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Black surfers find rejuvenation at ‘A Great Day in the Stoke’

Once wrapped in the barrels of the Pacific’s blue-grey waves, Nathan Fluellen feels one with God.

The chilled waters, though untamed, deliver a transcendent energy to anyone who dares to ride its waves. They say black people don’t like the water, but defying that stereotype has always driven Fluellen back onto his surfboard and into the sea.

“It fits with my ethos to have something new and different, a new challenge every day,” Fluellen said.

On Saturday morning on the Huntington Beach shore, he invited black people of all ages to his delight. Dozens, clad in wetsuits, drifted off the waves onto the soggy sand during Fluellen’s “A Great Day in the Stoke” event, which he described as “the largest gathering of black surfers in history.”

Cherif Fall, Senegal's surfing champion, flies off a big wave.

Senegal surfing champion Cherif Fall takes off from a big wave during the ‘A Great Day in the Stoke’ surfing competition in Huntington Beach.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

Originally scheduled for October 2021, the free event, sponsored by Patagonia, Black Girl Sunscreen and Kavata Swimwear, has been pushed back to this summer after a crude oil spill off the beach’s shoreline last fall. A Great Day in the Stoke, which also honored black surfing pioneers Sharon Schaffer and Tony Corley, included a surf competition, beach yoga and surf lessons.

Fluellen said the idea for the event came to him after the racial bill of the 2020s, when black surfers honor murdered black people such as George Floyd and Ahmed Arberyand BreonaTaylor, who was fatally shot by the police. However, the inspiration for the event goes even deeper.

“Growing up, I heard people say that black people couldn’t swim,” said Fluellen, a Chicago native who has been swimming since he was 10 months old. When he traveled to South Africa for his show World Wide Nate: African Adventures and highlighted the Zulu who both swam and surfed, he proved the idea a myth.

“I started taking surfing lessons at Venice Beach so I could jump on the board in front of the camera and I just fell in love,” Fluellen said. “It was something I always wanted to do as a kid, but because of the representation, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me.”

Kayiita Johnson, right, bumps fists with another surfer as they head to the competition.

Kayiita Johnson, right, bumps fists with another surfer as they head out for the A Great Day in the Stoke competition in Huntington Beach on Saturday.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

Surf coaches support and cheer on Danielle Forbes as she catches her first wave during a surf lesson.

Surf coaches support and cheer on Danielle Forbes as she catches her first wave during a surf lesson.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

That was not the case on Saturday morning. Black people from Senegal, Jamaica and various other places from across the diaspora made their way to Huntington Beach for the competition. Antwoine Langley flew in from South Carolina on Friday just for the event, which was publicized on social media.

Langley started surfing 14 years ago because he was tired of getting rough on a skateboard, although he was good enough on the pipes to earn sponsorship money. He simply applied his skateboarding skills to the waves. The skater-turned-surfer has traveled all over the place but never seen many other black people in the water.

“It wasn’t like it bothered me, but you definitely get the ‘eye’ out there,” Langley said.

Santa Barbara's Brandon Benjamin, left, and LA's Divinity Gaines hold up the trophies they won.

Santa Barbara’s Brandon Benjamin, left, and LA’s Divinity Gaines hold up trophies they won at Saturday’s A Great Day in the Stoke.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

Ryan Harris, who makes eco-friendly surfboards and has been surfing for 25 years, said the stigma surrounding black swimmers and surfers is all linked to racism. Who gets access to what. Who has the luxury of enjoying something as simple as clean air.

Black people, he said, would normally have to live inland and could not get to the sea because of financial obstacles, among other things. The Portland native, who moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, said he’s seen positive changes after 2020. Various non-profit organizations have sprung up to serve the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) surfing community.

“It’s crazy what the younger generation is doing,” Harris said. “Well, I’m not the only black guy at the local surf spot.”

Meanwhile, Daniel Kelly dances in front of a crowd at Pier Plaza "A great day in Stoke" at Huntington Beach on Saturday.

Daniel Kelly dances to a crowd at Pier Plaza during “A Great Day in the Stoke” in Huntington Beach on Saturday.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

Matthew Oliveira, 10, is heading out to compete in the junior surfing competition meanwhile "A great day in Stoke."

Matthew Oliveira, 10, heads out to compete in the junior surfing competition during “A Great Day in the Stoke” in Huntington Beach.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

Divinity Gaines faced an additional obstacle as a surfer. Being “the only one” doesn’t bother the New Jersey dancer, though. Gaines said she surfs to honor her late brother. Her mother took her to the beach every Sunday and she fell in love with the sea.

She met Fluellen before and decided to enter the competition. The waves heal her instead of scaring her.

“I’m trying not to live in fear because what is fear?” Gaines said. “On the other side of fear is freedom.”

This freedom is almost childlike. Racism was not on Schaffer’s radar growing up as a young girl in Los Angeles, swimming with her sisters. Her father wanted to show them that black girls could do other sports besides track and field and basketball.

The men's finalists are cheered on and pose with their boards "A great day at Stoke" at Huntington Beach.

The men’s finalists are cheered on and pose with their boards at A Great Day in the Stoke in Huntington Beach.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

For Schaffer, “A Great Day in the Stoke” was a way “to bring love and joy and our beautiful blackness to the water.” Schaffer said she took a short break from surfing due to an injury. Absence from sports has impacted her mental health. Surfing, she said, cleanses your soul and refreshes your spirit.

Trevor Jackson, the “adult” actor who surfs in his spare time and performed at the event, said catching his first wave changed him. The harmony of the ocean lets him escape from everyday life.

“That’s my plug,” Jackson said. “This is my escape from my phone. Away from work, from business.”

Spectators cheer during a surfing competition "A great day in Stoke" at Huntington Beach on Saturday.

Spectators cheer during a surfing competition at A Great Day in the Stoke in Huntington Beach on Saturday.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

Schaffer believes the black community could take advantage of more of this restorative energy that the ocean provides. Stigma aside, everyone needs this type of nutrition and care.

The smiles that spread far and wide across the cloud-shrouded beach on Saturday morning said so.

“It’s a movement that’s legendary,” Schaffer said. “I think we are all revolutionaries. just to be here Just to have that different mindset. And simply reclaim our place as well.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-06-05/great-day-in-stoke-black-surfers-huntingon-beach-nathan-fluellen Black surfers find rejuvenation at ‘A Great Day in the Stoke’

Emma Bowman

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