Little Black Surfer Girl

By Rhonda Harper, BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: October 19, 2009

CALIFORNIA (BASN) — Many times I have been asked, “When did you start surfing and why?” Or, “Why do you continue to push more people of color to get in the water?”

I have always changed the subject to the current state of the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) lack of color in their contests or press the fact that the United States of America does not currently have one single person of Afro – whatever descent represented in surf industry advertisements.

After giving it a lot of thought, I have decided to answer this question.

Maybe some little girl out there will find this story and never give up, no matter what the cost. Here are some excerpts from my book: Little Black Surfer Girl .

Surfing is the only thing in my life I keep for myself.

It has saved my life more than once. It gives me a feeling that I cannot get from anything else. I know others feel like that, so why shouldn’t the world know? What information is being held back?

Ever since I saw “Beach Blanket Bingo” I have been in love with surfing. I have interviewed a lot of surfers and most of the original gang of surfers will tell you, “Those movies killed surfing as we knew it.”

It might have done that in their world, but in my world, it was pure heaven.

It was summer of 1976, I watched Beach Blanket Bingo, for the first time I saw a positive view of White America. I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, were Blacks were still separated from Whites by a railroad track.

My family moved to the other side of the tracks. My brothers and sisters were the only Black kids within miles. We became extremely close.

My parents must have loved kids, because there were six of us, three boys and three girls. I know, the “Black Brady Bunch,” that joke became old in later years. I am the baby girl.

My mother’s sister, Francis, died of Lupus at an early age. She left behind three kids, who went to stay with their maternal grandmother. The youngest of the three, a boy named Eric, came to live with us.

It changed me and my life forever.

Before he arrived, we all attended a Catholic school that was mixed with black kids and white kids. I remember the first Cambodians that arrived to the church house next door. I helped teach the family English.

I was very proud of that accomplishment being that I was in second grade!

My third grade year was the worst experience of my life. Not only were we forced to attend an all white school because our school had no more room for Eric, but I was enduring his sexual abuse.

Every child remembers their pleasant days of school. I never had any. I was called “nigger” on a daily basis, which always leads to a fight. I was an angry kid. I remember someone purposely breaking the thermos in my lunchbox so I would swallow the glass.

Kids were mean. I hated that school. My dad bestowed the nickname “Rocky” on me because I was fighting all the time. I was also fighting off advances at home.

My mom’s government job was transferred to San Jose, CA. What I now know as Streamer’s Lane was the first beach I had ever seen. I used to climb down the rocks and swim in the oceans for hours with my family.

The game, “let’s see who can handle the biggest wave” was our favorite past time.

My sister was attending Chaminade University in Honolulu, got pregnant, and my parents sent me there so I would stay out of trouble in San Jose. My life in San Jose was a nightmare.

No little girl should have endured what I went through. I kept everything inside while being the class clown on the outside. They never knew how happy I was to get out of that house or why.

It was a great experience for me, as I was lucky enough to go to the beach every day.

The Turtle Hilton became my home away from home. I would just sit on the bench outside and watch tourists surf for hours. The hit television show, “Magnum P.I.” was also filming at the hotel so I would walk over and watch them film. Some of the crew would paddle out.

It was like watching contests in my backyard.

One day, a crew member asked me if I wanted to “paddle out.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I said sure. He told me how to lie on the board and he would paddle out.

My first ride was a tandem horror show complete with the lost of a precious item, my bikini top. I ran home and never went up to the hotel while they were filming again. I did, however return to try on my own.

Five brutal days of trying to stand, a tourist from the hotel finally gave me some pointers. What I learned from surfing was patience and discipline. I was also very proud of myself. The anger was subsided. I also became one with nature.

There was a gentle calm in my soul that I had never experienced in my life. I was more mature and ready to take on the world. I returned to the mainland a few months later ready to start my surfing career at home.

When I returned to San Jose, there were no black people surfing at Steamer’s Lane. I would drive up to Santa Cruz to sit and watch because I was too afraid to join in. I dropped surfing out of fear. I went one day with my boyfriend at the time, a White man, only to return to my 300ZX with “Go Home Nigger” written in wax.

I never went back.

Life handed me new cards. I became an accountant. I was about to become Chief Financial Officer of an environmental company. I was on top of the world. Within a three month period, my father passed way; I was hit by a drunk driver and now hooked on pain medication from the accident.

I moved to Los Angeles to start over again. I bought a surfboard immediately; and the pain of the journey subsided again once I was back in the ocean.

Cecelia Rasmussen, of the Los Angeles Times, wrote an article about a once segregated beach called the “Ink Well”. Intrigued by the story I began to research the history of the beach. I also found an article on Nicolas Gabaldon, mentioned as the first African American surfer.

The rest is “black surf history.”

In every traumatic situation I have been placed in, surfing has kept me sane and alive. I hope that I can continue to help girls and women strive for their dreams. I am here in spite of all that I have been through.

I am Black. I am a female…

I am a surfer.

I am a survivor.