Claude Steele begins the book by describing the day he first “realized” that he was black. In the 1950s, when Steele was a child, Chicago was a heavily segregated city, and one summer’s day, Steele was surprised to learn that because of his race he wasn’t allowed to go into the nearby swimming pool to cool off. In other words, Steele first became aware that he was black in the instant that he learned that black people were banned from the pool. For Steele, this humiliating incident is a symbol for the power of social contingencies. In this case, the rule against swimming in the pool is an identity-defining contingency (if Steele goes in the pool, then he will be breaking the law—therefore, he is black). At the same time, the swimming pool symbolizes the power of negative contingencies in defining identity. More often than not, Steele argues, people come to understand their identities because of negative, painful experiences, such as being banned from a pool.
The Swimming Pool Quotes in Whistling Vivaldi
I have a memory of the first time I realized I was black. It was when, at seven or eight, I was walking home from school with neighborhood kids on the last day of the school year—the whole summer in front of us—and I learned that we "black" kids couldn't swim at the pool in our area park, except on Wednesday afternoons.
When I look over my life as an African American, I see improvements in the contingencies attached to that identity. The swimming pool restrictions of my youth are gone. So are the suffocating limitations Anatole Broyard would have faced as a black man in New York City in the late 1940s. Things have gotten better. But remember, contingencies grow out of an identity's role in the history and organization of a society—its role in the DNA of a society—and how society has stereotyped that identity.