There are a lot of stories in surfing. Some have been told ad nauseam. Some haven’t been told at all. And somewhere in the middle are the stories that have been told — but haven’t been told enough. Which is why Red Bull Media House produced a five-part series called In Plain Sight.
The first and perhaps most important of the series was recently released entitled Race & Surfing. It explores surfing’s origin story and how it evolved into what it is today. Selema Masekela narrates the short illustrated film as it traces surfing’s path from Ghana in the 1600s to Captain Cook’s logbook entry in 1779, to Southern California in the 1970s.
“Twenty or 30 natives taking each a long, narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out together from the shore,” Cook wrote in one of the first written descriptions of surfing; and Selema’s distinctive voice recites. “The coast being guarded by a chain of rocks, they are obliged to steer their board or to quit it before they reach the rocks.”
The film goes on to explain just how important surfing was to Hawaiian culture, with royalty and commoners alike riding waves. Cook’s arrival, however, put a damper on things. The people of Hawaii were banned from surfing and turned into colonial subjects, made to work instead. Christian missionaries found their way to the Islands next, clamping down harder on Hawaiian traditions. Still, the indigenous people snuck away to continue riding waves.
As the years passed, though, surfing couldn’t be eradicated. Jack London wrote about it after the success of Call of the Wild enabled him to build a boat called the Snark. He and his wife sailed to Hawaii, and he recounted his first vision of a surfer at Waikiki. “He is Mercury,” London wrote. “A brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea.”
Although London had a small hand in spreading surfing to a larger audience — and Cook arguably had a big hand in the attempt to squash it — no one kicked the ball that started surfing towards its place in the world today harder than Duke Kahanamoku. When the Duke was born in 1890, Hawaii was still an independent nation. When he was a child, Hawaii’s queen was overthrown in a hostile takeover that remains controversial to this day. He rose to fame in 1912, when he competed for the United States in the Stockholm Olympics, a time when non-white athletes were mostly barred from competing at elite professional levels. Duke was integral to the expansion of surfing and the Aloha spirit into the wider world. By the 1950s, surfing had made it to California, and the Gidget-era was upon us.
Malibu became surfing’s epicenter — but it was still a segregated place. All but two beaches in Southern California, in fact, were segregated. “For most black Americans,” Selema explains, “surfing was simply out of reach.” But as with most walls, only one brick needed to fall — and that brick was Nick Gabaldon.
Back in 2014, The Inertia partnered with Nike to make a film called 12 Miles North: The Nick Gabaldon Story. Gabaldon learned to surf at an informally segregated beach called “The Inkwell” in Santa Monica in the 1940s and regularly paddled 12 miles north to surf Malibu, one of California’s best waves. In doing so, Gabaldon defied conventions in an America that had institutionally prevented many blacks from accessing the ocean.
Slowly, the wall began to crumble. Selema retells how a few decades later, a man named Tony Corley wrote a letter to SURFER magazine. In it, he appealed to “his black surfing brothers to stand up and make themselves known.” Corley would go on to found the Black Surfing Association in 1975.
“I have plenty of white surfing friends who I deeply cherish,” Corley wrote on The Inertia in 2014. “Despite this, I searched for other black surfers out of a yearning for a deeper sense of belonging within a culture that wasn’t always accepting of people with my skin color.”
The fight for equality continues. The first article ever published on The Inertia in 2010 was actually a call to welcome a diversity of perspectives, after the same article was removed by SURFER magazine due to pressure from advertisers. At the time, surf media regularly flirted with bigoted rhetoric and imagery, including Nazi imagery like swastikas in magazines and on surfboards. Since, Selema Masekela has spoken candidly with us about his experiences with racism in surfing on multiple occasions.
Now, in 2022, there are multiple organizations devoted to inclusivity in surfing. Race & Surfing‘s debut is in partnership with 1 Planet One People, a collective activation that supports climate action and racial, and social equality. In honor of Black History Month, its release coincides with the launch of a surfboard raffle that will support a range of non-profit organizations.
Editor’s Note: The founding members of 1 Planet One People include Selema Masekela, Danielle Black Lyons, Hunter Jones and Ryan Harris. Each has created a unique surfboard with Earth Technologies and raffled them off. The proceeds went to Vote the Ocean, Native Like Water, the Life Rolls On foundation, and SeaTrees.