Step into photographer Taghi Naderzad's spirited series celebrating the Black community in surfing.
When only a child of six, Ruby Bridges became the first African-American youngster to desegregate an all-white school in Louisiana. The year was 1960. How the times have changed, and how they haven’t, since. What’s stayed constant is the efforts by individuals and by communities, to challenge the status quo with positivity.
And yet, how much have we learned since Ruby Bridges (she had to be escorted to and from school by U.S. marshals to protect her safety) about acceptance? The countless slights suffered by African-Americans, from the murders of Emmett Till in 1955 to Ahmaud Arberry’s two years ago, to discrimination in all spheres of life, those countless tragedies in which innocent African-Americans are confronted by violence and reprisals from the white community, are seared into the collective consciousness and from that crucible, new claims for space and community are forged.
“A GREAT DAY IN THE STOKE” took place last month, the inaugural launch of what will become a yearly occurrence. Simply, surfing has traditionally been a white people’s game and “A GREAT DAY IN THE STOKE” aims to change that.
Event founder Nathan Fluellen, known as ‘Worldwide Nate’ because of his travels around the world (he’s visited 75 countries so far), dreamed up a day of surfing and community in Huntington Beach, Calif. for African-Americans. By going up on their boards Black surfers would swim upstream against the prevailing representation of surfing as a majority-white sport, and also came together as a community of like-minded sports enthusiasts. Some surfers present that day in June were beginners, others have surfing cred. It was a full program that awaited them, from surf lessons to yoga classes and an awards ceremony.
As Fluellen explains it, “‘A GREAT DAY IN THE STOKE was inspired by “A Great Day in Harlem”, which took place in 1958, and then ‘A Great Day in Hip Hop,’ which took place in 1998. I was inspired by the images of my favorite jazz musicians and hip hop artists and MCs.”
The history of Black surfing begins with Nicolás Rolando Gabaldón. Born in 1927, half-Black half-Latino, Gabaldón was a surfer at a time when beaches were segregated and black surfers were not a common sight (nearly a century later, they’re still not a common sight.) He was enrolled in Santa Monica College and worked as a lifeguard, soon rejoining other surfers on the beach who accepted and respected him. Gabaldón was a committed surfer, he was passionate for the sport. After a badly-performed move on the water, he crashed against the Malibu pier, his life cut short. “A GREAT DAY IN THE STOKE” is a tribute to Gabaldón.
Fluellen cuts a Richard Halliburton-like figure, iconoclastic, an overachiever eager to take on the world and if that fails, visit as many of its locales as possible and absorb foreign culture. His relatives are scattered about the world, which instilled in him a desire to travel, early on in life. He works as a TV host for West Africa Up Close, his Worldwide Nate African Adventures is currently airing on Amazon Prime. Nevertheless, for a seasoned world traveller who could be forgiven for living in a bubble, Fluellen appeared to me realistic about the backwardness on display on home turf, the prejudice and racism, the ignorance. “America has been oppressive for Black Americans and there have been efforts to keep this in place. All I can do is find my safe space. I wish I had a magic wand to make everyone truly feel like all people are created equal.”
In Huntington Beach that morning in June, surfers of all ages came together in paddle-outs, a surf ritual during which the community masses together on the water to pay homage to people who have died at the hands of racism. The names that come to mind here are George Floyd, Ahmaud Arberry and Breonna Taylor, among far too many others.
The surf competition took place after this, lessons were given and board demos conducted, a raffle was organized, vendors were on hand and a DJ provided music. Participants included surfers from Senegal and South Africa. Californians, young and less young ones, were there en masse and they were thrilled, excited, sometimes scared as this was the first time taking to the waves for some of the attendees. Brands like Quicksilver were represented to build new relationships and Patagonia co-sponsored the event.
At the end of our conversation Fluellen mused, “I want ‘A GREAT DAY IN THE STOKE to be in the zeitgeist of iconic black events that had happened and also for current black surfers to see this event and say, OK, I’m coming next year.”
Besides standing in as joyful disruption of perceptions around surfing, ‘A GREAT DAY IN THE STOKE’ is the first in an inspirational yearly event series that celebrates community and pays homage to the sacrifices of those who came before.