When Ray Barbee made his debut in the classic 1988 Stacy Peralta video Public Domain, street skating was still a relatively new concept. Many pros of the day were trying their best to adapt their ramp and pool skills to curbs and flat ground, but without transition, their body movements were awkward and clunky. Ray Barbee's style, on the other hand, was fluid and graceful. His push—the essence of who a skateboarder is—was a thing of beauty. He seemed to glide across the Earth while others were forced to merely roll—a gift best exemplified in the timeless classic Ban This.
Fast-forward 27 years and today Ray Barbee is revered as one of the kindest, most beloved figures in skateboarding history. In the years since turning pro for Powell, there have been few documented instances where he has been seen without a smile on his face. There are more known photos of sasquatches than of an unhappy Ray Ray, and yet life hasn't always been easy for Barbee. Being black in the white world of Orange County, California, brought its share of racist run-ins, both from Nazi skinheads and his own African American community, who interpreted his love for skateboarding as him "trying to be white." Yet through all the ups and downs, despite all the ugliness that plagues our world, he has always maintained a positive attitude.
I caught up with Barbee at the pre-launch of his new Element apparel line at NJ Skateshop. In keeping with the theme of his collection, we spoke about getting "a wider view" on the topic of race in America and why it plays no part in skateboarding.
VICE: You've been a professional skater for what seems like forever. What's the secret to your longevity?
Ray Barbee: Honestly, the community and the industry. I'm really super thankful and tremendously blessed having the community saying, "We got you. We want you to still be around," for whatever reason. One thing I realized once I started being in the world of Instagram was that people don't let go of things. If something has emotionally affected somebody in some powerful way sometime in their life, that doesn't fade. If anything, social media kind of fans the flame of that and almost reestablishes that emotional connection. There's a deep emotional connection to the time when I came out in skateboarding. Street skating was still in an infant stage. Having the opportunity at that time to be a part of what I perceive as being one of the biggest skateboard brands, Powell Peralta, plays a huge part in reaching out and connecting with people.
The way you danced on a skateboard stood out to an entire generation. Even more so than Daniel Gesmer, it was poetry in motion to watch you skate, and as a young kid, I latched on to and fell in love with that fluidity and style. Aside from your skating, you stood out at that time as one of very few black pros. What was it like trying to make it in skateboarding in the 80s, when skating wasn't very accepted?
What I love about skateboarding was my experience was super, super simple—not unlike most other people getting excited about riding their skateboard. It was, "I want to ride this skateboard, and I want to have fun, and I want to learn some tricks." Yeah, along the way I hit little hiccups, racial hiccups, but those hiccups weren't within skateboarding ever. It was always the black community frowning on it because they thought I was trying to be white. To them, I'm trying to date a white girl. So that was the adversity, but that was kind of short lived and had no effect on me because I had friends. One buddy in particular, Izz Byrd, who was older than me, was black and was the best skater at our school and in our area. So to me, if he could do it, I could do it. You know how human nature is; you see it being done, you know you can do it. Izz showed me that you can be black and better than the white dudes. Skaters have issues, but color's not one of them. Ever. Not that I've experienced, and I love that.
Why do you think that is?
Because I think that skateboarding has you so engrossed that you don't have time to get caught up in that noise. It's just like music. I'm sure you've probably seen a lot of those documentaries that have been coming out the last ten years about Motown and all the old soul record labels and studios. Those dudes did not care about the color of one another's skin. They worried about whether they could work together and if they were helping to play a part in where the music was going. That's why it was so heavy when Martin Luther King Jr. got shot, because that was the first time that they had to deal with that within their confined safe place. They didn't have to deal with their reality of racism; they were a brotherhood. But when King got shot, they all struggled internally and that put a wedge within that community and what they had inside of that safe place, the studio. It's pretty heavy, but for the most part, they function much like skaters. The music helped them to see that we're all the same. There's no hierarchy. There's no getting caught up in all the typical pridefulness, "I've got to feel good about myself and push you down, and I have things to do that with," like skin complexion and what comes with that depending on which side you fall on.
You said you never got any slack from the skateboard community, but skateboarders, regardless of color, historically have taken shit everywhere they've gone. What was the story about getting pulled over by the police outside New Orleans?
It was a Vans trip, and we went to go trip out on what Katrina did. These local dudes told us about a spot that took us over this bridge into some other jurisdiction. Those cops in that jurisdiction were wildin' out. The dude said something to the effect of, "We have the Napoleon act over here. We don't have to go by those laws." Basically saying, we're on the wrong side of the track, and they'll do whatever they want. A bunch of us were in the van while Jamie Hart, sadly enough, had to be the dude out there getting interrogated and dealing with him. It was about a half an hour with him threatening us with going to jail or siccing the dogs on us. We're just sitting there asking if this is really happening? Checking the calendar, like what year is this? Thankfully, it was a lot of hot air, and we got let go. It was a reminder that racism is alive and well in a lot of parts of the country.
I'd say in most parts of the country. Right now, people seem to be waving that flag proudly. In a little over two months, we'll be picking one of two crazy people for president. One of them is pure evil and campaigning on a platform of hate.
Man is man. I don't put my faith in man. There are agendas on both sides. I'm not a big political dude at all, so I very rarely talk about any of it. I'm just trying to say my time is still in the Lord's hands. There's nothing, no insight, no wisdom that could succeed against the Lord's. He's in control. Things are going to go down the way they're going to go down, and he's allowing it for whatever reason. Because my faith is not in the candidates, I can ride the wave. Is it sad? All of it's sad, but even outside of that, there's sad stuff happening.
What does it take to wipe that smile off your face? I've never seen you without it.
A lot of what we're talking about. Hearing about another cop going free... politics. But you know how skaters are, our personalities. We try to find the up in things or downplay things to not be sitting in it so thick for so long. But a lot of it's the same. There's nothing new under the sun. A lot of these issues are issues our parents went through, and their parents before them, and their parents before them. My dad is from Arkansas. My mom is from Alabama. They met in the service, and I'm so thankful that when they were done, they got married and moved to San Francisco. That's where I was born. You think about the challenge for my parents and their parents being in Arkansas and Alabama. They had to deal with what we're talking about on such a different level. My dad's dad died when he was eight, so it was him and my grandma. He was tall for his age, so he had to start driving when he was nine. Imagine my grandma letting him go out into the world, at nine with no dad, at that time, in the South, having to work and make it happen. My grandma's my hero. Growing up, she was the biggest example of what Jesus can do with a person's life, just by watching her, being around her, seeing her love for people. I know that same faith I have is what allowed her to let my dad out that door in such a racist environment and trust that he's going to be OK. I have that same faith with my family. There's heaviness out there, but there's someone bigger than any of that. That's how I sleep at night and deal with those kinds of concerns.
More from Chris Nieratko's interview with Ray Barbee can be found on Element's website.
To check out more of Ray's photography, go to Element's site.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.