NEW YORK — Three years after Hurricane Sandy lashed the Rockaways, the boardwalk marched down the beach in broken segments as the public housing built under Robert Moses was hemmed in by condos. Out in the surf, not much changed as the bathymetry returned to normal, but the predominantly white, male crowd of surfers had.
Part of that shift happened when Louis Harris, 46, founded the East Coast chapter of the Black Surfing Association in 2016.
Harris bought his first surfboard after moving to the Rockaways in 2006. After getting his bearings in remote beaches, he joined the crowd at Beach 90th Street. “That’s when I saw B.J.,” Harris said.
Brian James — “B.J.” — the only other black man in the water, paddled over to Harris and asked if he wanted to hang out afterward. “ ‘If you’re going to be a surfer, you have to take it seriously,’ ” Harris recalled him saying. “ ‘You’re a black guy. Everybody’s eyes are on you.’ ”
From then on, James taught him how to navigate the world of surfing. Harris later offered free surf lessons to any children who would show up, many from the neighborhood where more than 66 percent of its population identify as nonwhite, according to the office of the New York State Comptroller, and the median income is the second lowest in Queens. He built a community around the idea that children in the Rockaways should be engaged — and that surfing alongside skate lessons, cooking workshops, and snowboard trips was an inextricable part of that.
Surfers like Harris are carving out a space for themselves in the Rockaways, and are challenging the notion that surfing belongs to white men.
In 2014, 14-year old Marcell Dockery set a mattress on fire in his Coney Island apartment building. The blaze killed one responding officer, critically injuring another. When asked why, Dockery cited boredom. The response haunted Harris. That same year, Harris read in The Surfer’s Journal about Tony Corley, who founded the Black Surfing Association in 1975 in California. Corley’s departure point was assembling some sense of belonging as he felt like the sole black surfer in central California.
And then in 2015, Corley’s story coupled with Dockery’s moved Harris to the point where he proposed creating an East Coast Chapter. Corley agreed. Unquestionably, that good will began for Harris with B.J.’s mentorship.
“I thank him for that,” he said. “He took the time.”
In his memoir, “The Nautical Negro,” James detailed his experience in Rockaway 20 years ago. “The complexion of the lineup was beginning to change, and some people didn’t like it,” he wrote. “Being one of the first black surfers to crack the lineup in a place like Rockaway was no picnic.”
Modern surfing took shape in Hawaii. The sport’s forefather, Olympic athlete Duke Kahanamoku, visited Far Rockaway in 1912 for one of the first surfing demonstrations in America.
The values of the surfing that Kahanamoku celebrated spoke to inclusivity and Aloha, meaning an ethos of compassion, but the opposite has often held true along the coasts.
“Surfing was shaped and molded in his image,” said Matt Warshaw, 58, author of “The History of Surfing.” “He wanted to share the thing he loved with the rest of the world.”
But as surfing spread after World War II, the magnetic center jumped from Waikiki to Malibu. The concentration of wealth along America’s coast afforded those with affluence access, and in turn, surfing grew whiter.
Selema Masekela, 47, a sports commentator and journalist who grew up variously in New York, Southern California, and South Africa while his father, an activist, was in political exile during apartheid, has grappled with the racial issues that haunt the history of surfing. He calls it the “quiet results of segregation.”
“The outdoors in general were one of the last bastions for segregation to continue to exist,” said Masekela, who is black. “Culturally, there’s been this idea that the ocean is just not for us. Where did that come from?”
In the last few years, though, he’s seen promise. Mikey February, a black surfer from South Africa, became the first to join the World Tour of Surfing. “It was magic,” Masekela said. “It was a powerful thing for me.”
Warshaw, the author, echoed the sentiment. As the World Tour of Surfing reaches its final leg this year, the governing body of the tour vowed to pay female athletes the same amount as men in 2019.
Nevertheless, Masekela said, “There’s still far more room for growth.”