[The feature below was originally published in SURFER’s summer 2020 issue, on newsstands now. To subscribe to SURFER, click here.]
Many surfers fetishize the past. We look at photos of uncrowded Malibu in the ‘50s, the Rincon cove before it was fronted by a six-lane highway, and think, “Yep, those were the days.” Even those of us who weren’t actually alive then — probably especially us younger generations — imagine those periods of light crowds and less development as surfing’s golden era. (Hell, this magazine has waxed romantic about surfing’s past as much as anyone, and as recently as our last issue, which showcased Ron Stoner’s 1960s surf photography). But not all of us see surfing’s past through this rosy lens.
“In the 1960s Jim Crow laws prevented black people from congregating in predominantly white spaces,” Danielle Black Lyons tells me. “There were segregation laws and black people were prevented from enjoying many public beaches and swimming areas. This made it hard for these communities to pass aquatic skills down to their children and there is this whole trickle-down effect that still exists today.”
Like so many conversations in the social distancing era, Lyons is speaking with me over Zoom, taking a momentary break from juggling remote work and home life. We’re joined by Chelsea Woody, Gigi Lucas and Martina Duran, all of whom are founders of the group Textured Waves — an all-black, all-female collective that aims to give voice to, and increase the visibility of, people of diverse backgrounds in the lineup.
Even before the pandemic, the women of Textured Waves were accustomed to using technology to bring each other closer together. Living distant surfing lives in San Diego, Jacksonville Beach, Santa Cruz and Honolulu, they didn’t just bump into each other one day at their home break. In fact, it was the scarcity of people in their local lineups who looked like them and could relate to their experience that led them to seek each other out through other means.
“I met these ladies initially through social media and we became friends through our shared love of the ocean and bonded through the fact that there are very few black women in the lineup,” says Woody. “We instantly felt connected and shared a lot of similar experiences, and we felt that there was this need to create a community where there hadn’t really been one that represented us.”
The group started up a Textured Waves Instagram page, both to serve as a kind of digital beacon for people of diverse backgrounds to find each other and talk about their experiences, and also to represent those experiences through beautiful surf imagery.
They also began organizing face-to-face meet ups, group surf sessions and community engagement events. Their hope is to change the way surfing is represented by showing that lineups are made up of an entire spectrum of different people who may be fewer in numbers and less visible in the media, but love riding waves and participating in the culture just the same.
“When I started looking more into the history of our people and their relationship with water and their barriers to entry, I started to really understand why it’s important to represent and to be a mirror for people who look like me,” says Lucas. “And it has nothing to do with being anti something — it isn’t anti-white. It’s just being pro diversity, because in most situations when you have a diverse set of anything, it makes things so much more interesting.”
“There are a couple of iconic African American female surfers that we look to for inspiration,” adds Woody. “Sharon Schaffer, Andrea Kabwasa and Mary Mills are some of the first documented black female surfers in the U.S., and I think if I had seen images of these women when I was 12, I would have gravitated toward surfing earlier and not been deterred.”
Textured Waves broadcasts their message of inclusivity not just through social media, but also through blog posts about everything from celebrating unsung black shredders to curly-hair-care techniques. What excites the group most, however, is exploring creative new ways to approach the conversation of diversity in surfing. It’s a conversation that recently resulted in a short film called “Sea Us Now”, made in collaboration with the women’s swimwear brand The Seea, which aims to challenge our ideas about “idyllic” beach scenes from bygone eras by showing us what wasn’t there—namely, people of color.
“The storyline was born from living here in Santa Cruz,” says Woody of the project, which both stars and is directed by women of color. “Santa Cruz is one of the first places on the mainland where surfing arrived, and we just don’t see ourselves in that history. This project is not only about re-imagining what things might have been like had we been able to partake in that beach culture, but also about how, despite history, we can forge ahead and create pathways for what we want to see now and in the future.”
While in production for “Sea Us Now” (which you can now watch above), the Textured Waves crew rocked up to a California beach break in 1960s station wagon, pulled their single-fin logs out of the back and paddled out in matching vintage-inspired suits. The only thing missing from this alternate-reality, retro surf scene was the vacant lineup—the place was packed. But then again, when you’re making a film called “Sea Us Now”, having an audience is probably a good thing.
“Everywhere we went, people were just stopping and looking at us because we had on matching suits,” says Lyons. “But some were also stopping and saying, ‘Hey, I haven’t ever seen this many black women in a lineup before. This is rad. What are you guys doing?’ Because it’s not common.”
Well, maybe right now it’s not. But for the Textured Waves crew, that’s the whole point — to not only normalize diversity in the lineup, but to do it in style.
WATCH “SEA US NOW” WITH ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY FROM THE CAST AND CREW BELOW: