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Building Black Community on Roller Skates

When Darrin Williams turned one, his father told his mother if his son could walk then he could start roller skating. 
"They grew up going roller skating in the 70s, 80s," Williams, who goes by Nas D on the rink, said. "They started dating in high school. I think my father taught my mother how to skate. My first birthday I got a pair of skates." 
For Williams, skating represents a part of his heritage and during the pandemic, it became a way to connect with others in his community at a time when illness and racial injustice came to the forefront. 
"I started teaching a guy who I became really, really good friends with during the pandemic," he said. "We were just skating in the street, skating in the garage, and then when the rink opened we started going. And from there we started meeting other people. Because I teach, my nature is just to help." 
Those efforts turned into Rink Havoc, a 19-person roller skating squad that meets several times a week throughout New Jersey to have fun and learn some new moves. Members include Cheddar production assistant Zayna Allen. 
"A lot of my family grew up in Newark, and a lot of people from Newark took the skating culture, like, so serious," she said. "They were all really great, and I wasn't. I just knew how to go forward. I was like, let me just, let me teach myself how to do it."
For her, skating is a way to relax. 
"It's a good release for us, an escape for us to just not worry about the workday, not worry about the things that we have to go through daily — family, the pandemic, things like that," she said. "It's just being able to be one with the music and just skate."
It also gives you something that is yours, Williams added.
"I love the control," he said. "It belongs to me, the feeling of skating that belongs to me. I can't share it with anybody. I decide how I'm going to be out there." 
Roller skating has been popular across the United States since the 1930s, but it holds a special place in the Black community. During the 1950s and 1960s, protesters blocked Black people from skating at rinks in an attempt to segregate society. White owners would ban moves like skating backwards, spinning or jumps, which are all popular in the rhythm skating style that is popular with African Americans. Even after the Civil Rights era, rinks would unofficially separate groups by creating "Gospel Nights" or "Sepia Nights."
"For a long time there was such segregation that we weren't allowed to go to local rinks," Rink Havoc member Jalen Washington said. "We weren't allowed to go to certain rinks, so there were these underground rinks. They played our music and our favorite DJs."
As a result, skating became a tool for protest, whether outside the rink or on the road. Ledger Smith, also known as "Roller Man," notably skated over 685 miles to the March on Washington in 1963 with a sign saying "Freedom." 
"Especially my dad, you know, he grew up in the Civil Rights era, so for him to look at me and see Black people skate, it's huge," Washington said. "Because there's a point in time where he couldn't do it."
Williams is passing on his skating heritage to his son, Darrin Williams III. The younger Williams said it's providing him an opportunity to find common ground with people from all walks of life. It's also helped him connect with his father. The two went on their first father-son skating trip this year, which involved traveling to multiple cities to skate at local rinks and meet other enthusiasts. 
"Even though I am my own skater, he is the reason why I skate and why I love it so much," Williams III said. "I actually do admire him a lot." 
Washington also found skating helped him meet other people who he might not have interacted with on a normal basis. One day before a skate trip, he discovered his skates were broken. He found a guy two blocks from his house that offered to fix them quickly.
"We had a talk just for four hours about skating, the community, and the racial institutions," Washington said. "And, he wasn't Black. His thing was, 'I stand out as a white guy in dance skating with you guys.' It's a crazy environment of dips and tricks, and we're all in support of each other." Williams III suggests everyone should try skating, even if it's just to get another outlook. "A lot of people don't think skating is cool, but once you get into it you're going to enjoy it," he said. "And I feel like skating is something that's going to help you a lot in life because it shows you a different perspective." 
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