The leveling qualities of the bathing suit

Both Yoni Applebaum and Jamelle Bouie have important articles this week in the aftermath of the McKinney police force’s outstanding comedy of the absurd—which is less comedic, and more absurd, when we realize that too many police departments in this country routinely perceive rowdy black teenagers as supervillains that must be approached with the caution of a drawn pistol. Applebaum and Bouie both document the way that public swimming pools, originally built during the great expansion of free public amenities at the beginning of the twentieth century, gave way to privatized club pools as a racially-exclusive response to the desegregation of public pools.

Bouie writes:

Middle-class whites who were willing to swim with working-class immigrants—a major shift from the early 20th century, when pools were segregated by class—refused to share water with blacks. They didn’t just fear racial contamination—citing well-worn statistics about black mortality rates in Northern cities—they feared miscegenation. This pattern, in which the great extension of public services during the Progressive Era to the poor and working classes began unwinding during the racial exclusivism of the subsequent decades, is, in my view, one of the great (as in important—not as in laudatory) stories of twentieth-century American society.

Damning as the denouement of the story may be, its first act gives us the seeds of hope. When public bathing facilities were originally developed by reformist liberals in the late nineteenth century, they represented a remarkable extension of who should be allowed to share public space. In fact, the common experience of bathing together became one of the ways of imagining the classless society so cherished by reformers.

Sylvester Baxter, the Boston journalist, socialist, and park planner whose efforts led to the establishment of the nation’s first regional park system, wrote a poem in 1889 which celebrated the supposed leveling qualities of the seashore. Though Baxter, like most northern liberals of his time, hoped that it would be the differences “in rank or wealth” that would disappear—reflecting the lack of emphasis at the time on racial equality—Baxter’s imagination of all people united equally in a final equality in the “bath of Death” is a compelling metaphor for humankind’s basic common fate.

Despite its age, the poem is worth reading all the way through—especially now, 125 years later, when Baxter’s “curious desire” to “strip our human kind of all extrinsic things, and let men stand together without discrimination” remains an unaccomplished ideal.

At the public bath: An idyl of the town, Sylvester Baxter

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