We’re Not Here for Tandems— Team Blackstar Fills the Blanks in Skydiving’s Greater Story
By Annette O'Neil
If you stand in the moment and look backward, history might look like a big, static, intractable block of information. If you look closer, it’s anything but static, and it’s anything but intractable. History is not statuary, carved out by the powerful over the slow march of time. Indeed—especially now—it’s a shared fabric we create together by sharing and weaving our stories. There’s another side to that, however: Where there are no shared stories, there is no fabric; where there are no shared stories, there is no history. And, sometimes, it takes a little convincing to encourage history’s participants to share their stories and contribute to the beautiful whole.
In the fabric of stories that makes up the history of skydiving, there’s one notable place where the material dwindles into a frayed edge: the part that weaves in skydivers of color. If you’re not so sure about that, I’ll just put it this way: Google “the history of African-American skydiving.” The first hit is for Team Blackstar.
Team Blackstar was founded in 2014.
Clearly, there’s more than a little unexplored territory here. Luckily, the forces behind Team Blackstar well understand the power of stories—and they’re determined to use them to make a very important and very functional impact on our sport.
“We aren’t anything new,” founding member Danielle Williams said. “We aren’t reinventing the wheel. People of color have been active in skydiving for a long time, but it hasn’t been captured anywhere. Our goal, among other things, is to preserve that for posterity.”
“My personal goal,” Williams continued, “is to capture the history that’s got to be hiding somewhere—in old magazines, in photographs piled up on drop zones around the country—and to capture the contributions of people of color to our sport.”
Take Harrison Wallace, for instance, one of Blackstar’s other founding members. Wallace, a black skydiver who jumps at Virginia’s Skydive Orange, has been skydiving since 1973, when he was in the U.S. Navy Aircrew Survival A School. Wallace mused that, after he left the Navy, he didn’t see another black skydiver until he’d been jumping for years.
“[Blackstar] acts as a support group, because a lot of the skydiving community doesn’t realize that there are a lot of experienced skydivers of color,” Wallace noted. “Most of the time when you go to a skydiving venue, you are looked at as a student. People don’t realize you’re an experienced skydiver.”
These days, Wallace is working to pass along what he’s learned over the course of his many, many years of skydiving to the newer skydivers he meets through Blackstar. “If they can move a little bit faster, feel more relaxed and have more confidence, then they’ll be more likely to stick with it,” he said. “But confidence is really a big issue in skydiving. It can be difficult to get that confidence when you’re in a very competitive environment and you aren’t finding people who look like you.”
For Williams, a 32-year-old African-American woman, third-generation military, who lives (and thrives) with a neurological disorder, this is very, very personal. “I love the opportunity to tell stories that don’t normally get told within the skydiving community,” she said. “In our sport—and many other outdoor and adventure sports, really—the story that’s told most often is the one where the person says, ‘Before I started skydiving, I was unhappy and sleepwalking through life. Since I started jumping, my life is 100 percent better and always will be. Look at me being so happy—smiley face emoji.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
For her first couple years in skydiving, Williams freely admits, that was her story, too. It was the only story she wanted to tell. But, she added, that’s not her only story—and it isn’t any skydiver’s only story—and it shouldn’t
be, because it’s incomplete.
“Many, many people are dealing with more nuance and complexity in their lives, and they shouldn’t feel like they have to hold back, like they shouldn’t speak up because of skydiving’s positive-vibes-only culture,” she explained. “One example is someone who decides not to share their diagnosis because they figure everybody is there to jump, and they don’t want to ruin it for them. The truth is everything that happens in the outside world also happens within our community—from illness to divorce to sexual assault to harassment and racism—and I think it is always a great opportunity, when we do get a chance, to enable people to tell their own stories—especially those that don’t normally get told.”
If we’re elevating stories, let’s start with Blackstar’s, shall we? This particular origin story starts in March 2014. The founding members met up at the St. Patrick’s Day boogie in Fitzgerald, Georgia. On that fine day, there were six African-American skydivers—five men and one woman—all of whom were either Army veterans or active-duty military. This happy coincidence was no coincidence at all; months earlier they had connected online with the idea of doing an unofficial record jump to promote diversity in skydiving. Founding member Nate Harpe came up with the name (inspired by the fact that the group’s first jump together was a star, and all six founding members are African American). Harpe reached out to a friend for a logo design. Soon, there were patches. Then T-shirts. And a website.
Thus begins the story—now, history—and that story continues, gathering narrative steam as it barrels along. Today, Blackstar counts almost 300 members in six countries, mostly focused in the U.S., where they live and jump from proverbial sea to shining sea (though in greatest concentration in the Southeast). The team comes together to enjoy an official meetup once a year, where they do their (so-far unofficial) record jump. Inspired by this success and called to do more, Williams started another organization in 2016: Melanin Base Camp, the goal of which is to promote diversity in outdoor adventure sports writ large, as well as a coalition called Diversify Outdoors.
“It’s nice to have a space that really celebrates diversity in the sport,” Williams mused. “When you think of the typical skydiver, you are probably thinking of a white male, aged 25 to 34. We’re all about disrupting that traditional narrative. The focus is on storytelling, on providing increased representation for people who have been historically marginalized. Not just people of color, but people with disabilities, people within the body-positive movement, folks who identify as queer or non-binary; whomever has not, traditionally, had great representation within both skydiving and the greater outdoor industry and community.”
Williams insists that it’s important for the continued modernization of the sport to have those difficult conversations. She hopes that Team Blackstar will continue to guide the sport ever farther down the path of inclusion—and to be generally more accountable, not just when it comes to people of color or women. “Diversity is not a zero-sum game,” Williams said. “We’re not forcing the message on people or trying to make people feel guilty or anything like that. We’re just telling more stories. We elevate. We amplify the voices of those who don’t normally get heard. Every time we do, we make this sport we love so much a little more accepting.”
When a group doesn’t have ownership of a pre-existing story on a drop zone, something very predictable happens: They get pointed to the tandem check-in. It still happens (as a matter of fact, agonizingly often) to women, never mind that Tiny Broadwick was there right at the beginning. It happens every day to people of color—sometimes, even if they’re actually carrying a gear bag. Even once the gate of that awkward welcome is passed, the tooth-gritting isn’t over; if you’re a minority, any mistakes you make can end up misattributed to your race or to your gender. The misunderstandings are immediate and awful.
“I get it pretty much every time I go to any new drop zone,” Williams said. “A big ol’, cheery ‘Are you here for your tandem skydive? Come right this way!’ I laugh, but it’s really frustrating. On Team Blackstar, we’ve turned it into a running joke: We’re not here for tandems.”
Williams quickly added that every visit to the drop zone is far from an uphill battle. She’s already seeing changes that cheer and inspire her. She’s met plenty of forward-thinking drop zone owners engaged in the task of making their under-represented communities feel comfortable and untargeted. She thrills to the fact that so many skydiving communities are beginning to embrace the fact that all of its members have ownership in the sport; that we’re all tasked with making skydiving a sport that anyone can be part of; that we all hold a responsibility to make the skydiving world a better, safer, more inclusive place to call home.
“But there are limitations of our culture,” she noted. “The fact that so few skydivers working in the sport are actual employees with associated legal protections makes change difficult. We are largely a sport of contractors, so we have to create communities that can protect themselves from the inside out rather than the outside in. Blackstar aims to help with that.”
Helping is just what it’s doing. Blackstar’s event schedule isn’t set in stone for 2019, but Blackstar members mobilize to every skydiving event they become aware of and beyond. (Recently, two Blackstar members jumped at the world-famous Bridge Day BASE jumping event at the New River Gorge in West Virginia.)
“A lot of people don’t know who we are yet,” Williams said, “but we’re growing. The more people know about us, the better we can tackle that sinking feeling people may have, that resistance to showing up to the drop zone believing they’ll be the only person who looks like them.”
“You won’t be the only one,” Williams insisted, smiling. “There is a family waiting for you. Join us. We are here.”
About the Author
Annette O'Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.