Notes for a Speech Never Given (The Nile Swim Club)

Andrea Lee


Thank you, Mary Helen Washington, and thank you all for coming. I’m honored to be part of this wonderful series that has included so many great African-American writers. 

This evening instead of reading a piece of fiction, I have decided to say a few words about where all my fiction comes from. I think that every writer knows that he or she writes about one central thing, and if asked could give a very simple description of what it is. A long time ago when I was a freshman at Harvard, I was lucky enough to attend a reading by the great master Isaaac Bashevis Singer. Afterwards, when everyone, in good Harvard style, was asking the author complicated questions about literary theory, I raised my hand and asked: “Do you believe in ghosts and demons?” And hethis little old man with mesmerizing blue eyessaid: “Yes, I do. In fact, that is all I write about.” So now, with similar simplicity, I can say to you, that what I write about is belonging and not belonging. Being foreign and native. Being rooted and uprooted. It’s not a small subject, and not one I think I have addressed in any systematic or satisfying way. Still, it’s mine.

As I thought about this the other day, an image appeared in my memory: a swimming pool. And this is what I am going to tell you about. It is a real pool, that still exists in the small suburb of Philadelphia where I grew up. The town is Yeadon, Pennsylvania, and the pool–which is the oldest black-owned swimming club in America–is called the Nile Swim Club.

Think of it: a largely black suburb, with a pool called the Nile. The Nile was the heart of our neighborhood—which, as I have described in my first novel “Sarah Phillips” and even in an essay long ago published in Time magazine—was a peculiar place in the fifties and sixties: a haven created by middle-class black people where their families could live the American suburban dream. At the height of the civil rights movement, black doctors, lawyers, teachers and ministers were settling in these streets of comfortable houses with shady lawns which real estate speculators had made available to them by spreading panic among suburban whites. While most Yeadon residents were deeply involved in the movement—organizing boycotts, marching, traveling down to Montgomery and Selma and Washington–they were also busy pursuing the good life that post World War Two America was offering to more people than ever before. 

What could be more of an American icon than the swimming pool? For Jay Gatsby, a pool meant, first, aspiration, and finally, death. John Updike and John Cheever wrote stories devoted to pools. Phillip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus opens at a swim club, and one of the legendary scenes in The Graduate takes place under chorinated water. In the early sixties, pools were only abundant in the United States. Whether private or communal these little unnatural bodies of water popping up across the country were glassy turquoise eyes opening on the future, each one a proof, with its modern chemicals and synthetic color, that Americans could improve on nature with technology. That a luxury once reserved for the upper classes was now within reach of the many. Pools were the holy wells of our time, portals through to the dimension of triumphant prosperity, to the deep waters of what it was to be American. (With this in mind, it’s no surprise that so much racial violence, like the bloody 1958 Fairgrounds Riots in St. Louis, broke out around early attempts to integrate pools.)

The Nile Swim Club came into being out of this same giddy post-war optimism, but at the same time, like so many black institutions, had its roots in the wounded heart of America.

It was born in 1957 when my newly suburban parents and their neighbors discovered that their written applications for membership at the swim club on the white side of town were immediately crumpled up and thrown away. So they got together and bought a plot of land—an abandoned farmhouse sat to one side like a skeleton of the past—and built a club that looked like a 1960s fantasy dwelling: a low, improbably pink ranch building with the pool set behind it in a stretch of lawn–and fences around it, because we, too, could, presumably, exclude people. 

A journalist at the black Philadelphia paper, the Tribune, called it “swanky”; while a white journalist at the Philadelphia Bulletin wrote magnanimously that the birth of the Nile showed that black people were “growing up and learning to do things on their own.” At the opening ceremony, some of our neighbors—particularly old people who had grown up in the South—shed tears of emotion. But we children took it for granted: to us the club immediately felt like an extension of our houses and streets, of the secure world our parents had constructed for us. We spent long summer days there, riding back and forth on our bicycles with our towels rolled up in the baskets, taking swimming lessons in the mornings, eating the papery hamburgers at the snack bar, dreaming of the time when we, too, like the teenagers, could attend “splash parties” all the way until midnight, playing underwater tag in the mosquito-dusted evenings. For us it felt like home. 

Except there was the peculiar fact of that name. The same adults who were so tirelessly pursuing the pastoral suburban dream, didn’t choose “Meadowbrook” or “The Willows,” but a culturally resonant appellation: The Nile. A great African river that, however, none of us had ever seen, and that was not even geographically connected to our specific part of African history. A name that vaguely invoked spirituals about enslaved Israelites. A choice that referenced foreignness but was, ironically, pure American in its nostalgic, coded invocation of the heroic old country—in the manner of Sons of Erin social clubs, and Abyssinian Baptist churches. A choice that also reflected the mentality of the baby boom era, when white suburbanites were flocking to faux-Polynesian restaurants. 

At that pivotal moment when the Civil Rights movement was changing everything, there was not yet any widespread knowledge of African-American history. Even among privileged people like those in my neighborhood there was a great deal of ignorance about the cultures of our ancestors, and a lot of half-serious reaching out to exoticized ideas about who we were. The black doctors,teachers and ministers on my block—my father among them—used to relax by reading books like Mandingo and Drum. They joked about these books, but it is clear that they were symptoms of a profound need for connection.

In the same way they joked about about having christened the swim club “The Nile,” yet the name served the very serious purpose of declaring an identity in the face of the whites who had excluded them. It was also a subtle admonition to us kids growing up immersed in suburban comfort, that to the rest of America we would always be somehow foreign. I understood this early on, as I observed the adults sitting on their lounge chairs around the pool, smoking cigarettes and brandishing newspapers, hardly finding time to swim, so deep were they in discussions of bombs, police dogs, jail cells, fire hoses, marches, sit-ins, boycotts, Julian, Ralph, and Martin. I understood it further when I overheard some white boys at a supermarket laughing about the “niggers at the Nile Swim Club.” 

When I began to think about the Nile, it occurred to me for the first time what curious, liminal places all pools are: neither land nor sea, artificial spaces created by man where we float between worlds like embryos or astronauts. Of course this is a good metaphor for what happens in a middle-class black community whose children are taught to thrive in both white mainstream and black cultures. But a pool is also a metaphor for the classic amphibious role of belonging and not belonging that belongs traditionally to artists and thinkers–people who rely on the borderland fluid state of the imagination that generates creativity. 

So it is interesting and possibly no accident that so many of us children who grew up at that time in the shady streets around the Nile became creators and communicators. Our ranks included writers like Lorene Cary and myself, scholars like Donald Bogle and Henry Martin, filmmakers, professors, photographers, and journalists. And though a few of us chose to stay in Yeadon, many had futures that spread across the country, and some, like me, even overseas. I went off to college in Boston, wrote my first books in Russia, then settled in Italy—thus, in becoming an expatriate, adding one more facet to the role of resident alien. It took me years to perceive that this role echoed my upbringing as a middle-class black American, and still longer to perceive how much my writing—and all artistic work–springs from the kind of vision that comes only from being simultaneously, so to speak, inside and outside of a given experience. 

The Nile Swim Club—I feel extra happy about this—went on to outlive the white swim club that inspired its conception. Like so many traditionally black institutions, the club went through a period of declining membership when segregation eased. But it stayed open and nowadays sits nearly unchanged at the end of my old street still resembling an architectural dream of the sixties, still wafting all summer the sounds of splashing and children’s voices into what remains a comfortable black suburb. 

On a visit to Philadelphia not long ago, I met a taxi driver from Nigeria, who told me he had settled in Yeadon because it is a good place to raise a family and he had high regard for the local schools. Of course he knew of the Nile Swim Club, and as we spoke I wondered what resonance the name had for a person actually arrived from the continent of Africa, in a very different period of American history. But whether or not the name now seems quaint, or simply insignificant, the mentality that created it still floats through those green streets: the fervent hope of black immigrants, whether from overseas or from the ruined landscapes of Southern slavery, that their children will come to belong fully to America—a hope always tinged with the profound conviction that such belonging can never really be. Perhaps it was this unsettling subtext that allowed us Yeadon kids of many decades ago to grow up, not just privileged, but curiously inspired. In any case, thanks to the Nile, and all it stood for, we were lucky enough to learn to swim and dive and tread water, skills that of course last all your life. 



They Walked, We Swam

Our parents, those nice colored people,

(as they would be the first

to call themselves)

gave us the fantasy gift

all Americans

try to give their children.

The fantasy of




movers and shakers, 


nouveau riches,

social climbers;


all immigrants

of one type or another,

who crane their necks to

get a good look up

the greeny bronze skirts of

that off-the-boat Frenchwoman

named Liberty.

The gift is called:
“The kids will have it better

than we did”.


No lynchings,

no pogroms, no famine,

no raping overseers,

no landlords grabbing the last crumbs

no soldiers trampling bones in burnt villages

no grinding agony in mines, fields, mills–

no knouts, no shackles

no trees weighed down

with rotting corpse-fruit,

no signs saying “No,”

as in



Our parents said (as all the others do):

“We’ve worked so

they’ll have it easier,

our princes and princesses.

not spoiling them, not exactly...

but their cotillions of idle privilege

will be balm on

old scars.”

So they gave us lawns

like miniature


far from the rusting cages

of the Northern city blocks
where migration had flung them.

They gave us

fieldstone houses

in the style called Colonial;

gleaming cars long as Conestoga wagons;

backyards teeming with masses
of catalogue flowers,

riotous autumn leaves

and romping sitcom dogs

just like illustrations
in the schoolbooks where
grinning white children

laid down for us

the laws



This dream ghetto

had at its heart

not a church, mosque

or temple,

not a supermarket, playground or park,

But a swimming pool,

the chlorine-scented shrine

of the Sixties,

Built by these same tireless parents

Who with wry humor

christened it the “Nile Swim Club”
to remind us

of the ancestral continent we didn’t know

but whose shadow-hands clutched at our heels

across land and sea

To remind us that

despite the membership cards

rolled up in our damp towels

and the comforting heft of locker keys

that bound our skinny wrists

We’d always be





the pool was an idyll,

a Jesus-Loves-the-Little-Children


brown, black, high-yellow boys and girls

adrift in

nets of waterlight as we

bubbled messages in

subacqueous Esperanto

and played the ancient games–

evade your enemy,

the slippery trickster,It,

up on the dance pavillion

teenagers swayed in a Motown haze.

But our elders

who’d conjured up this pocket Arcadia

hardly had time to swim.

On the grass beyond the diving boards

they sat

in lounge chairs drawn up in conference,

earnest heads together

talking, talking,

smoking cigarettes to the butt

brandishing newspapers that in

the summer sunlight

were black and white windows

into hell.

An underworld of police dogs

and fire hoses

just a day’s travel away

where red earth was scored with keloids of shallow graves

and churches could explode

in bouquets of flame

where little girls in starched dresses

walked a via crucis
through spittle and curses on their way to school. 

The August day

of the great March

The swim club set up a television

so we youngest left-behind ones

could search for our parents’ faces in the

vast human stream

flowing into the white City.

In our bathing-suits

We stood in a solemn barefoot gang

Watching the screen

As the grand dreamer’s voice

Rolled over us with the exponential force

of all ancestral rivers

brown poets have


Then we got hot

and bored

and somebody pushed somebody else in the pool

and so we returned to our cannonballs

And games of underwater tag
while huge currents of history

swirled unnoticed

around us.

Years went by before
we could parse the ironies of this scene.

We had to grow up and


taken for granted

by kids of our own.

We had to look beyond the florid veil of the suburbs
To view our real inheritance:

the dark wound

still suppurating

at the heart of


Then we could start to understand

our parents,

those nice colored folks

with their neatly pressed clothes

and pressed hair,

those prim seditty ladies and gents


flocked to Washington

in trains, cars, buses.

Dogged citizens

who never grasped at heroism

but, pragmatic as usual,

remained intent

on constructing something solid from an idea

the way they

built us




among their nation’s stony monuments

caught in the ecstatic crush of the crowd

drunk on hymns and rhetoric

dazed by the Anacostia heat

they were cooled

the thought

of us kids

back home

buoyed up by blue water

floating like astronauts into the


Most certainly a


but refreshment enough

for our footsore

mothers and fathers

(by midday growing blisters

that would shackle their steps for days

sweating like field hands

under the millenial sun)

as they moved in unison, singing

for us

the lazy ones, the oblivious suburban heirs

who swam

while they who loved us helplessly and best

kept on

just kept on walking. 

Click here for an interview with Andrea Lee by Julia Brown, a former Gulf Coast Fiction Editor.