A Culture That Can’t Be Contained...or Housed | Varyer
A collage of people rollerskating.

A Culture
That Can’t Be Contained…
or Housed

Two feet with rollerskates.

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“Rainbo Rink was the first place I skated where we didn’t leave until hours later, with our ‘fros covered in dust,” says my mother, Beverly.

Growing up in West Michigan, the local roller-skating rink was a lifeline for my mother and her nine siblings. Then she and her eldest sister moved three hours away to Chicago in 1981. This was where she first encountered: Rainbo Rink.

“Every time we’d left the rink in Grand Rapids our hair was white because the raw wooden floor was dusty from so many skate wheels. At Rainbo, the floor was smooth and varnished. No dust!” Beverly says. “I remember feeling so happy that I knew how to skate when we made it to Chicago because those skaters were professionals—if you got in their way they would run you over and run you down.”

A collage of a person with an afro, rollerskates, and a colorful curve.

The Rainbo Rink ☻ The Rainbo Rink ☻ The Rainbo Rink ☻ The Rainbo Rink ☻

Technically the Rainbo building—yes, that’s Rainbo, no “W” at the end

began as a roadside eatery in 1894, mostly catering to travelers passing through the then remote area or those visiting the St. Boniface Catholic Cemetery across the street, which was consecrated nearly 30 years prior.

Through the years its name and services changed as it expanded and slowly morphed into a sprawling community haven. It was purchased by Chicago restaurateurs Fred and Al Mann, around 1920. The name was inspired by Fred’s wartime service in the U.S. Army's 42nd Infantry or "Rainbow" Division. It’s not quite clear why the “W” was dropped in the name. But that was no matter, the name stuck for the span of the building’s numerous lives, which included being a favorite hangout of Al Capone’s.

A photo of a man in a brimmed hat with text that reads "Rainbo Rink."

By the time my mother and aunt showed up in the early 1980s, Rainbo was already a major spot for serious Black skaters—with adults coming to skate morning, noon, and night. Despite growing up skating as much as she possibly could, it was at Rainbo that Beverly splurged on her first pair of rollerskates with a matching keychain and bag to carry them. That key chain hung from the rearview mirror of every car my mother owned for 20 years; those slick Black roller skates stored in her car for even longer. “I never knew when I would need my skates,” she says. So wherever she drove, there they were, at the ready.

Rollerskates hanging from the rearview mirror of a car.

Not Just Recreation ↓ Not Just Recreation ↓ Not Just Recreation ↓ Not Just Recreation ↓

For decades, Black skaters were often given limited access to roller skating rinks throughout the country. The days of Jim Crow might have been technically over, but visible remnants of segregationist practices remained. Finding venues that welcomed Black patrons in a comfortable environment or that played Black music more than one day a week was still difficult to find. It’s the reason so many Black skaters would join in empty parking lots or skate on the street once upon a time.

Skating has been a source of unrivaled joy and liberation for African-Americans for decades.

In August of 1963, a man named Ledger Smith aka “Roller Man” skated from Chicago to Washington D.C. to attend the March on Washington. He skated 685 miles of the 700-mile trip which spanned 10 days. When he arrived he was 10 pounds lighter and exhausted. Why did he do it? “To dramatize the March, I picked the slowest way,” he said to the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper a few days later.

In United Skates, a 2018 documentary film about the legacy of Black roller skating rinks around the country, viewers can’t help but feel devastated as it highlights the rapid closures of treasured skate venues. More than just roller-skating rinks, these recreational centers have been a hub for Black folks to let loose well into the early aughts.

Text that reads "'Roller Man' skates 685 miles for freedom."

The disappearance of a rink is more than the closure of a building.

These spaces are where kids and teens hang out— where birthday parties and retirement celebrations collide. It's where, for a short time, generational divides, traumas, and external pressures to code switch are briefly, for a session, forgotten.

My parents gifted me my first pair of rollerskates while I was still a pre-teen for Christmas one year. They were perfect: size seven with slick, taut white leather adorned with turquoise shoe strings and sturdy black wheels. A far cry from the used rental skates I had to wear each weekend at the local rink with their lopsided, gritty orange wheels and tan, worn leather that wreaked of someone else’s feet. My new skates were so stiff that I outgrew them before I could ever break them in. They now sit in my parent’s basement with other childhood memorabilia. Spoiler: I skate terribly.

A circle with limbs that reads "I'm skating to Washington, DC for Civil Rights 1963 NAACP."

Beyond A Building 🌈 Beyond A Building 🌈

Last summer, after countless racial uprisings set off by the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery throughout the country, coupled with surging pandemic anxiety, my mother sent me a video on Instagram.

“Have you seen this?” she asked. I had. It was a viral video of Oumi Janta, a Senegal-born Berlin-based rollerskater gliding around an open-air lot in a matching yellow short set, jamming to In Deep We Trust’s - Ba:sen (Pool Party Dub Mix). The music was a far cry from the Frankie Beverly and Maze and Lakeside bands mom grew up skating to, but the spirit was all the same. Even the outfit was reminiscent of something my mother would’ve worn in the ‘70s.

“WOW!” she wrote to me over DM, echoing what so many of us had felt when we saw the video trending earlier in July. Watching a carefree Black woman in a bold marigold outfit glide as if she were on air was a balm after so many months of devastation and heartbreak. It’s no surprise that Janta’s video became a symbol of a larger pandemic trend: people picking up roller skates for the first time. TikTok alone has become the virtual hub of choice for Black roller-skaters to show off their skills.

Despite Rainbo’s demolition in 2003 and the now decades-long trend where seeing roller-skating rinks close up shop has become the norm, this 2020 roller renaissance isa kind of resistance. It is a needed reminder: venues may close, but culture survives.

In August I moved from New York City, my home of a decade, back to Michigan to ride out the pandemic with family. Weeks later, bored with lockdown fatigue, I found myself in the middle of an empty parking lot on the other side of town with my mother and my aunt—the same two sisters who arrived at Rainbo Rink together in 1981.

Now, the two women, ages 64 and 74, respectively, demanded that I play DJ, turning the car speakers up to full volume while they skated around an empty parking lot, energized by the music like schoolgirls.

I happily obliged.