Back when she lived in the San Fernando Valley, Lizelle Jackson would load up her Subaru and drive over the hill to surf at a legendary break on Malibu’s southernmost border. A former pro volleyball player and extreme athlete, Jackson, 37, is no delicate flower. But as a gay Black woman, she didn’t quite match the profile of a typical local.
“I was shocked at how aggressive it was,” she recalls of the chilly reception she received in Malibu. Older, white surfers berated her regularly and, in some instances, demanded that she leave the water. And there were smaller, more backhanded comments that cut just as deep. “People would say, ‘It’s so good to see a Black person surfing here; I haven’t seen any in so long,’ ” Jackson says. “That just reinforced the stereotype that we don’t belong.”
Surfing has always been an insular sport, with its own clothing style, vernacular, and cadences. There are, after all, only a finite number of waves and way too many people trying to catch them. And these days, thanks to the pandemic pushing scores of cooped-up Angelenos outside and into the water, there’s been a spike in “localism”—when a group of surfers band together to protect their access to a beach’s best waves. In L.A. and Orange counties, most of these locals are white men.
But Jackson and a few other like-minded activists are doing some banding together of their own, forming their own community of Black surfers. And in doing so, they’re rewriting the narrative about what surfers are supposed to look like as well as challenging the rules over who gets access to one of California’s greatest resources—its beaches.
In early June, hundreds of Black surfers flooded the sands of Huntington Beach to participate in the inaugural A Great Day in the Stoke, the largest gathering of Black surfers in history. It was a family-friendly event, with ten-year-olds surfing alongside sixtysomethings. People flew in from Florida, Hawaii, Senegal, and South Africa, with attendance growing so large that the number of competitive categories had to be expanded from three to five.
White people didn’t create surfing. It wasn’t a Caucasian thing.
“The youths getting to see the older surfers really is the point,” says Nathan Fluellen, 41, one of the event’s organizers. “It’s important for the kids to see the older surfers so they understand that they can grow into that. They also had the opportunity to meet at the event, which is important because surfing is such an individualistic sport.”
Fluellen, who learned to surf a decade ago, says he chose Huntington Beach for the Great Day in the Stoke event because the town is synonymous with surfing—Huntington Beach is known as Surf City and hosts the U.S. Open of Surfing. But there’s also symbolism in the setting: Huntington Beach is among the most conservative towns in historically red Orange County. Last year, a white supremacist group organized a White Lives Matter rally near the Huntington Beach Pier, not far from where the Great Day event took place.
To be sure, Black surfers aren’t new. The founding of the Black Surfing Association dates back to 1975, and Black surfers, like Venice Beach native Solo Scott, have been winning competitions since the 1980s.
“White people didn’t create surfing,” notes Kayiita Johnson, 33, a Minnesota-born surfer who created the Instagram page Black Surfers. “It wasn’t originally a Caucasian thing.”
In fact, the first surfers in the U.S. were a trio of Hawaiian princes who, in 1885, while on break from studying at the military academy in San Mateo, carved boards out of redwoods and wowed the locals with their ability to float on the waves. More than 100 years later, though, descendants of those locals are now hoarding the surf.
Indeed, across the country, there’s been a long history of denying Black children and families access to public pools and beaches, limiting their opportunities to learn to swim and, ultimately, surf. Fluellen, who grew up in Chicago, was lucky enough to live near a public pool where he and his pals learned to swim. It wasn’t until he was in college that he realized that his comfort in the water made him an anomaly among his peers.
In some cases, that history of keeping Black people off the shoreline has been particularly ugly: a century ago, a patch of sand in Manhattan Beach called Bruce’s Beach was a resort for Black beachgoers until the land was seized and the Black couple who owned it run out of town. Last year, Governor Newsom returned the property to the couple’s descendants.
After the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, Fluellen and Jackson both began looking for ways to blend their love of surfing with their impulse toward activism. They both decided to attend a Black Lives Matter paddle out, only to be struck by how few African Americans were there. “And the majority of Black people who were there,” Jackson says, “couldn’t get out past the break.”
So Jackson (who cofounded Color the Water, a nonprofit that offers free surf lessons to BIPOC in L.A.), Fluellen, and Johnson all began researching Black surfing groups online, collecting a constellation of nonprofits—Textured Waves, Black Surfers Collective, SoFly Surf School, and Ebony Beach Club—aligned in their vision of creating a more inclusive coastal experience. Which is how A Great Day in the Stoke came about.
Of course, there are still plenty of obstacles keeping Black surfers out of the water, including the lack of affordable housing near the coast. But short of creating more affordable homes, there are some smaller policy shifts that could make a difference. Johnson notes that something as simple as adding more parking along beaches could help.
“We need allies,” he says pointedly, “and I don’t mean people just reposting. You need to support and stand up for these things.”
This story is featured in the August 2022 issue of Los Angeles