On an April morning in 1999, five Black rowers from Manley High School in East Garfield Park arrived in Michigan for the biggest race of their lives. Just a year and a half before, they’d been strangers, but now, they were a family, united in their love for rowing, determination for survival, and the history they made as the first all-Black high school rowing team.
Since that time, lots has changed for team captain Arshay Cooper. The West Lawndale native has worked at AmeriCorps, attended culinary school and become a personal chef, and, always keeping up with his love of rowing, coached the Chicago Urban Youth Rowing Club.
In July 2018, the team reunited on the water for the first time in 20 years to race in the highly competitive Chicago Sprints, an occasion that was caught on camera by the documentary A Most Beautiful Thing. The documentary is based on Cooper’s 2015 memoir Suga Water, which will be reissued on Flatiron Books (also as A Most Beautiful Thing) on June 30. A marquee creative team came together to tell Cooper’s story: The documentary is narrated by Common, produced by basketball stars Dwyane Wade and Grant Hill and hip hop producer 9th Wonder, and directed by Olympic rower–turned-documentarian Mary Mazzio.
Ahead of its release on July 17, Cooper discussed representation in media, reuniting with his original team on the water, and why he invited police officers to row with them on location in Chicago.
You rowed with your old teammates while filming A Most Beautiful Thing. How did that feel?
It’s that family-reunion feeling: You sit there and you just talk about every single thing you did as high school kids. It also reminds you of the struggles you went through when we were doing this together. We were so isolated from everyone; we were the only ones that looked like us at all these regattas with thousands of people. And being [on the water] brought back that feeling of being alone, but also how far we came.
I’ve been in the rowing world for a while. I spent the last six years helping people start their rowing clubs. When I visit a city, usually, I’ll spend time in the water. It was everyone else’s first time back since the race.
What moved you to write your memoir?
I became a culinary instructor in New York. While teaching kids how to cook, I was always open about my background and my challenges growing up. The question that students always had was, “How do you live in a community that is neglected and poor, and become successful?” I decided to write about that and how rowing was my way.
In your memoir, you talk about representation on TV and how that influenced you growing up, as well as having a Black coach on the team. Tell me more about that.
What helped me before my mom’s recovery from drug abuse was watching shows like A Different World, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Family Matters, and seeing Black families that went to college and became doctors and lawyers. It really was like, “Oh my God, I can be that. I can do that.” Rowing can expose you to travel as a high school student, and there’s so many college opportunities, but kids who look like me won’t do it unless they see people who look like them.
It was so important to me to have a man that looked like me as a mentor of the team. He wasn’t the lead rowing coach, but he knew what it was like to be me. There’s all these people that have a passion to start a rowing team and they will call me, like, “Hey, can you help me with our framework? Can you help me recruit? Can you help me fundraise?” And the first thing I say is, “If there’s not any Black coaches around here, let’s get a strength and conditioning coach and teach them how to row, and use them to help recruit in these schools.”
While filming the documentary, you invited members of the Chicago Police Department to row with the Manley team. What was that like?
I wanted to break down some stereotypes by showing them that there are Black men that row on the West Side who are working every day to give Black kids opportunities. My hope wasn’t that we were going to get together and sing “Kumbaya” with cops. The hope was, I would invite them out to row a few times, and they would see that Preston wears hoodies and sags his pants, but he’s one of the best entrepreneurs in our neighborhood. That Malcolm calls his son every 10 minutes; that there are young people out there in the streets, and their parents care. I wanted them to see that Alvin got in trouble a few times, but he hires people that grew up like him and spent time teaching every cop how to row effectively. I wanted them to know my story. In rowing, there must be bonding, and that was my goal.
In your memoir you wrote, “What I have not seen yet is cops marching against other police officers that mistreat blacks. When that happens, I believe then we are moving toward change.” You originally wrote this in 2014. Seeing the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, do you feel hopeful for change?
I always have believed in hope. I believe that funds should be reallocated to community centers, trauma counselors, and schools. But today, [police are] still working in our neighborhoods, and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. So, learn our names, know our faces. That way, when you pull someone over, you’ll think about our stories.
It takes a village to raise a child. The police are working in that village, and we need them to help raise the child, not kill the child. I wanted them to hear our story. I feel like sports have always united people, and so maybe they would just come out to row, but it was all about a conversation. And then my hope is that they just hear us. Like I said in the film, it doesn’t change the system, but I’m hoping that what we’re doing and what we’re about can spark one person to stand up.
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