For Generations to Come
Surfer|Volume 61, Issue 3 / Winter 2020
Rockaway’s Lou Harris is spreading the stoke to Black youth and leading surfers in paddling out for racial justice
OWEN JAMES BURKE

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.

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