A Well Toned 49

01330049Last Friday morning I completed a 10.75 mile run.  This was my third such run in a week and, as it turns out, I did another, shorter run in Stockton the following morning, clocking in a total of some 35 miles for the week. I decided late last year, that I wanted one of my goals for my 50th birthday to be to run a marathon on or around my birthday.  As luck would have it, the 2015 London Marathon is a few days after my 50th and I’m hoping to secure a space in it through the Alzheimer’s Society and do the run as part tribute to my mom who had the disease before she died and also as a celebration of making through 50 years in fairly good health.  I feel fantastic.

As I ran that morning in the dark and cool of the Berkeley hills, I found myself more focused than normal.  I was able to plug into a sense of my body and my gait and posture that in the end made the run feel fairly easy; even at the last big push through the 95 foot climb from Arch Street up to Euclid on Cedar (Berkeley folks will know it as one of the primary places where you would not like to do a hill start in a manual shift car.)  The most wonderful thing about getting into what is commonly known as “the zone” is that, beyond your body, you connect with thoughts and things that you had maybe let go of for a while.

I kept coming back to two things: my Great Uncle Ray and the Select Committee Hearing on Boys and Men of Color in Stockton I had participated in the previous day.  My Great Uncle Ray Lewis, was a Pullman Porter in Canada in the early and mid part of the last century.  He was also a 33rd degree Mason.  He was also Canada’s first black Olympic runner to win a medal (bronze 1932.)  I had the great fortune to know him late in his life when he was full of stories of running alongside the Canadian and Pacific Railroad cars to train and all of the many challenges that he was faced with as an athlete: people who tried to hurt him, unfair judging,etc.  I got to see his and his brothers and sister (my grandmother’s) room full of medals for athletics.  To me he was and will always be one of my greatest heroes.  But he was a man who was often faced with stark racism, keeping him out of jobs and other opportunities and he was forced to make tough choices about his life in order to keep some sense of sanity about him and food on the table.  As he entered his 93rd and final year of life, he too began to show signs of dementia and would frequently repeat some of his bawdier stories, much to the chagrin of my Great Aunt Vivienne, a woman who loved him passionately until the day he died and until the day she passed some 7 years later.

Me and Aunt Vivienne Lewis in 2006
Me and Aunt Vivienne Lewis in 2006

Ray’s life was one where he was taught to constantly be on his guard.  It was not an easy life.  It was not a life of “get what you deserve” it was more a life of get what you can take and tolerate.  I can only imagine what went on inside of him and his heart after standing on an Olympic podium and then having to work on the train that took him back to Canada.

My other fixation that morning as I ran was hearing young men talk about their lives growing up “in trouble” in Stockton at the select committee hearing.  These are young men who have, for any number of reasons, fallen afoul of the law only to be incarcerated, even as young as 11 years old.  They are taught from this age, that being in prison is an option.  The game is to try to find any way possible to beat these odds.  As I listened to these young men testify, I was struck not only by their words and stories, but by what must go on inside their hearts in terms of always being on guard; always being taught that there is some kind of trap waiting.  I am incredibly moved by the work that is going on with these beautiful young men of color through Fathers and Families of San Joaquin County where they are actively engaging the youth to find ways to move their hearts and goals toward a better place.  It is huge and inspiring.

My mind also drifted toward a very different kind of reminder of how even in my sanitized and safe world, there is a kind of backhanded otherization that can leave a man of color feeling vulnerable.  The other day, I was joining a Skype conversation with a group of colleagues and as often happens with Skype, the audio was connected before the video.  What I was greeted with was a very spirited and involved conversation…about my age.  It was not really derogatory, but it still felt highly invasive.  My age (49) and my physical looks, are something that I have often had to either justify or explain and the sum total is something that people who don’t know me, often boil down to the “black don’t crack” saying or some other assumption about my racial background.  However, anyone who really knows me also knows that I work hard to stay healthy.  It is not just because I have melanin in my skin or because I have “good genes.”  I work tirelessly with my diet and exercise regimen (case in point, I did an hour and a half run at 5:00 a.m. on a weekday) and I have a serious dedication to managing stress, the real killer in our culture.  Embodiment is part of my ministry and I live it as faith every day.  There are plenty of people in my family who aged plenty, so its not just DNA.  What’s more, my goal has never been to look young, but to simply stay vital.  To have my effort reduced to my racial background is a slap in the face that I neither expect nor deserve and gratefully was not the case here to my knowledge.  But still, to have my age and looks and body as a topic for general discussion without my presence felt a bit like a throwback to the slave auction block.  As a black man, I’m not alone in having had the assessment of my physical self held up like a prize pig at a state fair.  Whether it be porn or prison, black and brown men’s bodies disconnected from their beings and their souls and their presence, is a significant and disgusting part of the history of this country. Objectification is objectification no matter how you look at it.

As every mile and hill ticked by during my run, I thought about what these thoughts have in common and and where they intersect in me.  I realized that each of these situations involve men of color who have grown up with a baseline anxiety about our place in this culture.  We have never been so cock sure of ourselves that we would take for granted that there would always be another opportunity, or another threat.  Instead, we look at every opportunity, whether it is presented by a good choice (running in the Olympics) or a bad choice (trying to make money selling drugs) or a natural choice (living a health centered life)…we look at each of these opportunities as if it is our last.  I find myself often making decisions as if I will somehow be permanently written off or that I will never have the opportunity again.  How many times was I told as a child that I would be the “last hired and first fired” or that I needed to be better than everyone just to get in the door?  When we talk in black and brown circles about trauma and “hyper vigilance” so often the conversation falls back on physical violence, guns, abuse, etc.  But there are so many other examples of ways in which men of color have learned to be “on guard” in addition to these other very real physical threats.  Its not always as simple as absorbing the subconscious thought that you may be seen as a predator by strangers.  Sometimes it is more subtle; a change in posture in an elevator or other closed space, a comment about your sexual anatomy, an assumption about your knowledge of guns, church and rap music or casual statements about your age and appearance.

There is strong evidence that points to hyper vigilance as being something that can be passed down.  This would mean that I carry not only my own struggles, but my parents’ struggles through the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s and also their parents’ struggles through the Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance and their parents’ struggles through Restoration and their parents’ struggles through slavery and so on.  If this is the case, then my DNA should have me looking much, much older than I do now.  This kind of science helps explain some of the continued struggle.  But what is really needed is a way to change the equation entirely where young men of color are not in a position to pass on another layer of trauma through hyper vigilance.  Men of color must rewrite and reclaim cultural narratives that have been invalidated by the mainstream.  The way we manage time and life priorities have all been laid out for us according to the dominant culture…but do we really own it?

I mentioned that I did a shorter run in Stockton the day after my 10 miles.  This was a Heart and Spirit Run with Fathers and Families.  It was part run and part vigil.  A small group of us ran to a series of locations around Stockton to where people had been killed, mostly due to gun violence.  The first stop was just around the corner from our starting point and you could still see the bullet holes in the wall and on the ground.  This set the tone for another kind of deep reflection in motion.  On that run, every step I took, every stop we made, I found myself imagining what the moment of confrontation felt like.  I run in the dark cool of the early morning of Berkeley mostly because it feels so incredibly safe, as if I am wrapped in a dark velvet blanket where the only sound is my heart and my breathing.  What a contrast to imagine the night as a terror that might be ripped by the pop, pop, pop of gunfire aimed at me.  I looked at the young men and women I was running with, who live in Stockton, and I could see both the memories and the real live knowledge of having been hurt physically and or mentally by these crimes.  But I could also see a spark, something that kept them running on to the end of our journey, no matter if you need to stop and take a rest…keep going, make it to the end.  They believe deeply in their hearts that this nightmare can end and that they have a right to be able to run freely in the street and feel safe.  I believe it as well. 

At the end of my 10 mile run, as I clipped down the final hill and up to the rise to where I had started, I knew that I had made good time.  The sunlight indicated to me that it was no more than 6:40am which meant that I managed my distance in somewhere around 1.5 hours.  I felt tremendous as I stopped.  Not winded; heart beating only a little faster than normal.  In that space of still feeling “the zone” and feeling entirely at one with my body, I had a brief moment of total freedom; sheer joy and exhilaration.  I felt the blood of my Uncle Ray and the potential of my brothers and sisters in Stockton and the vitality that I have cultivated and protected for 49 years coursing through my veins.  I know that men of color can end the history of hereditary hyper vigilance.  We can set the goal of running the distance, find our stride and get in the zone.  We shall not be measured by trauma alone.

A Lesson in Figure Skating and Black Men

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Squaw Valley…and my off ice spiral.

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.

With Peggy Fleming in 2011
With Peggy Fleming in 2011

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?