Love Viral Rollerskaters? Celebrate The Black History Behind The Trend

Rollerskating is Black joy on eight wheels, now and always.

Rollerskating is having a moment right now, thanks to TikTok, which has flooded feeds with clips of carefree skaters cruising on eight wheels as they soak up sunshine on pavement and boardwalks.

The mesmerizing trend— which has been slinking in the background of recent pop culture, like HBO’s “Euphoria” and “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” — seems to be the perfect antidote to pandemic blues: Strapping on a pair of skates is synonymous with summertime fun, no social distancing required.

It helps that experienced skaters like Berlin-based Oumi Janta and instructor Coco Franklin make the recreational hobby looks effortless, pulling off dance moves with heel flicks and carving through concrete like butter.

Janta, Franklin, and others have spurred viewers to buy rollerskates at unprecedented levels, causing global skate shortages that have orders backed up for months. It’s led to news coverage and social media chatter insinuating that the retro fad of rollerskating is “back.”

But as any pre-pandemic skate enthusiast would tell you (and what they’ve likely spent eons convincing their friends of): Rollerskating has always been alive and well, holding a specific importance in Black culture especially.

As Mashable reports, the major Black contributions to modern rollerskating have been largely “whitewashed” by the majority white skaters taking up space.

The whitewashing of rollerskating hasn’t gone unnoticed by critics, many of whom reference the 2019 documentary “United Skates” for clearly outlining how rollerskating culture is tied to the Civil Rights movement and has been fiercely defended by generations of Black skaters.

The wheels of justice keep turning

Black skaters were often denied entry to rinks during U.S. segregation and even afterwards, often relegated to “Black-only” skate nights. Thanks to lobbying from peaceful protesters, rinks became more inclusive. However, even today rink time slots for adult skaters, which many Black locals may attend, are policed and involve metal detectors, “United Skates” filmmaker Dyana Winkler told Vice.

A reminder of Canada’s own anti-Blackness manifesting in skate spaces came to light earlier this year, thanks to a Toronto Star story. After his son and wife were denied entry into a rollerskating club (located at what is now the 519 Community Centre in Toronto) in 1906, Armistead Pride Taylor took the club’s owner to court.

Although Taylor didn’t get his desired outcome of $50 in damages, the wheels against injustice were spinning: The judge, recognizing the unfairness of the situation, awarded the family ticket refunds.

Anti-Black racism is still present in skating communities — many boycott the skate brand Mota for being against Black Lives Matter, and criticize skate influencers like Indy Jamma Jones, whose Facebook community censored conversations about Black realities. But also present is Black resilience, which is seen through what skaters are doing to support Black Lives Matter, and Black joy.

More spaces needed to create community to connect

“Black joy is revolutionary,” starts the caption of one of Kaligirwa Namahoro’s latest Instagram posts. It show the Quebec-based skater smiling at the camera, as a sign to other Black folks that it’s OK to log off sometimes from racial violence and focus on putting their happiness first.

The 22-year-old is proud of being a queer non-binary Rwandese immigrant, but told HuffPost Canada there are few Black skaters in the province.

To encourage more community presence, Namahoro hopes that a roller-skating rink opens nearby.

“There’s presently none. [Alternatively,] having a local YMCA or school host skating nights for adults,” Namahoro said, adding that it would also be beneficial to rely less on retailers like Amazon for equipment.

If you’re a Black Canadian looking to take up rollerskating, getting started can be challenging, as visible representation is a problem in spaces like derby leagues. Luckily, there are existing networks that are always welcoming all skill levels, many discoverable online, like the Instagram account @BipocWhoSkate.

For non-Black skaters who are active in skating communities, genuine allyship is valued and constantly ongoing. Besides using one’s platform to educate ― TikTokker Jay Lampy’s video explaining how “no saggy pants, no tiny wheels” rink rules target Black people has gained over a million views ― those involved in rollerskating-related businesses can endeavour to make their organization explicitly anti-racist.

Namahoro's current set-up includes rainbow-laced boot-cut skates, outdoor wheels ("gummier" are better for rough surfaces), and a helmet with a "Black Lives Matter" sticker.
Namahoro's current set-up includes rainbow-laced boot-cut skates, outdoor wheels ("gummier" are better for rough surfaces), and a helmet with a "Black Lives Matter" sticker.

That can look like elevating Black skaters through compilations; changing organizational policy and being accountable to callouts, like what the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association is moving towards (albeit slowly); and breaking down barriers that prevent Black newcomers from taking up and sticking with the hobby.

Financial aid is another way to support Black skaters. The podcast show Holding Space by derby skater Magical Wheelism often dives into nuanced conversations about race and identity in the sport, with new listeners and donations always welcome. Once orders and sizes are available, those keen on buying skates should consider doing so from Black-owned businesses like Moonlight Roller.

Street, dance and jam skating

There are many tutorials online for all skill levels that help skaters get comfortable on eight wheels (Common advice is to get low and pick a butt cheek when you fall. And yes, you will fall). A popular hashtag to see fellow skate newcomers evolve is #365daysofskates and #moxiskatedaily; the latter encourages people who own Moxi brand skates to make daily progress posts.

If old-school styles are up your alley, “The King of Skate” Richard Humphrey offers classes in San Francisco teaching his iconic choreography, as well as specific move breakdowns on his Instagram.

Park skating

Videos by park and outdoor skaters like Sade, who runs the Instagram account @skatealldae, can be very educational.

“It’s so nice to see people learning about the Black skate community and understanding where it all started, which is not TikTok,” Sade, who goes by just her first name, told HuffPost Canada. “It’s frustrating knowing all people know about skating for the most part is cute trendy TikTok videos. For the real skating, you’ve got to go to the rink and see where the magic happens.”

For those looking to rise and grind on rails with others, the all-genders international meetup group Chicks In Bowls has chapters in many major cities; its Vancouver chapter currently hosts socially distant meetups.

Rink skating

Canadian rollerskating rinks are few and far between, with Scooter’s Roller Palace in Mississauga, Ont. one of the last bastions. The group Roll Out Toronto has regularly hosted parties in the venue and will likely resume once physically gathering isn’t an issue.

Roller derby

Loved the skating scenes in “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey?” If contact sports are your jam (and once COVID-19 isn’t constantly looming over us), many cities have “fresh meat” programs run by leagues that are worth joining, like Roller Derby Québec which El Cho told HuffPost Canada she’s a part of.

El Cho has a few years of derby under her belt and is affiliated with Low Life Skate Shop. As with many derby lovers, she revealed that she fell in love with the sport by watching a game, in an interview with the shop.

These introductory courses teach skating fundamentals which usually progress to joining a team and playing against others. (A word of advice: before rushing off to buy a roller derby starter package, try shooting your local league a message about the program and if second-hand gear is available to try on.)

Virtually, Team Black Diaspora Roller Derby connects Black skaters around the world through the pandemic with check-ins and regular episodes with guests.

Shopping local: While you may get lucky finding a pair of skates at a sports shop, there are options catering to specific skater needs like Lowlife Skate Shop in Montreal and RollerGirl in Vancouver.

Although not local, renowned derby skater Freight Train ― who is widely considered a legend in the sport ― is also worth an Instagram follow: Beside hosting monthly gear giveaways, her page features skate culture content and training videos.

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