Surfer

For Generation­s to Come

Rockaway’s Lou Harris is spreading the stoke to Black youth and leading surfers in paddling out for racial justice

- By OWEN JAMES BURKE

Rockaway’s Lou Harris is spreading the stoke to Black youth and leading surfers in paddling out for racial justice

In April of 2014, Lou Harris, a surfer and resident of Rockaway—an oceanfront community in the New York City borough of Queens—read a news article about a 16-year-old boy who’d been arrested after setting fire to a mattress in his apartment in neighborin­g Coney Island. When the cops asked the kid why he started the fire, they reported that he said it was because he was bored.

Harris couldn’t bear the thought of kids in his community growing up with so little engagement—and in a place with waves, no less. To Harris, the answer was obvious—he’d introduce local youth to the thing he loved so much. He’d get them surfing.

Harris, who is now 48 years old, was born in Queens and grew up in Dix Hills, Long Island. He moved to the Rockaways in 2006, where he began teaching himself to surf to help come to terms with hanging up his skateboard in his late 30s.

Soon enough, Harris crossed paths with Brian “B.J.” James, a dedicated Rockaway Beach surfer and among the few Black wave riders you’d have found in that lineup in the 1990s—despite the neighborho­od’s population being roughly 35 percent Black. Author of “The Nautical Negro”, a memoir about his life as a Black waterman, B.J. showed Harris the ropes and taught him what a kook was—and how not to get called one.

Harris’ surfing progressed and he formed a deeper connection to the community, and when he read the article about the 16-year-old boy, he wanted to use the stoke of surfing to help prevent anything like that from happening there again. He started off by offering a curious local skateboard­er surfing lessons if he got himself a wetsuit. He did just that and became Harris’ first student.

As Harris’ grassroots mentorship was taking root in Rockaway, he came across a profile of California­n surfer Tony Corley—the founder of the Black Surfing Associatio­n—in an issue of The Surfer’s Journal. Four decades earlier, Corley began organizing informal fundraiser­s for junior swimming and lifeguard programs

after learning that Black children were statistica­lly much more likely to drown than white children in the United States. He went on to submit a letter to the editor of SURFER in hopes of finding fellow Black surfers who would be interested in connecting and surfing with him. SURFER published that letter in January 1974, which prompted a slew of responses. By 1975, the Black Surfing Associatio­n was officially up and running.

Harris set out to befriend Corley, but didn’t rush to petition him for his support right away. Instead, he connected with Corley on social media and initiated occasional correspond­ence while he worked to build momentum around the free surfing lessons he was offering. One day, Harris received a message from

 ??  ?? Longtime Rockaway surfer and founder of the East Coast Chapter of the Black Surfing Associatio­n, Lou Harris, passing some knowledge to local soon-to-beripper Marquez Celestin. Photo by KYLE TERBOSS
Longtime Rockaway surfer and founder of the East Coast Chapter of the Black Surfing Associatio­n, Lou Harris, passing some knowledge to local soon-to-beripper Marquez Celestin. Photo by KYLE TERBOSS

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