Thirty years ago, it was laughable to even suggest that skateboarding would become an Olympic sport. On Aug. 3, the International Olympic Committee approved the sport for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, a historic move for the subculture whose participants once prided themselves as being outsiders of the mainstream. The gate appears to be wide open for millennials, and in particular, for black millennials, who appear to be skateboarding in greater numbers than in the past couple of decades in major cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, particularly in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina was said to spark a “skateboarding renaissance” among black youth. However, skateboarding, for black millennials, is not in a renaissance. Rather, it is in a resurgence.
Upon first glance, the rise of the sport among black millennials is most likely to be attributed to the visibility of rappers who have ventured into skateboarding, now that the once underground sub-culture has finally gained commercial success; among those most infamous for attempting to tap into the market are Pharrell Williams, Lil’ Wayne, and most notably, Lupe Fiasco. Fiasco’s 2006 single, “Kick, Push”, a lyrical fable about two misfit skateboarders who eventually find love together as a natural outcome of their passion for the sport. While the emcee received backlash from professional skaters who felt Fiasco was posturing, the record came to be regarded as a instant classic in the hip-hop community, leading to a surge of interest from black youth in cities nationwide.
There is scant history concerning skateboarding within the black community. Despite claims to the contrary, kids from the ‘hood falling in love with skateboarding is not recent phenomena; the subculture has its own history within black communities, particularly on Chicago’s South Side.
“I started skateboarding because everybody else was doing it,” explains former South Side resident Greg Collins, 58. “Everybody in my neighborhood in Englewood skateboarded.” When asked if it was ever considered a sport that most white kids enjoyed, he shook his head avidly. “Not at all. I lived in a big, tall building where there was a bunch of kids who made it look cool. There wasn’t media coverage. This was late 1960s, early 1970s. It was just something else for us to do outside, back when skateboards were three dollars and had rubber wheels.”
Skateboarding first appeared in California in the 1940s among surfers as something to practice in their downtime. Bill Richards was one of the first people to invest in the skateboarding business, consequently making a deal with the Chicago Roller Skate Company to create both sets of skate wheels with wooden boards attached to them.
In Chicago’s Englewood community, obtaining skateboards was fairly easy, provided you had one thing to purchase them with. “I took my mom’s S&H green stamps and went to the store,” recalls Collins. “They were trading stamps. You saved the stamps in a book to buy stuff, and then you could use that to redeem them and get products. We used them to get stamps to get baseball gloves, skateboards, and basketballs. We ain’t have to spend money. We just used the stamps.”
While skateboarding was extremely popular on the south side in the 60s, its popularity began to decline in the early 70s. Collins recalls, “When you started going to high school, you didn’t really skateboard. It wasn’t really cool then–it was seen as kid’s stuff. We migrated more to the other sports, like football, basketball and baseball. Skateboarding was just one thing we did. You might spend an hour skateboarding around the building. It took almost half a mile to get around our building [in Englewood]. I think it was more people migrating and specializing in other things. A lot of people in my neighborhood went to the pros: pro football, pro-basketball. When they got to high school, it was like, ‘I don’t have time for skating.’”
In the 1978, Alan “Ollie” Gelfand revolutionized the sport by inventing the ollie trick; he appeared in Skateboarder mag after the sport’s earlier decline, suddenly, kids were anxious to jump on long boards again. After the invention of the ollie in the late ’70s, skating parks were rapidly developed in middle-class white neighborhoods. Due to a lack of skateparks in the black neighborhoods, developing advanced skill sets within the sport beyond simply balancing on the board became increasingly difficult. The combination of suburbanization and divestment led to a loss of interest as black youth ventured into high school led the way for skateboarding to be associated as a sport for middle class white kids.
“It’s easier to get a skating park in a white middle-class neighborhood than it is on the West Side. They’ve been trying to get a skate park on the low-end for years,” Jaz, a black female skater, explains to me.
The Reagan and Clinton era saw skateboarding take a much more anti-establishment turn that the sport is known for. The crack era, welfare reform, poverty, mass incarceration, and the outsourcing of jobs left American youth frustrated. With the rise of punk, gangsta rap, and grunge music in the 1980s and 1990s, skateboarding became a reflection of anti-corporate and anti-establishment values of the times. No longer was the subculture associated with wholesome, blond surfer boys on the West Coast; to the horror of white suburbia, it was now symbolic of urban anarchy.
It was precisely this that drew Jaz to the sport. “I wasn’t interested in other sports. At the time, I was getting into punk music and the roots of skateboarding is very much embedded within that,” she recalls, remembering how the sport helped her to develop her own sense of autonomy as a young black girl. At age 28, she’s embraced an anti-capitalist, radical politic that aligns with her identity as a skateboarder. “I was 11 when I started.”
Jaz’s presence in skateparks could be considered radical in itself. There still aren’t many black women who are well-known within the sport, much less who come to practice in the city’s skate parks. While Cali’s own Samarria Beard was recently hailed as the “Serena Williams” of skateboarding and Christiana Smith is gaining recognition for her skills, the numbers are still small. “In the future, I want to see more Black women in skateboarding,” Jaz says emphatically. “Right now, you see a few Latina and Indigenous women, but not that many who are black. It’s not because women can’t be just as good at skating than dudes can. I would say because they have a lower center of gravity, women might be better than men. It’s completely a result of socialization. You see dudes falling and trying tricks, and other dudes just pat them on their ass and say, “Get up and try it again, dude’. A lot of girls think that you can only be a skateboarder’s girlfriend.”
She smirks as she speaks on the macho attitudes of male skateboarders. “I’ve literally seen dude’s try to pick up girl’s feet and position it on the board for them,” she says, mimicking the patronizing action. “That’s the worst thing that they can do. I always tell women, ‘Go learn by yourself because he’s going to make it all about him. That’s the best thing I can tell them.”
Here, on the West Side of Chicago where we meet to talk, Jaz is camping out with dozens of other people across the street from a “black site” in which CPD illegally detained and disappeared thousands of people over the past decade, most of whom were black.
The campsite, organized by the Let Us Breathe Collective, a group of artists who imagine a world without police or prisons, organize workshops, town-hall meetings, also taking donations in the form of books, clothes, food, and other supplies. During her time here, Jaz took note of young children who came through the camp, particularly in terms of gender dynamics. “There’s kids who come here and they immediately want to try to skateboard. My boo came through and donated one the other day. The black girls who come through here want to try to skateboard. They don’t even think twice about it being a boy’s thing. I don’t say anything to them about it, either. They had that sense of autonomy.”
Here, in this space, the consumerist nature of skateboarding vanishes; the kids don’t wear Thrasher t-shirts or other logo brands. Instead, it is a indelible curiosity that draws them to it, much akin to the earlier prevalence of the sport within the 1960s, reclaiming public space. Capitalist consumerism undoubtedly changed the anti-authoritarian tone of skateboarding in the new millennium, but could it still be considered a radical act, particularly for black children coming-of-age in the hood, in which private property often takes precedence over autonomy? Jaz thinks so.
“It can be a radical act. First and foremost, it’s about autonomy. Recently, mainstream skateboarding changed the dynamics of what skateboarding is to be about commercialism. Black folks have always taken very little and always made something creative with it. A bench can become a place to practice tricks on. So can a curb. That’s we’ve always done.” —Shanna Collins