Have wheels, will protest

How Black Americans use roller skating as a form of community and activism


By Asha Swann


If you saw roller skaters effortlessly dancing through your social media feeds over summer 2020, you weren't alone. Millennials and Gen Z are the latest group to partake in the classic pastime of roller skating. Coinciding with iconic fashion and music of the disco movement, it isn’t hard to see the appeal. In the 1970s, roller skating and roller derby swept the world, giving people a new way to express themselves through movement and dance. For the new generation, roller skating is excellent uncharted territory. While social media has certainly propelled skating back into the mainstream, it conveniently ignores the consistency of the sport through the last several decades in southern Black communities.


Jasmine Moore and Marician Brown are two California-based roller skaters, whose followings on social media have led a never-ending string of viral videos. The history of roller skating holds a unique spot in both Brown and Moore’s history, as well as Black history overall — a fact that has gone largely unacknowledged in mainstream media for decades, according to Brown and Moore.


Brown believes social media has helped connect lovers of roller skating from around the world, giving an incredible resurgence to the sport.


Brown says that going to rinks in the South as a kid was very different from the carefree era of TikTok skaters today. When she was growing up,she couldn’t look to YouTube for instructions, she says.


“I’m 24, and every time I went to the roller skating rink when I was younger, it was very different,” Brown explained. “[Now there’s] good music, good instructors and people who are willing to teach you. I didn’t grow up with that.”


Before looking at roller skating’s popularity across TikTok, it’s important to take historical context into account. According to a 2014 article published by The Atlantic, roller skating was simply inaccessible to anyone poor or Black before the Civil Rights movement — partially due to Jim Crow legislation, but also partly due to labour laws. The majority of the American population was forced to work long, grueling hours for measly wages. If you were Black, these wages were even more pathetic. Take a look at the Roaring 20s that saw massive economic growth, consumerism and the birth of some of America’s first roller rinks. In 1923, the average worker was a white male, earning $34 per week. Black Americans meanwhile, were on average earning between $5 to $9 weekly. With a pair of skates selling for around $2.25 a pair, this meant skating for Black Americans could cost about half of a week's salary. As a result, the white affluent class thrived in the environment, which segregated them not only from all other races, but low-income people as well. Jim Crow laws enforced segregation from 1870 until 1968. Undeniably, 1970s white America and 1970s Black America were worlds apart, even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 technically made types of discrimination illegal. While white Americans became cozy in the suburbs with the first Barbie and Hot Wheels toys, Black Americans were finally allowed to take the bus into newly integrated schools. Race scholars say that during the 1970s and 1980s, roller rinks and amusement parts were among the last places to desegregate due to how ingrained they were in white recreational culture.


As Moore explains, Black America used roller rinks to create spaces of justice and activism.


“When you look at the history of roller skating through the segregation era and up until now, Black people used roller skating as a form of protest. They use it as a form of escape, they use it as a form of expression,” Moore says.


In 2018, The New York Times reported that around 95 per cent of attendees at the nightly roller rink specials in New York and New Jersey are African American, ranging from teens to seniors.


During segregation, roller rinks that allowed Black patrons needed to be scheduled in advance. During the one night each week, Black Americans were allowed to take part in a “coloured-only skate night.” In the 2018 documentary United Skates, a Black skater explained how he grew up seeing KKK members picket any roller rink which allowed African Americans, saying that people would “rather die than integrate.” Racial tensions increased alongside pop culture. Disco and hip hop grew alongside flared pants and the fight for civil rights. Using the large rink, Black people organized protests in their forced segregation. In places where hip hop was rejected, musicians performed in any roller rinks that would permit Black people to gather.


It isn’t hard to see why Moore is just one of many skaters who believe the rich history of roller skating is intertwined with the Black Lives Matter movement.


Brown, who grew up going to roller rinks in her hometown of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, says the roller skating movement has become much more inclusive because of social media, adding on that rediscovering skating makes people “feel like they’re on top of the world.”


For Moore, the power of skating as a form of protest has been a powerful tool in the Black community.


Moore also explains that the diversification of roller skating is long overdue but necessary for the sport to grow. North American skaters should also strive to understand the historical context of skating, she says.


For both Moore and Brown, skating isn’t a fad that will pass with the seasons. Roller skating as a whole never stopped — instead, it stealthily shifted underground. It is a community, a sport, a lifestyle and a culture that coincides with an integral part of Black history.