A Lesson in Figure Skating and Black Men
Dear Robert Samuels of the Washington Post,
Although I appreciate the observations in your recent article “I’m black. I’m a guy. And I’m obsessed with figure skating” – Washington Post Online, January 30, and I also appreciate how challenging it is to be a man of color working for the Post, your perspective as a black man loving figure skating is neither newsworthy nor unique. You are definitely not the first black man to be a fan of figure skating. In fact, in addition to other black men being fans, there have been and continue to be black men and women actually in the sport. But I have to also realize that you, along with many others may not be aware of the depth and breadth of the history of blacks in figure skating in America. So, with all good intentions, here are a few of my own observations as a fan for over 45 years.
Today, in Culver City Californa, an era comes to an end. On February 2, 2014, Culver City Ice Arena will close. Along with it, the dreams of many a child who usually wouldn’t have access to even knowing about skating of any kind. I discovered Culver City Ice when I moved to Los Angeles in 2000. I had started skating (as an adult) while living in Toronto in 1996 and had managed to keep up the sport. My first impression of Culver City Ice was that it was run down (the ice had a distinct dip toward one end.) But there was a charm that is summed up by the “Sweetheart of the Ice” sculpture that adorns the roof and by the warmth of the instructors, some who had been teaching there since its opening in 1962. The other thing that spoke to me were how many kids of color were on the ice. It was the first time in all of my years of following figure skating that I had seen that many kids of color on the ice. One of the first people I met was Catherine Machado, US National Bronze medalist (1955, 1956) as well as the first Latina national champion (Junior, 1954.) She was funny and wry and so unassuming, I didn’t realize her history. I remember her telling me that one reason she loved this rink was that, although she loved all her students, Culver City attracted the kids who looked and sounded like her and it was important for them to see a role model. But I digress…
Culver City Ice was not only where I first landed an axel jump (thank you Gary Visconti) but where I met Atoy Wilson, the first African American National Champion (Novice, 1966) and the first African American to skate in the National Championships (1965) and former star of Ice Follies, Holiday on Ice and numerous appearances on television. He introduced me to a world of black figure skaters who to this day continue to be sidelined by a sport that is plagued by both racism and economic elitism. Through him, I learned about and was fortunate to meet incredible athletes: Franklyn Singley, Sheliah Crisp, Derrick Delmore, Aaron Parchem, Andrea Gardiner, Rohene Ward, just to name a few…not to mention legendary figures like Debi Thomas, Richard Ewell and Tai Babilonia. These skaters, represent some of the most phenomenal talent to ever land on the ice. At a 2002 gala in Cleveland, I saw them perform spins and jumps that don’t even have names in the mainstream sport; I witnessed a level of athleticism and artistry with these skaters that puts anything that most of our national competitors do to a sorry shame; and I encountered a passion for the sport that transcended the cultural barriers that were routinely put in their way by “the establishment.”
The most important introduction, however, that came to me from Culver City Ice Arena was my introduction to Mabel Fairbanks. Fairbanks was a black skater and coach who came up in a time when it was impossible to be a black woman and be a skater, let alone a black woman from Jacksonville, Florida. Arriving in New York City in the 1930’s, she saw figure skating, most notably the movie “One In a Million” with Sonja Henie, and was hooked. Although she was most likely in her early 20’s when she started, she found a way to teach herself and wangle lessons with then US Champion Maribel Vinson Owen and eventually create small ice shows around herself in Harlem using all local children as talent. After some important publicity in New York, the prospect of a movie career called her to Hollywood, but due to racism and questionable management, it was not to be so. But this didn’t stop Mabel. She began performing a “tank show” (small patch of portable ice), created an international tour with skaters of color and most importantly started coaching. She worked with the children of many celebrities through the 1950’s and eventually went on to coach Atoy Wilson who I mentioned above. She was the reason he broke the color barriers at both the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club and US Figure Skating Nationals. It was around this same time that she looked at a little white boy and a little Filipino/black girl and said something to the effect of “I think they would make a nice pair” and put Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia on the ice together. Needless to say, the rest is World Champion history. Due to her failing health at that time, I only had the chance to speak directly to Mabel briefly on the telephone, but I will never forget her delicate and determined voice even in illness saying how important it was to make sure that ALL the skaters get a chance. She died in 2001.
I could go on, but there is a more important element to this story. I started by saying that with Culver City Ice closing, so are the hopes and dreams of many skaters who won’t have access to the sport of skating whether that be figure skating or hockey. Most of those kids are of color…and most of them don’t know the depth of the history of skaters of color outside of those of Japanese, Korean and Chinese decent (all of whom are phenomenally talented and deserve all the praise they get…Mirai Nagasu!) Culver City Ice is on the border of several poor communities where one of the only low cost fun family, teen activities is ice skating. What a loss. I remember being a child in New York City after seeing Peggy Fleming skate at the Olympics and wanting more than anything to “do that.” My parents indulged me briefly by taking me to the Sky Rink once, but it was too far away and too costly. The message was clear. Little boys…particularly little black boys, don’t figure skate. How lucky the kids of Culver City have been, to skate in the home of the All Year Figure Skating Club in a place that was easy to get to on a bike or by bus. There might have been some little black boy skating there thinking “I’m going to be the one to stand on the top of the Olympic podium.” Now we will never know.
While I was at Culver City, not only did I have the chance to skate with National Champion, Gary Visconti and Olympic Champion Bob Paul, but I had the chance as a former Broadway dancer to share my love and knowledge of dance with a few young skaters of color. I am insanely proud that I had the chance to work with the young Tetona Jackson who later went on to be the first to portray Disney’s first black princess, Tiana, in Disney on Ice. The legacy of black and brown skaters continues even today despite the barriers that remain both through finance and through the limited vision of many judges and coaches in the sport.
So, Mr. Samuels, again, I support you as being passionate about the sport of figure skating. So am I. So are all the people I mentioned above. So are many, many other people, men and women, boys and girls, all of them people of color in this country and abroad…and all of us are considered outsiders. Our voices have been crying into the wind and being unheard for years. They de-fund our learn to skate programs, they keep us off the podium (or at the very least off the top spot…hello Surya Bonaly!) and they close our rinks. The real story here is not about a black guy who likes to watch figure skating. The real story is about all of the black guys who have been shut out of being on the podium or even in the competition throughout the history of the sport. Let’s hear about that huh?