For Rhonda Harper of Black Girls Surf, the Ocean Is Church
The surf coach and activist wants to help Black girls find their wave.
Rhonda Harper—who, it’s worth mentioning, only recently returned home to California after being stuck abroad for nearly 17 months during the pandemic, first in Senegal and then in South Africa—was born for two things: surfing and activism. Her career in surf education and Black empowerment has been ongoing since 2014 when she established Africa Surf International, a professional and amateur competition series that brings together surfers of the African diaspora.
But since 2018, Harper has focused on changing the lives of young Black girls around the world through Black Girls Surf. Through training, workshops, and surf therapy, Harper’s organization has helped hundreds of Black girls and women across the US, Africa, and the Caribbean to not only advance their skills in the water, but heal their spirits and feel empowered to say “I belong.” As told 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're living on the North Shore, especially since I was living in a resort: There was golfing, and I wasn’t doing that. There was a swimming pool. And then, maybe 100 or 200 feet from my house, was the ocean—and that's the playground I decided I wanted to explore.
I call surfing my church. When I go to church, I want solace; I want peace; I want to have that respite anybody wants when they're not at work. I can sit out in (or past) the lineup for hours, and just bob on my board. The movement of the water is healing. Whether I ride a wave for three seconds or 30 seconds, whether I face the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat—either way, I can go out there and just give it my all, come back, and feel 100% better.
But often, finding the space to go to church is made difficult.
It wasn't until I returned to the mainland from Hawaii that I realized some people didn't want me in the water. One day, I was at the beach with a Caucasian male—which made things even worse, since this was the ‘80s and so already interracial relationships weren't celebrated—and we were catching looks the whole time. As we were leaving, I climbed up the hill to get to my car, and someone had written “go home, n—” on the side. I knew immediately that I wasn't ‘supposed’ to be there.
More recently, my nephews were renting surfboards while I waited with one of my friends outside. As they came out of the surf shop, sure enough, they had their wetsuits on and surfboards in their hands. They were proud—like, yeah, we're surfers. And they were stopped at least four times by white people on the street to take pictures, because they’d never seen a black surfer before. It was real uncomfortable, and I had to explain what that meant to them in the car: We, as people of color in the water—white people don't see us as surfers. We’re a spectacle. An exhibition. And since we’re made to feel like outsiders, many people of color don't see surfing as a sport for them.
Black Girls Surf began with an Africa Surf International contest in Sierra Leone. Black people were being left out of professional surfing; they weren't getting exposure, so I decided to create Africa Surf so that we could chase Black talent internationally.
We found every guy that we needed that day, but only had one girl. Her name was Kadiata Kamara, and she was the first and only female surfer that day in Sierra Leone. At first, I figured we’d just have her surf with the boys—and then, I thought, "No, we're not going to do that. We're going to look in West Africa, too; there's got to be more African women out there with a board." That’s how we found Khadjou Sambe in Senegal.
That’s what I want Black women and girls to understand with Black Girls Surf: you can be anything that you want.
Still, we knew that there was an issue: there were essentially no Black girls ready to participate. And when there's a problem like that, what do you do? I couldn’t just leave it as it was; I decided to do something about it.
That was the beginning of Black Girls Surf. We started out with two girls, and now, I have to keep getting new headcounts because it grows and grows every day. We had to put a stop on applications in South Africa because an entire township got interested [in learning to surf]. There were 60 girls from the ages of 8 to 17 who lived not even 10 miles from the beach, but had never been there before.
Now, as soon as the girls get out of the water, they walk up the beach grinning, noses running. Nobody's worried about their hair, or who’s around them watching. Nobody's worried about anything. They’ve just had the most fun they’ve ever had in their lives. And even though they might’ve just caught one wave, that wave was huge for them. The story they tell when they get home—it might not be similar to the actual action, but that's exactly how this sport makes you feel: larger than life. It makes you feel like you can conquer anything. That’s what I want Black women and girls to understand with Black Girls Surf: you can be anything that you want. You don't have to be a great surfer. We just want to empower you to be your best self.
To me, it’s all about parenting. My parents always had extra people in our house, which was already full—we were literally the Black Brady Bunch. They were always flying to DC or taking us to visit and talk to people in juvenile facilities since they both worked in civil rights.
That helped me become who I am today. My parents are gone now, but I was determined not to give up their legacy. In my younger years, my mum wanted me to be an attorney. Now, I still remember the day she saw me on CNN with Khadjou. She just turned around, looked at me, and she said, "You did turn out like me, didn't you?"
I said, "I did. I don't have to be an attorney mom—you said be the best that I could be. I'm not the best surfer, but I can be the best surfer for my community.” And she said, "You definitely are headed in that direction."