Friday, February 26, 2016

Living Black History-- It's All About The Doors


Mabel  Fairbanks, who held open the door

-by Tracy B Ann

Living Black History, meaning, in the here and now. I want to write about some African Americans I very much admire who are alive today. I’ll start with skating because I’m from MI and in Michigan everyone skated when I was growing up. At least everyone who was white.

My favorite skater of all time is not white though, she’s black. Surya Bonaly. She was my hero for years and the judges hated her. Why didn't the judges like her? They gave a lot of reasons; her outfits, the tights she didn't wear, her lack of grace. It always seemed to me though, that her outfits were fine, her background as a gymnast didn't make her less graceful, rather it made her able to perform the jumps that were becoming increasingly, absurdly, more difficult (SNL did a great skit about this during those years.) The fact that she didn't wear tights? Yeah, I don't think so. I don't think it was the lack of tights on her legs that bothered them so much as it was the lack of the color white on the skin of those legs.

Despite that, Surya Bonaly was the 1991 World Jr. Champion, a three-time World silver medalist, a five-time European champion, and a nine-time French national champion. The first woman to ever attempt the quadruple toe loop. She nailed it practice, but never in competition, which didn’t stop her from attempting it again and again and again, not just in practice but in competition. You can watch her never give up here.

Surya Bonaly is also the only skater, let me repeat that, the only skater, black, white, male or female, to land a back flip on one foot. Ever. A move that disqualified her from the 1998 Olympics. Which is total nonsense. The rule about certain jumps is that they have to be landed on one foot. I hate to sound jaded but this jump wasn’t allowed because Surya Bonaly was and still is, the only person in the world able to do it and Surya Bonaly was and still is, black. I'd be willing to bet that if a white person could land this jump on one foot it would be allowed.

Watch her performance here in the 1998 Olympics:

I love the way that once she knows she’s lost for sure, that attitude that so many of the press called “defiant”, that attitude that I share and admire so much, kicks in and she does a back flip right in front of the judges and nails the landing, on one foot. She ends her performance with her back to the judges and an elegant flip of her hand saying, oh so gracefully...well, you be the judge of the message she is conveying with that elegant black hand.

Surya Bonaly did go on become a professional skater and the last time I heard she was still landing back flips on one foot at age 41.

ESPN did a special on her Rebel on Ice.

That’s not where it began though. It began with Mabel Fairbanks, a female African American Figure Skater. When she started in 1938 she could only skate outside in Harlem, indoor rinks were white only. When she could skate inside she couldn’t practice when the general public was skating because of, well, black legs.

She couldn’t compete or be in any shows so she started her own. She eventually became a coach. Mabel Fairbanks was inducted in the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1997. She was the first African American to receive that honor. Read about her, I beg you, I cry when I do.

So it started with Mabel Fairbanks who held the door open for Debi Thomas. Debi Thomas was the first African American to win the US National Figure Skating Championships and she did it twice. She is the only African American to ever win a medal in the Olympics in figure skating. (The 1988 Winter Olympic Games Calgary, Canada.) Oh, and while she was doing this? She was also attending Stanford studying to become an orthopedic surgeon. Which she did.

Together these bold women opened the door for Richard Ewell, Tai Babilonia and my favorite skater in the world, Surya Bonaly. It's all about the doors.

I have always thought that my purpose in life was to hold a door open for someone. Not in a self negating type of way, I thought what I was doing was important; kind of, sort of, maybe. I didn't realize how important until I met Dr. Fergie Reid Jr. Through him I learned about his dad, Dr. William Ferguson Reid Sr., wow, what trail blazer he was. As a doctor he opened the racial doors of many facilities; military and civilian.

It could be said that as a politician, Dr. Reid Sr., the first African American elected to the VA legislature, opened the door to elect the first black Governor in the US; Doug Wilder, which in turn opened the door to elect the first black President of the United States, Barack Obama.

Dr. Reid Sr. is still doing it with his voter registration initiative 90for90, holding doors open for more people to vote. It's all about the doors and maybe holding a door open is not a kind of, sort of, maybe important thing. I think what I've learned is that holding a door open is a pretty big damn thing!

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At 11:28 PM, Blogger tamtam said...

I never knew of Surya Bonaly of Mabel Fairbanks. The stories of Black female figure skaters are seriously suppressed, like alot of things relating to Black history

At 5:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember Surya and always enjoyed watching her. I am not familiar with Mabel, such an interesting story. You have to admire and respect their tenacity and perseverance in spite of all the obstacles. Do you think they knew they were opening doors or were they just doing what they loved most?

At 6:21 AM, Blogger joan222 said...

So good to see this again, because I watched it in 1998 and didn't really grasp then the prejudice people felt toward her (I would say because I wasn't as aware of prejudice, period, but I know that's not the case because I became so very aware before and IN college and in divinity school here at Vanderbilt as well, back in early '70's). Actually I recently heard a piece on this wonderful, passionate black woman, Nina Simone, whose music I ADORED back in 1978. NPR did a small piece on her, and she was disliked by the populus though she had such an important message.

Anyway, thank you! Joan

At 7:20 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 7:22 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

What a great post! I too loved watching Surya Bonaly in figure skating competitions. Her style was different from all the others: tough, athletic, determined, yet vulnerable. Thanks Tracy B. Ann for reminding us of the many important door-openers that have enriched our lives!

At 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this post. I remember Surya Bonaly.
Surya also means Sun in Hindi. When she skated, she was like a the Sun, bright, moving over the ice.
Thank you for this post.

At 12:17 AM, Anonymous Rosalind said...

I love, love, love this story. As an African American woman, I am empowered to hear of such free spirits that reflect faith and belief that all things are possible. No one one can stop excellence soar to the heavens. We all are blessed to watch such skilled people soar and wonder at it's magnificence. Thank you Tracy B. Ann for sharing. Your detailed work and effort are greatly appreciated. Rosalind, Chance and Kenawa.

At 6:27 AM, Anonymous AmandaCRoche said...

Great post ~ thank you for the vision of the power of the door openers; what a poignant thought. And I really appreciate the back story about Surya Bonaly. I remember watching her powerful performance and that flip, but I never knew the rest of her story.


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