hair, which turned it orange, not blond.

Nobody knows where surfing began, but it is widely accepted to have its origins in Polynesia.

I think, however, that surfing is older than supposed, as old as humanity itself and may have shown up on the shores of Africa millennia before anyone now living had stumbled to their feet in the whitewater.

Of course, I can’t prove any of this, but it does make me wonder why there are currently so few blacks in the lineup.

In my over half a century as a surfer, I have only traded waves with a handful of black surfers. One of them, the late, great Buttons Kaluhiokalani had African American roots.

Another was among the better surfers to ride Swami’s through the ’80s, my friend, everyone’s friend, Encinitas local Gus Fleming.

Gus, who sadly passed away some time ago, had a fast, loose style, and I can still picture him racing the inside bowl before and after hitting the lip in rapid succession. We spread his ashes at Swami’s among those of his peers, including Gary Taylor.

Everyone liked Gus and from my knowledge nobody ever hassled him, nor he them. He was simply part of a crew that made surfing Swami’s an unforgettable experience.    

From what I have seen, surfers are not generally racist, but racism has contributed to the low number of black surfers. One reason for this may be that Southern California beaches have long been considered areas of “white flight,” keeping most of our nation’s darker citizens miles inland.

Another reason is that we are racially divided to the point where people of all colors think they need an invitation to cross certain lines.

To get good at surfing requires starting in or before your early teens. Now, put yourself in the shoes of a 12-year-old black kid peering over a cliff to view a sea of white faces, many of them hostile toward outsiders.

I don’t know how Gus managed the courage to make his way into what was then a tough lineup but he did, much as black surfers Michael Johnson and Tom Cherry did in La Jolla around the same era.

If you are considering surfing, please know that it can be a rough ride, and some people will challenge you’re right to be there.

This is called “localism,” and while it is an unpleasant part of the sport, it is doubtful anyone will exclude you from the lineup because of racial prejudice.

Obviously, you don’t need an invitation from me or anyone else to paddle out, but I suggest you do so. Help us celebrate diversity in the water, one wave at a time.

Until then, check out this link on black surfers.