Jo Allen celebrates being both Black and queer with Pride and Soul skate night

Pride and Soul

Lauridsen Amphitheater, Water Works Park, Des Moines, Saturday, June 18 at 6 p.m.

Roller Skates2 –Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Pride and Juneteenth have so many intersections to navigate.

Jo Allen has challenged Des Moines to take those roads and realize that every marginalized community in the city are fighting for the same rights against the same people.

“I was just recognizing that there wasn’t anybody that was doing something that focused on the intersections of the Black community and also the queer community, and me being both of those identities, skating was a big part of my culture growing up as a kid. So, that’s why I thought skating would be a good segue to bring those communities together,” Allen, creator of Pride and Soul, said. “We see a bunch of Pride events going on. We see a lot of Juneteenth events going on. But we don’t see anybody celebrating the intersections of both.”

The struggles when approaching those intersection can seem difficult. When the two are separated, it is hard to recognize their similarities.

“I want Iowa to do more,” Allen said. “I feel like currently, they are kind of hitting the bare minimum.” They expressed disappointment at observing organizations who throw Pride events or Juneteenth events but don’t incorporate diverse input — and at the lack of safe spaces.

“The biggest reason why I put this together was because I didn’t see anybody celebrating both which didn’t make sense to me because if you’re going to celebrate Pride, you need to celebrate Black queer individuals and I don’t see anybody doing that,” Allen continued, explaining why this event is pertinent to bring to Des Moines. “It’s frustrating, but it’s also [asking] do we understand the history then. There are no people of color in positions to create events like this,” they said.

Allen doesn’t want Des Moines or anyone to forget or be unaware that Black queer bodies fought for racial justice at skating rinks during the Civil Rights Movement. At the time, just as at many other establishments around the United States, skating rinks were for “whites only.” Black people weren’t allowed in, giving them no choice but to skate outdoors.

The only time when Black people were allowed in was once a week during “Black Night,” which went by other code names in many places, such as Soul Night.

Allen notes that while “the history behind it is frustrating,” they see Black people skating as a way to find healing and to have a safe space.

Allen went by a similar code name for their prideful Black skate night.

“Pride and Soul to me, I wanted to take soul from soul night. I know that that is a common way to describe when Black folks are skating or when we have events that are specifically catered towards us. I know that a soul skate night is kind of the terminology used for those events. So, I thought that by bringing in soul that would cover the Black perspective and with Pride I wanted that to connect back to the LGBTQIA community.”

But Allen says the word pride can work both ways and was a no brainer when deciding how to represent both groups.

“It can be pride in being queer. There can be pride in being Black and being queer and visible,” they said.

Allen’s connection with skating began around the age of 12, with skating at rinks throughout the city and watching Black skating videos.

Allen’s first pair of skates were given to them by their mother, who’d gotten them as a gift from Allen’s dad. For hours and hours, Allen would skate around their family’s townhome and never get tired.

“Lacing up those skates, it was a way for me to escape my home and escape the struggles that I might have been dealing with with my family.”

Allen describes themself as a skate rat, because of how well known they were at skating rinks — due to always been there. Skate West was their favorite, but the rink is no longer in business.

The Muse family approached Allen one day and encouraged them to get into speed skating, because of their speed. But another person saw their advanced skills and the frequent skating tricks that Allen would do and suggested roller derby, which they had never heard of at the time.

“I picked roller derby over speed skating cause I could hit people,” Allen jokes. “Not only did it become a space where I knew that I was safe, and I could escape anything that I was dealing with at home or at school. But it was also really a space that I could let out my anger without it being something that was destructive.”

Between the ages 12 and 17, Allen was a roller derby player who awarded themself with the skating name Anger Management. With their team, Des Moines Roller Derby Brats, Allen became one of the best and went on to win the first world cup in junior roller derby.

During those years of roller derby, Allen said, they awakened to the fact that they are queer. Coming to that realization was easy because they were in a safe space to come out.

Jo Allen roller skating at Lauridsen Skatepark, courtesy of Jo Allen

“Roller derby and skating for me in general has taught me so much about the world because there’s so many things that go on that I can relate back to roller derby. I can understand what it’s like to have a safe space to be yourself. I can understand having anger and having all of this built up aggression and just bottling everything up,” Allen attested.

“And roller derby was that space that I could go let it out and still know that I still have people who support me here,” they said. “I have a space that I know that I’m safe and welcomed exactly as I am, and I can explore my identity whether it’s my gender identity or my sexual orientation.”

Black people skating was quite different from speed skating and roller derby, but it unorthodoxly fascinated Allen.

“I would see these Black people dancing but also skating. Like whaaaaat?! This is so cool! How are you guys doing that? And that’s something that I missed out on here in Iowa because our Black culture in terms of skating, is not present. It’s not present at all and it’s unfortunate because it’s something to me that is so freeing to be on skates and to just dance around and enjoy the movement and feel yourself,” they shared.

Growing up on the west side of Des Moines, as opposed to the east side, Allen feels like they may have worn rose tinted glasses. They refuse to migrate back west because of a the lack of acceptance and openness. There was a clear distinction between the two sides of the city: One side appears to be well-kept while the other is filled with struggle.

Allen expressed slight fear of the reactions they would get in response to creating an event that brings two marginalized communities together. But the the right to freedom stems from both and grows together.

One fear comes specifically from the violent lack of acceptance seen throughout history with Black people being queer.

“We be pretty homophobic in the Black community,” Allen laughs, largely because laughing is easier than the strong emotions they feel against those who undeniably despise the LGBTQ+ community.

Allen notes that there isn’t a Black queer community in Des Moines.

“That’s why I want to create events like these so that we can start to build community and build those relationships with others because I don’t have great connections with my Black community,” they said. “I grew up in a space where I wasn’t around my community and so now there’s this urgency for me to find community in order to feel like I am comfortable to fit in here.”

Pride and Soul is a way to bring two communities together and uplift the cultures of these people to give them activities to participate in without having to adjust the norms of others.

“In Des Moines in general, we need more events where we’re circulating the dollar back into the communities that we want to assist, and that’s kind of the purpose of this.”

Pride and Soul event flyer, courtesy of Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence Facebook page — Jamie Malone

The event flyer for the event captures both queer and Black people. Jamie Malone is the graphic designer for the event flyer. Malone is a queer artist in Des Moines who Allen says captured their idea perfectly and delivered exactly the visual they wanted. Allen says they chose Malone for the art because, “Everything that I do, especially with these events, [is] once again putting that dollar back into the people that I want to see succeed”.

“The poster is really just a piece of art to me! The poster is all [of] Jamie’s magic that they be whipping together, and I just wanted it to showcase skating but also Pride and Juneteenth and I think they did a really great job of showcasing that … I appreciate the amount of diversity and attention that they put into creating posters like that”.

At the event, amateur Black and LGBTQIA+ vendors will be selling art and food, but the event itself is free. Allen wanted to focus on vendors who are just starting out or those who don’t have the space or opportunities to fully be established so those businesses can start to climb up the ladder.

Allen is also partnering with the Refugee and Immigrant Vaccine Alliance to provide vaccines, to promote health equity.

For this first year of Pride and Soul, Allen decided to make the event BYOS (bring your own skates) for liability purposes. But they are hoping, when the event comes around in the next years, there will be partnerships in place to provide skates to attendees to make the event more accessible for all.

A DJ will have all of the hottest music in rotation to represent both the Black community and the LGBTQIA+ community for your wheels to spin to.

“I just want this to be an event that people can come out to and know that they’re safe and welcomed and [it’s] just time for celebration and healing,” Allen said. “Really. I think that it’s needed at this time. I hope that it’s powerful in the way that it is.”

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