It's been a pretty busy February for me (see all the posts on the Olympics under this one) but, before Black History Month is officially over, I wanted to re-post my tribute to Mabel Fairbanks and her extraordinary contributions to figure skating!
Check it out, below:
Originally posted on 2/20/13
When Jo Ann Ferris reviewed On Thin Ice: Enhanced Multimedia Edition at About.com (http://figureskating.about.com/od/figureskatingbooks/fr/Review-Of-On-Thin-Ice.htm), she wrote:
It should be mentioned that one of the characters in On Thin Ice, African-American figure skating coach, Antonia Wright, is based on Mabel Fairbanks, the first African-American skater who paved the way for African Americans and other figure skaters from minority backgrounds to be part of the sport.
I fictionalized Mabel's story for On Thin Ice using videos from The Ice Theatre of New York to tell her alter ego, Antonia Wright's, story in words and images.
Toni Wright plays an even bigger role in my latest Figure Skating Mystery, Skate Crime: Enhanced Multimedia Edition.
Enjoy an excerpt below:
At the age of eight, Toni Wright stood alone at the entry gate to New York City's Wollman Outdoor Ice Rink in Central Park, waiting for her turn to pay the twenty-five cent admission and take a spin around the slick oval in her brand-new Christmas skates. She wore — at her mother's insistence — her waterproof rain pants. But Toni, frankly, had no intention of falling down. For the past year, she'd watched other boys and girls glide gracefully across the rink and she felt certain she would be able to do the same.
When it was her turn, Toni plunked down the required two dimes and a nickel, and was already pushing the door with her shoulder when the girl working the window leaned over across the cashier's sill and grabbed Toni by the arm. Toni turned her head slowly and gazed at the older teen with the same look Toni's mother unleashed on any salesgirl, waitress, or taxi driver unfortunate enough not to realize whom they were dealing with.
"Is there a problem, miss?" But unlike her mama, who had no patience for dealing with fools, Toni followed her Daddy's instructions to always be polite. Especially to the ignorant. He said it was their job to teach them, in particular, the right way to behave.
Either the girl wasn't accustomed to being addressed as "miss" or she didn't realize the query was directed at her. She yanked Toni backwards and announced, "No niggers allowed."
Toni sighed. So this was to be another case of her needing to educate somebody. Well, Daddy did say it was their burden to bear.
As politely as she could manage — her eight-year-old patience not being quite as sturdy as Daddy's — Toni explained, "This is a public facility. You are not allowed to make rules like that."
"It is a rule," the girl insisted.
"Please show me where it's written, then."
"It's a rule."
Toni yanked her arm free. It wasn't very ladylike, but she couldn't figure out any other way to do it The girl had hurt her, squeezing so tightly. But Toni would never let her see that.
She said, "I've given you my money, and now I am going skating."
Before the cashier could make another lunge at her elbow, Toni slipped through the door and walked over to the bench, sat down, and without looking at any of the faces now staring curiously in her direction, proceeded to take off her shoes and slip on her skates. She waited until she'd taken a few wobbly step on the ice and come crashing down on her bottom — Mama had been right about the waterproof pants, after all — before allowing a couple of tears to slip free from her eyes. She figured those people watching would think she'd just hurt herself.
That first day, Toni fell down fourteen times — she counted. But she came back the next day. There was a different girl at the window. Either she'd heard about Toni from the day before or she didn't subscribe to the same unwritten rule of exclusivity, because she let Toni in without a word of protest.
She just sniffed rather haughtily, but even Mama didn't consider those sorts of slights worth her while.
The second day, Toni fell only nine times. By the end of the week, she felt she'd gotten the hang of going forward. Now, she thought it was time to tackle the backward strokes that most of the older kids were doing, the ones that permitted them to fly like the wind. Toni tried it by herself for almost a month. She watched the others as closely as she could — hopefully without them noticing; if they did and glared at her, Toni scurried away as fast as she could, realizing that, in this instance, she was actually the one in the wrong — and attempted to replicate exactly what they were doing. But going backwards by crossing her foot in front proved much too confusing. She would master a step or two, then lose her rhythm and find her ankles tangled in a hopeless muddle. She said to Daddy over dinner that maybe it was time to get herself a coach. He set down his fork. He didn't say anything.
The Wright family lived along Striver's Row in Harlem, in a four-story row house built by no less than David H. King, the same contractor who'd built Madison Square Garden and the base of the Statue of Liberty. They boarded one live-in girl to keep the house tidy on a daily basis and had another come in once a week to do what Mama called heavy work, beating the carpets, washing the windows, scrubbing each bathroom until it gleamed. When Mama and Daddy threw dinner parties, they'd even have another girl in to help with the cooking and the serving and the cleaning up.
Daddy said there was no shame in hiring people to help with what you couldn't do yourself. It was a blessing on them and on you.
Which was why Toni couldn't understand his hesitation about hiring her a coach for skating. Surely Daddy had seen how hard Toni was working. She wasn't being frivolous, like her friend from next door, who took up ballet dancing, then horseback riding, then oil painting, only to drop each within the course of a month. Toni was determined to stick with her chosen endeavor. She merely needed some help, that was all.
Daddy asked, "Any colored teachers at that rink there?"
"I say this: You find yourself a coach willing to teach you, and I will pay her price. But you need to come to me with an agreement first. Does that sound fair?"
"Yes, sir," Toni said, still unsure why Daddy seemed to think this would be so difficult.
It proved rather difficult.
As he must have known, none of the teachers at Wollman was willing to take Toni on. They didn't give a reason. They simply said no. But then again, to actually give the reason out loud, well, as Mama liked to say, that would have been an insult to both their intelligences — if the latter had any, that is.
Toni was ready to give up, to tell Daddy that maybe, like her friend from next door, she'd like to try dance lessons, after all. There was a lady on Hamilton Heights who gave classes, and those were for colored girls only, so there would surely be a space for Toni if she asked.
But that was before the boy that came right up to her at the rink as she was taking off her skates after another fruitless day of attempting to master backward crossovers and asked, "You got a lot of money?"
For more on Mabel Faribanks and other skaters of color, check out this wonderful site: http://www.pdm-blackice.com/