History and ‘Hate Ashbury’
By day, Michelle Brattain is chair of the History Department. But when she fastens on her helmet and laces up to skate for the Atlanta Rollergirls, she's No. 67, Hate Ashbury
She was in the arena at the Yaraab Shriners Temple on Ponce de Leon Avenue, cheering on the Atlanta Rollergirls, the local flat-track roller derby team, and from her trackside seat she could have sworn she recognized one of the skaters zipping by.
That looks just like Dr. Brattain!
Graves’s former history professor at Georgia State and the “jammer” in question did share the same compact build — muscular shoulders squared atop a petite, wiry frame. The dark brown hair creeping from beneath the rim of the skater’s black helmet matched as well. Still, the idea that the same sweet woman who had once lectured Graves on Nixon and Kennedy and the Vietnam War and gently nudged her to pursue a master’s degree would be spending her Saturday nights gliding around in circles, exchanging elbows and body checks with sweaty, tattooed women twice her size seemed, at best, far-fetched.
The program offered little help — the “67” written in marker on the jammer’s arms was registered to Hate Ashbury, a skater alias.
There was only one way to be certain. After the final buzzer had ended the bout, Graves worked her way through the scattering crowd to the floor, toward the home bench where Hate Ashbury was greeting fans, grinning, celebrating her team’s victory. Even as she drew closer, Graves couldn’t shake her uncertainty. But by the time Graves was within shouting distance, before the former student could work up the courage to say anything, Michelle Brattain spun around on her skates, eyes widened with pleasant surprise and cried, “Kristina! Oh my gosh, you’re here!” Teacher hugged student and asked what she thought of the bout.
A few years prior, it was Brattain sitting trackside, wondering if she could see herself out there on eight wheels.
The year was 2008. She was at the roller derby to support a friend, her husband’s coworker — skater name: Deathskull. Brattain saw up close the speed and size of the skaters, felt the floor tremble as bones and flesh careened off each other and crashed onto concrete. The sweating, the shouting, the screaming. Brattain was an academic, a history nerd and non-athlete who had only started running in grad school and had never participated in a team sport. Not knowing the rules, she had no idea what was really happening. Yet, she was drawn to derby.
First, the professor who had written about race and gender equality in 20th-century U.S. saw how the sport empowered its female participants and encouraged them to be aggressive. Also, as Brattain went to more and more bouts, she got to know the skaters, whose day jobs ranged from accountants and lawyers to graphic designers and cat groomers. She also saw that beyond the violence there was real strategy — the four blockers working together to clear a path for the jammer, who had to finesse as much as force her way through the scrum, collecting a point for each opponent she was able to pass.
Perhaps a bit small for a blocker, Brattain felt she had the speed and agility and toughness it took to be a jammer. And with the encouragement of Deathskull — a high school teacher named Shannon Nowlan —Brattain decided to try out for the Atlanta Rollergirls.
“She was an avid runner,” says Nowlan. “She already had the endurance and the athleticism. She just needed to learn how to skate.”
Not having laced them up since elementary school birthday parties, Brattain borrowed a pair of skates from a colleague in the College of Arts and Sciences who also played derby. She taught herself to pivot stop and the derby stance — slightly crouched, back bent forward to create a low center of gravity. In the summer of 2009, she aced her initial tryout, becoming “fresh meat,” a rookie who has yet to be corralled by one of the Atlanta Rollergirls’ four squads. That December, Brattain was drafted by the Denim Demons, and in 2012, she was drafted to the interleague B team, the Rumble Bs.
Now that she was officially a Rollergirl, it was time for Brattain to buy her own skates and, more important, choose her own skater name — a rite of passage, the sanctity of which is matched only by its complexity. A good skater name is both clever and menacing, and the best also contain an element of the skater’s personality. There are a lot of puns, like Touretta Lynn or Splatty Hearst. The name also has to be unique because once a name is registered it can never be used again. There is an online database of more than 40,000 names belonging to skaters in the more than 200 flat-track derby leagues in the U.S.
So when Brattain went looking for a bone-cracking, speed-skating alter ego she dug into her popular course on the 1960s, to a street in San Francisco that spawned the counterculture that came to define the decade. Hate Ashbury was born.
The History Department chair’s office is on the 20th floor of the high-rise at 34 Peachtree St. After 12 years teaching at Georgia State, Brattain was named to the department’s top job in fall 2011, but the corner workspace betrays little of the person behind the title. Nearly every square inch of wall space is fortified with shelves of books and bound volumes of periodicals. The only personal touches are the family photos, a husband and young daughter smiling on the desk, and a patch of wall above painted purple and lined with antique starburst clocks from the 1950s and 1960s.
On a typical day, Brattain arrives around 8 a.m., unless she has an early morning class, in which case she punches in even earlier. She walks to and from her lectures on campus, grades her students’ papers, and attends to her own research, while also navigating the bureaucratic responsibilities of an administrator. At the end of the workday, around 5 or 6 p.m., when the last paper is graded, the last student or faculty member met with, Brattain turns out the florescent lights and locks the door behind her. She passes the nameplate, which has been covered by a business card modified in the shaky black-ink script of her nine-year-old daughter. It reads: “Michelle Brattain aka Hate Ashbury; Department of History and being Awesome!; Georgia ‘Skate’ University.”
Many workdays February through September, Brattain takes the wheel of her Mini Cooper and jams her way through I-85 rush hour to Norcross, to a vacant, un-air-conditioned warehouse at the end of an industrial park. She sheds the skirt and blouse for shorts, tank-top, knee- and elbow-pads, and a chunky black helmet. At tonight’s practice she suits up alongside Shovely Rita. Once the gear is donned, it seems the women are called solely by their skater names. They usually know each other’s real names.
Rita remembers a road bout two years ago in which a teammate, Hurtie Gertie, broke her leg. After the bout, when she and some teammates went to the hospital to check up on their fallen colleague, they had trouble remembering a real name to give the front desk. Rita joined the Rollergirls about four years ago, thanks in part to Hate Ashbury, who was already a member.
“When you’re going through as fresh meat, it can be intimidating,” says Rita. “Hate was warm and welcoming. She wanted me to make it. You didn’t get that feeling from everyone.”
The two are both mothers, and as they warm up, skating leisurely around the oval track outlined on the concrete floor in yellow tape, they chat through their mouth guards, catching each other up on what’s going on at home and in the news as women trickle in through the warehouse door, discarding their civilian uniforms and taking on their alter egos.
Wednesday-night practices are a league-wide scrimmage for members of all four teams. Teams practice as a league, usually once a week. By the time the coaches call the group to order, there are about three- or four-dozen skaters on the floor.
Once the scrimmage starts, the friendly banter ceases. When it’s Hate’s turn to skate, she pulls on the spandex helmet guard stitched with a pink star to indicate the jammer, and she heads to the line. In front of her are four teammates in red practice jerseys and four blockers in blue matching that of the opposing jammer beside her. When the whistle blows, this mass of legs and arms lurches forward, both jammers trying to use their blockers to get past the wall of enemy jerseys.
Hate is pushed, shoved, intentionally and unintentionally elbowed and tripped, but manages to stay on her wheels and wend her way through the pack. She now emerges as “lead jammer” and leans forward to stride swiftly around the track and lap the gaggle of blockers, which she will again try to pass. This time through, Hate will score a point for each opponent she passes until she calls off the jam, ideally before the other jammer catches up and starts scoring points of her own.
Tonight’s hodge-podge of talent levels provides a wide range of results. During one jam, Hate seems to vaporize, slipping through the scrum and around the track three times, scoring 15 points, before the two-minute time limit mercifully expires on the opposition. In another, Hate shoulders vainly against a rolling barricade of sweat-drenched flesh, thrown down on her rear. She pops up only to get knocked down again. But she always gets back up.
“I’ve never seen Hate give up,” says Shovely Rita, looking on.
Hate is lucky she is able to get up. At every practice and bout, there seems to be at least one fall, sprain or break that stops the action dead until someone is either helped or carried off.
Tonight, a woman returning from a broken ankle was able to dust herself off and gingerly skate to the bench. No skater escapes the scratches and bruises of the full contact sport, but in five years, Hate has been lucky to have only torn a tendon in her hand and broken a couple fingers, injuries that don’t affect Hate’s jamming on the weekends as much as they inhibit Brattain’s ability to type during the week.
Despite the chance of injury, the toughest part of being a Rollergirl for working mothers like Brattain is the massive time commitment. From February into September practices are on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, bouts on Saturdays and some Sundays, and the Rumble Bs spend time on the road and in airports traveling to face teams throughout the region and as far away as Philadelphia. Travel, hotels and meals come out-of-pocket, along with the annual derby dues just to play, to say nothing of the cost of buying and maintaining skates and equipment.
Brattain’s family has helped ease the pain of time away by being supportive and active in the matriarch’s consuming hobby. Her husband attends as many bouts as he can and is even letting Brattain teach him how to skate. Their daughter Tui, aka Cat-a-gory, is a member of the Atlanta Derby Brats under-18 junior league team.
“There aren’t many sports for girls that encourage them to be physical and aggressive and confident in their bodies no matter what shape,” says Brattain. “And they are surrounded by great role models.”
Being one of those role models is Brattain’s reward, what makes all the sacrifice worthwhile. And the gratification of nurturing and encouraging young people, from derby brat to fresh meat, is the nexus at which the seemingly contradictory personas of Hate Ashbury and Professor Michelle Brattain meet.
Just ask Kristina Graves, who now not only spots her mentor on the track, but can sometimes be found trackside holding a glitter-painted sign that proudly reads: “I am Hate Ashbury’s GRA.” After nudging Graves to get her master’s degree, Brattain is now helping her obtain her doctorate and has taken Graves on as a graduate research assistant. Hate is also tactfully pushing Graves, the longtime derby fan, to lace up her own skates and take to the track.
“She inspires me to want to try it,” says Graves. “She’s taught me not to worry about what stands in your way.”
Tony Rehagen is a senior editor at Atlanta Magazine. His work has also appeared in Men’s Health and has been anthologized in the book “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.”
Photography by Ryan Hayslip
Slideshow by Steven Thackston, photographer/co-editor; Basil Iskandrian, editor