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

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)