‘Black Girls Surf’ Rhonda Harper Treats The Ocean Like A Church

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The surf coach and activist wants to help black girls find their wave.

Rhonda harper– who, it should be mentioned, only recently returned to California after being stranded abroad for almost 17 months during the pandemic, first in Senegal and then in South Africa – was born for two things: surfing and activism. Her career in surfing education and black empowerment has been going on since 2014, when she created Africa Surf International, a series of professional and amateur competitions that brings together surfers from the African diaspora.

But since 2018, Harper has focused on changing the lives of young black girls across the globe across Surfing Black Girls. Through trainings, workshops and surf therapy, Harper’s organization has helped hundreds of black girls and women across the United States, Africa and the Caribbean not only improve their skills in the water, but also to heal their minds and to feel empowered to say “I belong. “As said to Tiana Attride.

I started surfing when I was sent to Hawaii to live with my sister when I was almost sixteen. There are only three things you can do when you live on the North Shore, especially since I lived in a resort: There was golf, and I didn’t do that. There was a swimming pool. And then, maybe 100 or 200 feet from my house, there was the ocean – and this is the playground that I decided I wanted to explore.

I call surfing my church. When I go to church, I want comfort; I want peace; I want to have that respite that everyone wants when they’re not at work. I can sit in (or pass) the queue for hours, and just jump on my board. The movement of water heals. Whether I’m riding a wave for three or 30 seconds, facing the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, either way, I can go out there and give it my all, come back and feel 100% better. .

But often, finding the space to go to church is made difficult.

Rhonda harper
Rhonda Harper, Founder of Black Girls Surf | Courtesy of Black Girls Surf

It wasn’t until I returned from Hawaii to the mainland that I realized that some people didn’t want me in the water. I was at the beach one day with a Caucasian male – which made it worse, since it was in the 80s and so interracial relationships weren’t celebrated already – and we were catching glances all over. time. As we were leaving, I walked up the hill to my car, and someone had written “come home, n-” on the side. I knew right away that I wasn’t “supposed” to be there.

Most recently my nephews were renting surfboards while I was waiting with a friend of mine outside. As they walked out of the surf shop, of course, they were carrying their wetsuits and surfboards in their hands. They were proud, like, yeah we are surfers. And they were stopped at least four times by white people on the street to take pictures, because they had never seen a black surfer before. It was really uncomfortable, and I had to explain to them what it meant to them in the car: we, as people of color in the water, white people don’t see us as surfers. We are a spectacle. An exhibition. And since we’re made to feel like outsiders, a lot of people of color don’t see surfing as a sport for them.

a group of young black girls practicing surfing
Black Girls Surf started with an Africa Surf International competition | Courtesy of Black Girls Surf

Surfing Black Girls started with an Africa Surf International competition in Sierra Leone. Blacks were excluded from professional surfing; they had no visibility, so I decided to create Africa Surf so that we could hunt black talent internationally.

We found all the guys we needed that day, but we only had one girl. His name was Kadiata Kamara, and she was the first and only surfer that day in Sierra Leone. At first I thought we would make her surf with the boys, and then I thought, “No, we’re not going to do that.” We will also look in West Africa; there must be more African women with a board of directors. ”This is how we found Khadjou Sambé in Senegal.

This is what I want black women and girls to understand with Black Girls Surf: you can be anything you want.

Still, we knew there was a catch: there were hardly any black girls willing to participate. And when there is a problem like that, what do you do? I couldn’t leave it as it is; I decided to do something about it.

It was the start of Black Girls Surf. We started with two girls, and now I have to keep getting new staff as it gets bigger and bigger every day. We had to put an end to applications in South Africa because an entire canton was interested [in learning to surf]. There were 60 girls aged 8-17 who lived within 10 miles of the beach, but had never been there before.

a woman surfing towards the shore
Black Girls Surf offers lessons and helps booming black surfers go pro | Courtesy of Black Girls Surf

Now, as soon as the girls get out of the water, they walk up the beach smiling, noses runny. No one worries about their hair or who is looking around. Nobody worries about anything. They have just had the most fun of their life. And even though they might have only caught one wave, that wave was huge for them. The story they tell when they get home might not sound like the real action, but that’s exactly what the sport makes you feel: larger than life. It makes you feel like you can conquer it all. This is what I want black women and girls to understand with Black Girls Surf: you can be anything you want. You don’t have to be a great surfer. We just want to empower you to be your best.

For me, it’s all about parenthood. My parents always had extra people in our house, which was already full – we were literally the Black Brady Bunch. They would always fly to Washington or take us to visit and talk to people in juvenile facilities since they both worked in civil rights.

It helped me become who I am today. My parents are gone now, but I was determined not to give up their legacy. When I was young, my mother wanted me to be a lawyer. Now I still remember the day she saw me on CNN with Khadjou. She just turned around, looked at me and said, “You’ve become like me, haven’t you?”

I said, “I did. I don’t have to be a lawyer mom – you said to be the best I can be. I’m not the best surfer, but I can be. the best surfer in my community. ” And she said, “You sure are heading in that direction.”

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