Catching the Wave: Black Surfing Scene Takes Off in the Rockaways

'They were all crowding around him like he was freaking Mick Jagger or something'

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Louis Harris, a local Rockaway surfer who's trying to get more young local in the water and surfing. Louis Harris, a local Rockaway surfer who's trying to get more young local in the water and surfing. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Brian James, better known as BJ, is lounging in a beach chair at Beach 90th Street in Far Rockaway his feet firmly planted in the sand soaking in the sun on a recent weekend.

James, who calls himself the “Nautical Negro,” is taking a break from the waves.

"Surfers, for the most part, don’t care what you are, as long as you’re not gong to be in the way," he said.

James is far from the iconic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High surfer: a bronzed beach bum with shaggy blonde hair with a laid-back California lilt. The bald 48-year-old from Port Chester is one of the recent pioneers, part of the growing black surf scene in the Rockaways.

Rockaway Beach, was once known as the Irish Riviera because of its large working-class Irish population, but the name no longer reflects the diversity that now stretches across nine neighborhoods, from Breezy Point to Far Rockaway. Thirty-five percent of the Rockaways are non-white.

Member of local surf scene in Rockaways, BJ (center-right). (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Locals say James was one of the first black surfers on the scene when he began catching waves here in 1997. And even though the shores are thousands of miles away from the once-exclusively white beaches of California, where the sport was popularized in the U.S., James said he faced racism here too.

"It was tough in the beginning,” he said. “Lot of racial epithets hurled out in water. Lot of arguing. But me personally, I let them know I wasn't going for it. They got a problem we can settle it on the beach."

Sauntering down the crowded beach on a recent Saturday with the top half of his wet suit hanging down, is another staple of the local surf scene: Louis Harris. The 41-year-old personal trainer from Long Island said it was James who inspired him to try surfing.

"I was like, ‘Wow, people surf out here.’ I then I saw BJ and I was like, ‘Wow black guy surfing?’” Harris said. “And they were all crowding around him like he was freaking Mick Jagger or something."

But Harris said when he walks with a surfboard, he still gets chastised.

"It’s the black people that say ‘Black people don’t surf. Yo man, what you doing with a surf board man? Black people don’t surf.' I’m like, ‘Dude, are you kidding?’ Harris said.

Louis Harris, a surfer who now lives in the Rockaways and surfs all year. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

At Boarders Surf Shop on Beach 92nd Street, Frank Cullen, head of the New York Surf School, said there's been an overall uptick in the number of surfers in the Rockaways, including blacks. Weekend warriors from gentrified Brooklyn are a big part of the Rockaway surf scene now.

"A lot of it has to do with demographics and it seems to be more of a middle class type of thing,” he said. “African Americans... they’re just coming out and just doing their thing,"

But there's also a large black population in the Rockaways. James said that unlike other sports that have long broken the race barrier, surfing remains out of reach for many black youth. He says his parents taught him to swim at a young age.

"It’s the opportunity. That’s one of the only things that separates us from our peers a lot of times is the opportunity," he said. "When people like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, their parents gave them the opportunity."

Harris said his goal is to change those stereotypes, one kid at a time. He teaches surfing on the weekends.

"You get all lot of these black kids who never surfed before who get on the board and they just rip like, that. And those are the kids, that’s my mission this summer is to get a lot of African American kids a lot of Puerto Rican kids who think, oh that’s a white sport. It’s not a white sport," he said.

(Stephen Nessen/WNYC)


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Comments [18]

Tara from Trinidad from Trinidad and Tobago

If I am not mistaken, does this world belong to only white people ARE THEY THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO LIVE ON THIS PLANET. I am from Trinidad and Tobago and most of our surfers are black, we have one of the best pro surfers (Chris Dennis) who kicks ass and guess what he is not a WHITE DUDE!!!!!

I visited NY recently and went to the town of Long Beach with a black friend who surfs, within 5 mins of my friend getting into the water the tension was present among the Long Beach locals, being the great surfer that he is he kept getting most of the waves which made our LB locals very stressed, they started talking crap about surfing etiquette but we knew it was the fact that he was good and he was BLACK!!!!!!!!!!!

Get a grip WHITE PEOPLE, everyone has a chance to be the best they can be at any sport we live in Modern times and the days for riding behind the bus is OVER!!!!!!!

Oct. 02 2014 04:12 PM

Go Buttons Go! Nice to shed some light on the guys but I agree with some of the other posts here. More work should have been done on the fact that in truth surfing is not the cultural property of white society, not by a long shot.

Sep. 06 2013 11:20 PM
Ken from Santa barbara

Right on to the surfing brothers back east from sunny California. Now go join Surfrider Foundation and give back to the ocean some of the stoke that the ocean gave to you.

Jun. 21 2013 10:16 AM
Benjamin Evans from Beach 91st

I too thought it was interesting, if odd, to hear someone on NPR talking about the surf scene in my neighborhood. But for those who are (rightly) pointing out that the surf scene is much more racially diverse elsewhere, I think you're sort of missing the point: If surfing is so obviously racially diverse everywhere else, why is it not so much out this way? But I also think that things are changing and I can only applaud the pioneers who helped enable that change.

Jun. 20 2013 03:50 PM
Sequoia from New Jersey

The ignorant people in Rockaway Beach who taunt black surfers haven't traveled anywhere, so don't know anything about the colored surfers of the world.

There is a little island near Dakar, Senegal called N'Gor. It's a surfing mecca and guess what color the surfers are? They are African and whites from different parts of the world.

The other reason whites and blacks in the Rockaways are ignorant about black surfers is because they don't read or watch documentaries and only have TV, i.e. film and commercials to educate them. When was the last time a commercial featured a black surfer?

Jun. 20 2013 12:46 PM
Nigel from Rockaway

This is an interesting story because for anyone who travels to surf would know, there are black surfers all over the world once you leave the U.S. lol. But I understand that the story is focused on the Rockaways. I am from Barbados and there are more black surfers than white on my island, no one even comments on it. It really should not matter as surfing is bigger than all of that. I have been surfing in Far Rockaway since 1992 and was one of the first black surfers in the water, back when the water would rush under the boardwalk at Beach 90 and Arverne by the sea was just sand and I am happy to see the up-tic in blacks and women surfers in the area, but am more happy that people are surfing and enjoying the feeling I have been experiencing for almost my entire life.

Jun. 20 2013 11:32 AM

yes this piece was thought provoking, despite the unmentioned history of the sport in a world context. In NYC, the problem is lack of cultural affinity with the water; with pools, the ocean, boats, diving, all of it. learning to be comfortable through early exposure with parents, recreation opportunities, could change these stereotypes.

Jun. 20 2013 11:30 AM

Interesting and hopeful story. I might remind some of the previous commentators that the story concerns the experience of an African American surfer in one beachfront area in one borough in New York City. The story is not a documentary on the history of surfing, and therefore some of the criticisms of this story are unwarranted. For more on the black surfing experience, in southern California, please see the documentary "White Wash,"directed by Ted Woods.

Jun. 20 2013 10:41 AM
Jes from Rockaway

how much is an xbox etc. I always tell teens that....

Jun. 20 2013 09:03 AM
Danielle from NYC by way of Hawai'i

Shame on NPR for doing a whole story on black people surfing in the Far Rockaways and making it strictly a black and white thing. You'd think that white people invented surfing from that story. No mention of Hawaiians at all - who invented the sport. No mention of Duke Kahanamoku or Eddie Aikau.

Jun. 20 2013 08:53 AM

Yeah, it's just cultural. Oceanside, CA, the Rockaways in NY, Asbury Park NJ all have AA communities, but the number of kids that participate has been almost non-existant, historically. That's been surprisingly slow to change over the decades, I think that the AA community has just been, well shy to join in I think that they feel alienated or unwelcome -- even with community outreach efforts. I for one have never seen black surfers harassed on either coast. Once you get out of the states the local surf scenes with brown & black kids are huge. Puerto Rico has had a large local surf population that grew quickly after the 1968 world contest was held there.

Jun. 20 2013 08:43 AM
Joedub from Port Chester

Port Chester is not in Long Island, but in Westchester.

Jun. 20 2013 08:39 AM
lcruz from brooklyn

Polynesian's could hardly be considered white, and guess what, they've been surfing for quite sometime.


Jun. 20 2013 08:22 AM
Michele from Washington DC

I think the real issue is fear. For most urban youth swimming is considered unchartered territory. They never learned to swim. Cullen Jones is a testiment to the fact that we can overcome our fear and embrace the water. Swimming is an awesome sport and a great source of exercise!!!!

Jun. 20 2013 08:22 AM
Bran from left of thirdcoast

I enjoyed this article but I did find it a little inaccurate. This notion of surfing being a "white sport" is completely ridiculous.

I would go on record and say that whites only represent a portion of surfers. This article is excluding all of the races of the Pacific rim, Mexico, Central and South America - all locations with an enormous surf culture that are non-white. The fact of the matter is that surfing, or rather the ability to surf, is more economically driven then racially driven.

I'm white. I grew up five miles from the beach in Rhode Island. I loved the beach and desperately wanted to surf. In the early-90's, a $250.00-$300.00 used surfboard was way out of the question for me and my struggling family. When I was 15 years old, I purchased a Mach 7 Morey Boogie, bodyboard and fins with my summer job, dishwashing money and BOOM I was surfing on the cheap. For the record, my best friend at the time was black. He ended up procuring a bodyboard and fins as well - we spent the next decade-plus bodyboarding together.

Jun. 20 2013 08:15 AM
john from office

How do the untied sneakers stay on and the droopy drawers not slip off?? Seriously?? These are culturally significant questions.

Jun. 20 2013 08:12 AM
Matthew from Barcelona

There are a lot of black surfers in Brazil. It has to do with culture, not race. I would agree with Javiers comment that it has more to do with he social economic status of the children (in the context of the US). People should realize that surfing is not a white only sport everywhere...just go to Indonesia if you doubt that.

Jun. 20 2013 07:27 AM
Javier from Brooklyn

I just listened to this article on the radio. I believe someone mentioned that "African American kids and Pherto Rican kids don't surf." That statement is very inaccurate. I grew up in Puerto Rico and most guys a free up with surfed and STILL surf. Puerto Rico has a very strong surf culture. Maybe the article should not of mentioned ethnicity but rather the social economic status of the children this surfer is trying to teach to.

Jun. 20 2013 07:01 AM

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