July smothered the city, suffocating the prospect of any outdoor activity conducted between sunrise and sunset. Air conditioners hummed outside apartment windows like swarms of bees. Sweat pooled in any cavity it could find. It hadn’t rained in Washington, D.C. in over a month, and from up on the Virginia bluffs across the water, the mud-caked rocks riding the surface of the Potomac River looked like firm, dingy icebergs. Down on the silty bank, purple coneflowers withered to white and yarrow dried into brown feathers. Summer chanterelles never flushed, and blackberries pruned into dark nubs on their canes.
When every day seems to die by noon, there is only one recourse for salvation: water. In the early evenings, with our brains scrambled and limbs listless, my partner and I perspired down the trail headed for the waterfalls and pools of Dead Run. Edging around lolling watersnakes, we settled onto the sunbaked rocks and slid into the cool water. The silky chill shocked my broiling body, then obliterated the memory of heat. My attention drifted, and words wandered away. Our bodies dissolved into the deepest pool and we floated, together, in the quiet.
To enter a body of water is to cross a boundary. You slip beneath the surface and arrive in a different realm, aware of a loosening of the mind and a lightening of the body. Any emotion—hope or fear or anger—is diffused or drowned. With the weight of your body altered under the water, the weight of everything else lessens. During these evening swims, the only feeling I could keep hold of in the water was pleasure.
Surely there is no other act besides sex itself that is more naturally sensual than swimming. “It is not only in the way that water caresses your skin,” Akiko Busch writes in Nine Ways to Cross a River, “but also in the way it is all about reaching as far as you can. Swimming is about touching the surface of the water and drawing yourself across it, it is about remove and submersion and sometimes it is also about submitting to the strength and current and direction of the water.”
Though we were not necessarily touching, sharing our own bodies with a body of water joined me to my partner, and my partner and me to the river. Fingertips wrinkled like waves, and our hair swirled into eddies. Water slipped in, seeped out, and it began to feel easy to imagine myself as a literal part of the Potomac River, as real and embodied as a molecule of water.
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When I pulled my body out of the pool, a piece of me felt missing, as though the river had absorbed some part of me. It was obvious, wringing my hair out and toweling off, that I had also absorbed some part of it. A covalent bond formed between myself, my partner, and the river, three molecules distinct but together, connected by a fluid exchange of desire for one another.
I learned during that heat wave to interpret the river’s current as the instrument of its more dangerous desires. On other evenings and weekend afternoons, we left the pools at Dead Run to cross the river and slip into the water at the far edge of the Maryland islands, rock-hopping and wading our way to a depth we could sink our bodies into. The closer we moved toward the center of the river, the quicker the current flowed against our legs.
Around us, potholes and kettles, drilled into the rocks by millennia of churning waters, betrayed the covert violence of the river surging just below its surface. On the riverbed, pocked with cracks, canyons, and sieves, the river can run almost thirty-five knots, quick enough to pull you under, smash you against underwater outcroppings, and hold you down against jagged rocks. The ambient threat of the current on the Maryland side always kept me from the full brain-thud of underwater submersion, though I confess the risk inherent to Potomac swimming seemed to magnify the pleasure of the river’s stroke against my body whenever I waded in.
One afternoon, my partner tied an old rope swing around my waist so that I could float in the Potomac without being pulled downstream. I laid back with the water around my ears, feeling the current drag my legs, my core relaxing into an easy assimilation, my senses adapting into the river realm: all sounds dampened, all smells went brackish, my skin was fluid. For a sublime minutes-long sweep, I was the Potomac. This experience, of being absorbed into the body of the river without drowning, satisfied the part of me that wants to be swept up in something greater than my self and my body, and it answered for me why the yearning pull of the current carries pleasure as well as peril.
Late in July, it finally rained, and the river came up and the current turned quick. It was too dangerous to swim for days. Stuck on the shore and feeling abruptly adrift, it occurred to me that while swimming in the river, I had willed myself into incorporation. Now, I felt bereft, cut off from a part of myself. On the bluff, I looked down at the Potomac like a lost limb, and when the rain swell came back down and it was once again safe enough to wade in, I felt, as soon as the lap of the water hit my ankles, the thrill of restored connection.
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I no longer retain the details of the day my partner stood waist-deep in the current, his naked back and arms outstretched like winter sycamore limbs, but I can recall the photograph I took of him. In the photograph, my partner stands next to a pillar of speckled rocks, appearing, by comparison, to be a rather solid force himself, as immovable as the trees on the bank in the background. The river water around him is dark, almost indigo, and his skin beams against it. I can only suspect that I took this photograph because I thought he was beautiful there in the water, and in that moment of desire for him and the river and the pleasure of the moment, I wanted to remember that feeling forever.
“Photographs can abet desire in the most direct, utilitarian way,” Susan Sontag explains in On Photography. When I look at this photograph, I remember that feeling of desire—for my partner and for the river, but also for the memory of those summer swims. In my most nostalgic moments, these photographs can even reduplicate a shadow desire. Idly swiping right, I am pricked by a stray wistfulness as the bands of river-blue images scroll by on my phone screen. In total, there are hundreds of images of us frolicking, smiling, looking at the camera or looking away, while the Potomac, reflecting the sky, fills in the background behind us.
It was not just my wanting to remember these evening swims that compelled me to photograph them; it was also that the deliberate current of the river, flowing with desire and danger, had worked into me. Even though I might have said I felt “more alive” than ever during these evening swims, my sense of “aliveness” was predicated on the slow flow of death around me in the threat of being caught in the current.
Sitting on a rock out in the river with my legs in the current one evening, I took a photograph of a night heron as it dipped out from a knot of young ironweed, and I felt myself so deeply there, so unassailably rooted in place. Looking now at photographs from the first summer we went river swimming, I am touched by a flickering feeling of that sincere connection with the Potomac which sprung from those evening swims. But it remains just that – only the glimmer of pleasure, a mirage made by memory.
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At some point after that summer, I stumbled onto an online treasure trove of archival photographs of Potomac river swimming, eager to compare images of the same wide vistas of the river’s meander in the past with those I had taken myself. I trawled through this documentary bonanza of bathers, waders, boaters, and divers, delighted by the many mustachioed men in rubber caps, windblown women in woolen bloomers, muddy-faced boys in fishing dinghies, and, in one particularly mesmerizing photograph, a posse of teenage girls cuddling a large stuffed alligator on the sandy shore on the Potomac.
There are untold hundreds of these images, most dating from the 1910s and 1920s, and they range in style from formal family photos of bathing-costumed cousins to candid shots of flappers with their lanky dates to paparazzi shots of such minor celebrities as Miss Washington, D.C. 1938. In a hundred different photos, anonymous young men in tank-suits pose proudly for the camera with a medley of relevant river accessories, including canoes, rowing oars, racing trophies, ukuleles, and strung-up shad. Disheveled children splash on the beaches, sporting gap-toothed smiles. Bashful teenage girls in knee-high bathing stockings can’t help but to grin self-consciously up at the camera, betraying their adolescent satisfaction at having been seen, in all the vast crowds, through the camera’s lens.
What is it about pleasure that demands documentation? Contrary to most historic photographs where subjects are captured looking, at best, ambivalent, and at worst, dour, the people depicted in these photographs appear positively jubilant. Quite frankly, they give the impression that there is no greater pleasure on earth than to don your bathing slippers and bonnet and ride a mule along the bank of the Potomac River. The sheer number of these century-old photographs as well as their archival longevity highlights a certain fundamental goal of all photography, then and now – to capture joy in its rawest, rarest, and most ephemeral forms. And it worked – I am not sure I have ever seen a person quite as ebullient as the curly-haired preteen winner of a 1921 riverside pie-eating contest, eyes crinkled with glee and mouth smeared with blackberry filling.
The majority of these photographs were taken at just one location: the Tidal Basin Bathing Beach. Located where today’s Jefferson Memorial perches imperiously on the outer rim of the Tidal Basin, the bathing beach there opened in August 1918, primarily through the efforts of the sweaty and agitated Nebraska Senator George Norris, who found, upon his arrival in the nation’s capital, “one of the most trying climates in the United States and inadequate bathing conditions.”
Through the early 1920s, the Tidal Basin Beach was one of the city’s premier social centers, a place for people both young and old to see and be seen. In view of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Washingtonians took swimming lessons, dove off a multi-platform, twenty-foot-tall dock, and participated in numerous beauty contests, diving competitions, canoe-tilting tournaments, tug-o-war battles, and boy’s drag contests (though they were not necessarily called that).
Operating in the days before air conditioning, the beach was also one of the only places in the city where residents could seek a respite from the heat. On one particularly scorching day in July 1920, over twenty thousand people flocked to the beach. The subjects of the hundreds of photographs taken here underscores its broad popularity: there are old men lounging in the sand, licking ice cream cones; married couples dozing in each other’s arms; and toddlers, hardly old enough to stand, cooing with delight as the water laps at their tiny feet.
Even now, having studied every one of these hundreds of Tidal Basin photographs multiple times, when I look into the smiling faces of these long-deceased swimming-strangers, I experience an uncanny sense of unreality. That is, the setting of these photographs is intimately familiar to me – I can recognize by the slope of the distant shore from what corner of the Basin the photograph was taken, and my recognition of that place supplies a sense of reality to the photograph. But the subjects of these photographs – a young woman cuddling her pet possum by the Tidal Basin or a man posing with both a guitar and a fabulous boater hat – are so contradictory to my modern understanding of how residents of the nation’s capital relate to the Potomac that I find these people of the past so fantastic as to be almost imaginary.
“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality,” Sontag writes. “One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.” The more I look at these photographs, drawing myself away from their setting to their human subjects, the less I feel that I possess them than they possess me, a feeling I find quite frightening, almost narcotic.
By documenting a D.C. culture of river recreation that no longer exists, these photographs have the remarkable power to induce a nostalgic desire on my part to enter them. I would very much like to be able to walk my pet possum down to the bank of the Potomac while my partner in a boater hat strums a guitar and feeds me a slice of lemon meringue pie. Who, indeed, would not like to enter this scene? But I find myself struggling against that desire, however silly it may be, for reasons that Sontag explains when she writes that “a photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs…are incitements to reverie.”
It’s the pseudo-presence of these foregone Potomac people’s delight that elicits a desire on my part to enter their past; I can imagine, looking into their happy faces, that if only I could enter their time, I might be able to experience that same joy. But as Sontag explains, in every photograph there is also an absence, an invisible exclusion that undercuts the wild pleasure that these photographs appear to document. Simply put, the exclusion is this: they contain almost no Black faces.
It’s not merely the absence of Black people from these images that makes their reevaluation as such so trenchant. Rather, it is in the consideration of how the absence of Black people creates the conditions for so much white joy. The obverse, then, is also true: the presence of Black people, even the threat of their potential presence, creates the conditions for white anguish, and it’s that fact – that white joy cannot permit the existence of its Black counterpart – that occupies every one of these otherwise delightful photographs, disguising white supremacy with the glimmer of sentimental desire.
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When the Tidal Basin Bathing Beach closed in 1925 after only seven years in operation, Congress cited as the primary reasons for its closure the increasing dirtiness of the Potomac and the expense of keeping the Basin clean and chlorinated. While it is true that by the 1920s, the Potomac had begun to suffer from increased upstream pollution, the principal reason the beach was closed had nothing to do with sewage runoff; it was, instead, a matter of who was permitted to enter the water.
Even before the Tidal Basin Beach’s official opening in 1918, Black D.C. residents had lobbied Congress for funds for a “colored beach” to be located on the west side of the Basin. Black advocates for a segregated beach sought not just separate-but-equal facilities, but a way to establish formal protection for Black children who already sought relief from the heat by sneaking into the Basin to swim, a seemingly harmless act that had, nevertheless, raised the ire of white swimmers in the months following the bathing beach’s official opening. During the “Red Summer” of 1919 as white supremacist violence raged across the country, Black-majority neighborhoods of the city’s Southwest quadrant, adjacent to the Tidal Basin, were a particular locus for white vigilante attacks against Black residents, who begged their children to stay far away from the water.
In 1924, the U.S. House finally approved a $50,000 line-item appropriation for the creation of a Black beach, but several white supremacist Senators stonewalled the funding. Under intense pressure from Black city leaders to respond, Congress declared it illegal to swim in the Tidal Basin, solving the issue of how to create separate-but-equal swimming facilities by removing all swimming facilities. The buildings on the white beach were demolished, and sand-tolerant shrubs were planted to discourage swimmers from returning. Newspapers circulated the convenient fiction that the Tidal Basin Beach had been closed for reasons related to hygiene, not white supremacy. After its closure, white people largely abandoned the shores of the river for swimming.
As the threat of legally mandated integration advanced across the country following the passage of Brown v. Board, hundreds of public swimming pools were closed, drained, filled in, or otherwise abandoned by white citizens and municipal authorities. The Tidal Basin Bathing Beach, then, was among the vanguard of swimming spaces across the nation that white citizens demolished or deserted rather than desegregate. Though in some recreational spaces, the excuse of pollution or expense was touted as the cause for closure, most Americans understood these to be a polite pretext for the common bigotry of their society. A certain white supremacist logic that an increase in Black joy necessarily produced a decrease in white joy underscored the era of pool and beach abandonment. Rather than allow Black people to share in the pleasures offered by public parks and pools, white Americans willingly destroyed the spaces that had created the conditions for so much of their own joy.
The economist and writer Heather McGhee calls this zero-sum mentality “drained-pool politics,” a useful metaphor she employs in her book The Sum of Us, to describe the ways in which white supremacy hurts not just people of color, but whites as well. “Today, we don’t even notice the absence of the grand resort pools in our communities; where grass grows over former sites, there are no plaques to tell the story of how racism drained the pools,” she writes.
But the issue today is less about a lack of public swimming pools than it is that the principles that drained these public goods live on, now in a subtler design. American society has become a macrocosm of the drained pool, and white abandonment of public goods and spaces for costly, private options emerges almost everywhere in our politics from education to health care to housing. White Americans believe so deeply that another’s gain is our loss that our cleaved, embittered political system is now largely the result of the same racialized, zero-sum thinking that led to the draining of public pools and the abandonment of public beaches. What else have we lost to drained-pool politics?
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To say I was sweaty when I reached the Tidal Basin would be polite. I was drenched after walking just two miles from Chinatown in ninety-five-degree heat. It had poured two days ago, bringing up the river, and the evening had the kind of torrid, swampy feeling that prompts people to repeat the old adage that “if you want to know what hell feels like, come to Washington, D.C. in July.” If there was ever a day to go swimming, this was it.
Forgoing whatever social mores and federal laws prevented my entering the water, I laid face-down on the brink of the Basin, avoiding eye-contact with the tourists around me, and extended my left arm up my elbow into the water – it was cold, bracing even, and my fingers swirled in the slight current as I let my arm relax into a pliant sort of absorption. For the briefest of moments, I could remember what it felt like to have first become a part of the river.
For many residents of the city, the prospect of swimming in the Potomac is not so much repulsive or risky as it is simply unimaginable. Cut off from public access to the shore since 1925, many residents encounter the river to the south of the city less as a body of water than as an obstacle that creates traffic jams, a perverted relationship which is the direct result of the many barriers – cultural, historical, and legal – that prevents us from putting our bodies into the river, thereby occluding the world of potential pleasures that swimming creates.
Our inability to imagine what an integrated riparian culture of recreation in D.C. might look like in the twenty-first-century stems from the white abandonment of the river, a unacknowledged form of white flight. White residents, it seems, have forgotten – perhaps intentionally – that they lost the Potomac not just to pollution, as is commonly thought, but to drained-pool politics. In this way, the Potomac has become a watery no-man’s-land, forfeited to the fact that white pleasure proscribes the existence of its Black counterpart.
As I pulled my arm out of the Tidal Basin to sit up along the rim, I felt both the sensory shift of withdrawing from cool water into thick air and the inner shift of my limb returned from the body of water back to my own. My forays at river swimming had connected me to the river, but I had never experienced while swimming in the Potomac the kind of mass euphoria of wild joy that a shared day at the beach can engender. Further, my predilection for photography that accompanied the delights of river swimming necessarily exposed a certain absence in my own photographs.
No matter how much I sensed that swimming had made indelible my individual relationship to the river, the fact that I kept returning to the shore again and again, fed by a desperate, almost dangerous desire for connection highlighted a fundamental loneliness underlying the act. My connection with the river was powerful, but it was, nevertheless, undercut by the depravations of human connection that should have constituted swimming in a space as open and free as the shores of the Potomac River.
Each stroke against the water, then, was as much an act of willful incorporation as it was a wish to share my love for the river with others, to experience the nation’s river as the integrated space of coalescing pleasures it should always have been.
I thought then that I might produce my phone and take a picture of the sunset washing the surface of Basin into a blur of roses and reds, to remember the joy of a imagining a Potomac shore where all could swim freely – I thought better of it and watched the pink dissolve to blue, listening to the river lap at the edge, calling me and all of the city back into the water.
Charlotte Taylor Fryar is an historian, educator, and herbalist based in Washington, D.C. Her essays and fiction have been published in the Southern Humanities Review, Talking Points Memo, and Fiction Southeast, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and included as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2021. Charlotte holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is currently at work on her first essay collection which explores the racial and natural histories of Washington, D.C., from which this essay is excerpted. More of her work can be found at charlottetaylorfryar.com.