The title of an article from Textured Waves website asks, “Do you know Mary Mills? Well you should.” And it’s true! Mary Mills, as an African American surfer has been raising awareness about diversity in subcultures like surfing and skateboarding, and her Instagram byline describes herself as a “middle aged nonconformist.”
The photo that triggered the conversation was of Mills skateboarding back in 1984 on a Santa Cruz deck doing a powerslide in the Pacific Northwest, as showcased in her blog The Surf and the Fury. She’s laidback, rocking her high-top Cons, and looking pretty badass, as Chelsea Woody notes in her interview.
While the focus of the Textured Waves article was around surfing, her connection to skateboarding was also acknowledged. “I started skating as a kid, but I had to hide it. My parents wouldn’t let me and all I wanted to do was skate. I would just read skateboard and surf magazines all the time. Of course when I was a kid I got accused of trying to be white.”
In her blog entry called “Mother / Son Skate Date!” Mills recalled how she was forbidden to skate. “I had skateboards hidden in the closet in my room. Often, when my parents were off doing who knows what, I would sneak a skate or two in. I even found an empty pool within a few miles of my house. I skated that too.”
Unfortunately, the pool located in West Los Angeles was soon discovered and overrun by skaters and made unskateable by the owners. Mills continued to sneak out and skate in her teen years, returned to it in her senior year at college, and then put it aside until she started surfing and had some work done on her knee, and then it was game on!
Mills wasn’t one to be swayed by anyone’s opinion of what she could or couldn’t / should or shouldn’t be doing, although the reality of having a knee replacement later in life did mean that she had to dismantle her backyard mini-ramp and opt for the more forgiving falls on water versus wood and concrete.
Mary shared with Chelsea how she had watched surfing as a kid on a TV show called Wide World of Sports and thought, “‘I want to do that.’ But there were a few things holding me back. Number one, I couldn’t swim. Number two, I had straightened hair. And number three, I was a black kid. So I was like, ‘Well, I’ll never do that.’” But Mills never forgot her dream, and in her late thirties, after having her son, she pursued it.
Photo: Ken Samuel
In a conversation with Building the Revolution website, Mills noted that the deal with skateboarding being slightly more accepting of diversity was that it “has always had a largely counter-culture reality and aesthetic. It took awhile for Hollywood to notice it and Hollywood movies can never do it justice. Surfing, on the other hand, became a big part of the culture in the 60s with the Beach Blanket movies and the Beach Boys. Surf magazines furthered that racial narrative of surfing being a lifestyle and pastime that only white people enjoyed… Skating was harder to sell to the masses, so it remained underground and, in some ways, gritty.”
Photo: Yuka Masuda
In her blog, Mary writes about being a surfer who skates, especially as she began taking her son to the skatepark in 2011. “The last few months have seen me at the skatepark on a regular basis. Days that would normally involve me packing my car with a surfboard and surf gear became days that involved me packing my car with a child and skate gear… Surfing will always be my first love. And I don’t aspire to drop into a 12 foot pool, crush the deathbox and then subsequently fly out over the coping with an audible roar… What I do want from skating, specifically my visits to skateparks is to be able to flow… as one does on a wave.” Mills concluded that her ultimate day was surfing in the morning and skating in the afternoon without falling!
Mills explained on Instagram that the Textured Waves website and article “sparked a movement to grow the culture around surfing for women of color and underrepresented demographics,” which resulted most recently in a collaboration with Vans (March 2022) alongside Textured Waves founders Chelsea Woody, Danielle Black Lyons, and Martina Duran.
As well, there’s been interviews hosted by Volcom and a fantastic article in the NY Times called “Black Surfers Reclaim their Place on the Waves” highlighting the hostilities experienced by black surfers as well as honouring legends like Sharon Schaffer (first black pro woman surfer), Andrea Kabwasa, Mimi Miller, Gigi Lucas, Mary Mills and more.
Like 80s skateboarder KZ Zapata, who was dismayed when her hair was tampered with for a commercial, Mills and Woody discuss hair and its significance for African American women, both as a culprit (preventing Mills from pursuing swimming until she was 23) and statement about identity.
Ultimately, Mills and Woody celebrated ways to maintain individuality, being punk rock, and if people are going to stare at her then, “What the hell! If I can’t blend in I’m going to stand way out.” And with Volcom on YouTube she stated, “I am my own industry,” rather than try to align with an industry that reveres and idolizes young white boys, and white girls in bikinis. Regardless, Mills refuses to allow anyone to steal the joy of surfing away from her.
- Cardwell, Diane. “Black Surfers Reclaim their Place on the Waves.” New York Times. August 31, 2021.
- Mills, Mary. “Interview with Surf Icon and Mold Breaker, Mary Mills.” Building the Revolution. November 13, 2020.
- Mills, Mary. “My new life as a surfer who skates.” Surf and the Fury. October 12, 2011.
- Mills, Mary. “Mother/Son Skate Date!” Surf and the Fury. August 27, 2011.
- Woody, Chelsea. “Do you know Mary Mills? Well you should.” Textured Waves. August 13, 2019.