Given the circumstances, Rhonda Harper’s love affair with surfing seems miraculous. When she was 18 years old, she was picnicking with her white boyfriend at Lighthouse Beach—an area tucked away from the crowds of Santa Cruz. It was a lovely afternoon until she returned to her Nissan 300ZX to find someone had written “Go Home” and a racial slur on her car with wax. As an avid surfer, she knew the wax meant it was written by a fellow surfer.
Harper isn’t one to back down. “My nickname used to be Rocky,” she says of her teenage years. “All I did was fight.” But she was so embarrassed and hurt, she couldn’t even get behind the wheel. “I got my boyfriend to drive the car home,” she sighs.
That incident would influence Harper’s vision to change the look of surfing and, in turn, change the narrative of the sport. From 1998 to 2006, while working in fashion in Los Angeles, Harper came up with a surf brand tailored toward Black surfers and named it Inkwell, after Inkwell Beach, one of the few beaches for Black people during segregation, and where Nick Gabaldon, the first documented African-American surfer, rode waves.
Though white, Latino, Hawaiian and Japanese surfers are part of the sport’s lore and legacy, and are major players in today’s professional competitions, Black women are essentially absent. This is despite the fact that early accounts of wave riding on the west coast of Africa date back hundreds of years, with the first-known account of surfing documented in the 1640s in Ghana. “I was tired of not seeing my own people represented,” Harper says of Inkwell’s genesis.
Case in point: When she searched for surfers to model the brand, there were few, if any, Black women (other than herself) catching waves. Suddenly, the scope of her project broadened—in order to change the demographics of the sport, she would first have to introduce Black girls to it. In addition to Inkwell, she also founded Black Girls Surf, a nonprofit aiming to help girls of color reach professional levels in surfing, and change “the visual for tomorrow.” All she had to do was find them.
Even as a little kid growing up in landlocked Kansas, Harper had always been drawn to the water, and didn’t let challenges stop her. She’d walk two miles to the community pool to do laps. “It was predominantly white,” she says. “They didn’t want Black kids there.” Even so, she used to dream about the ocean, bingeing on 1960s movies like Beach Blanket Bingo, How To Stuff a Wild Bikini and Muscle Beach Party. Though there weren’t many Black characters in those films, the latter had a scene with a young Stevie Wonder. That alone was enough to make Harper feel like she too might be able to take part in the world of surfing.
When she was 10, her family moved to California and she visited Lighthouse Beach for the first time. “I was in love, instantaneously,” she says of clapping eyes on the charming cove. But the reality of being Black was far from idyllic in California, where in the 19th century officials tried to ban Black people, and where beaches remained segregated until the 1960s. Harper experienced ongoing prejudice: unwanted attention, stares and comments. Both her parents were civil rights workers—her mom for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and her dad for the unemployment office, helping Black vets reenter into society—and Harper bristled at being stereotyped. “As a teenager I was angry,” she says. “I wasn’t going to allow people to treat me a certain way.”
She didn’t get on a surfboard, however, until her parents sent her to live on Oahu’s North Shore when she was 15. She stayed with her sister, who was studying at Chaminade University. “They thought I would calm down in Hawaii, as there were brown people there,” she says. “And they were totally right.”
While she was watching the crew for the TV show Magnum, P.I. surf in their downtime, one of the crew members asked if she wanted to ride tandem. She agreed, and the pair managed to catch a wave, but when they tumbled off the board, she lost her bikini top. Mortified, she vowed to never surf again. Except it was too late—she’d caught the bug. Two weeks later when a kid at school brought in a board to sell, Harper bought the secondhand log. After five tough days of self-instruction, she was able to stand up on a wave. From then on, she was in the water every chance she could get—often from sunrise to sundown—riding tasty waves on an empty beach. She finally felt free.
Years later, Harper sought to share that freedom with other Black girls. After stints working for the U.S. Coast Guard and the International Surfing Association (ISA) as a competition judge, Harper embarked on Black Girls Surf’s larger mission. Though she had trouble finding Black female surfers in the U.S., she broadened her scope to the west coast of Africa and met promising Black female surfers Kadiatu Kamara (“KK”) in Sierra Leone and Khadjou Sambe in Senegal. Harper asked Sambe on the spot if she wanted to take part in a surfing competition. She said yes.
More inspiration came in 2018, when the ISA announced that surfing would be an Olympic sport in Tokyo in 2020. Harper explains that in some African countries it’s frowned upon for women to surf—let alone even think of going pro—but the Olympics offered a chance for men and women to represent their countries. (Olympic funding comes from each country’s National Olympic Committee, but if the country cannot pay for it, Black Girls Surf helps with financing for their trainees.) The Olympics would finally give these women an equal platform on a world stage. “It could smash things wide open,” says Harper.
Her plan was to train her hopefuls in California, but problems arose with the U.S. government’s executive order banning people from six Muslim-majority nations from entering the country. KK was denied entry to the U.S., but Sambe made it—with no money in her pocket, but lots of faith in Harper.
Harper began Sambe’s training at Steamer Lane, a world-class break in Santa Cruz. Sadly, when fellow surfers saw Sambe on her board, it seemed not much had changed since Harper’s wax incident in 1987. “When she first got in the lineup, even though she didn’t speak the language, she could feel the aggression,” says Harper. It’s common for newcomers to feel unwelcome at surf breaks where locals rule, but it’s also possible to prove your ability and earn your place. “She was surfing better than most of the men and getting cut off the entire time,” she says. Harper was documenting all of Sambe’s surfs on camera to use in training, but also as evidence of the tense encounters.
It turns out a girl from West Africa surfing at a world-class break can attract a different kind of attention, too: the media’s. From Outside magazine to local news stations, Sambe’s story started to reach the public.
“It changed everything,” says Harper. Slowly but surely, local surfers began to learn who Sambe was and what she was trying to achieve. Attitudes began to visibly change. “They knew she was trying to go to the Olympics,” Harper says, “and they began getting out of the way and actually trying to help her.” If attitudes could change at this one surf break, Harper knew they could change on a larger scale, too.
Today, Black Girls Surf is training Sambe to compete in the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics. Harper has also established camps that are training more than 100 Black girls between 7 and 17 years old to surf professionally, in academies in Senegal, Jamaica, Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and the U.S. Every student has either the Youth Games or the Olympics in sight.
The past year has been a standout for Harper’s cause. She organized Hawaiian-style paddle-outs around the world in support of Black Lives Matter to honor those killed by police, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Harper’s Inkwell brand has a small range of products tailored to a multicultural consumer, but global surf brands also took notice, giving Harper the opportunity to reach an international market. Black Girls Surf is now producing its first-ever line with Hurley, dedicated to young women of color.
“I had to choose which company would help the foundations of our cause, not just think it’s a fad,” Harper says. “I wanted to work with the company so that, even when the popularity of Black Girls Surf has waned, the legacy will continue.”
Hurley’s sponsorship will help pay for schools in West Africa, for surf trainers at the camps and for Black female representation in surf fashion. Harper is currently working on four capsule wardrobes—the first-ever Hurley line for girls—which will be released this summer. Harper also intends to hold the first Africa Surf International in 2021.
It’s been a long journey, but Harper vows to never stop fighting for change. “There are many times I want to give up,” she says, “but it doesn’t matter how old you are, what your gender is, what color you are, as long as you keep yourself honest, true to your visions and stay passionate, you can be whatever you want.”
For more information about upcoming camps and registration details, please visit blackgirlssurf.com.