'Showtime' and 'Sugar': Insiders Glimpse At Black Female Bikers
Marian Peterson has defied gender roles her whole life.
As a little girl, she had a train set that outmatched any owned by the boys she knew.
As a young woman, she was the only female to compete on her local horse racing team, the L.A. Jayhawks.
And by the time she reached her mid-20s, Peterson — more commonly known as "Miss Showtime" — was one of the few black women motorcyclists in Los Angeles.
"When I first started riding I was not on the bike set," said Showtime, now 64. Instead, she rode motorcycles independently of a club, later becoming affiliated with male riding groups. "Some of the guys felt intimidated because I'm a woman, and by my skills riding."
Mostly self-taught, Showtime is now the road captain of the all-male motorcycle club the Magnificent Seven, a feat indicative of how much respect she has in the riding world. Showtime is also one of the elite black motorcyclists featured in the California African American Museum's exhibit Black Chrome, which showcases the contributions African Americans have made to motorcycle culture. The exhibit will run through April 12 at the museum, which is in Exposition Park, just a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
As a black woman in the motorcycle world, Showtime arguably faced twice the challenges that her male counterparts did. When Showtime won a street race against two male competitors, she had to be very humble and coy, so as not to upset them.
She told her competitors that she had no idea she was racing them. "I was just trying to keep up," she recalls telling them.
Showtime said that she has managed to earn the respect of male motorcyclists by behaving like a lady rather than mimicking the behavior of men.
"Some women will go out and put on their gear and put on their bike, and they're not the same lady," Showtime said. "Guys respect ladies."
Showtime also had to exercise caution when she bought a Harley-Davidson in 1999. That famed brand of motorcycle has traditionally been the most sought after by members of riding clubs. In contrast, machines made by Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki are derisively referred to as "rice burners" by bike riders.
"They will not admit it, but their dream is to get a hog," Showtime said of motorcyclists who ride machines other than Harleys. So, when she was able to buy a Harley-Davidson, or hog, some of the male riders thought, "I was stepping on their toes. I'm becoming equal to them."
But times have changed, Showtime said. "Females are riding. They're riding hogs."
Al "Sugar Bear" Meyers considers Showtime to be a "real rider." Building bikes for more than 37 years has made Sugar Bear an icon in the motorcycle world. The industry superstar owns Sugar Bear Choppers in Gardena.
"She gets the same respect as any man in that organization," Sugar Bear said of Showtime and members of the Magnificent Seven. "A lot of male clubs will not allow a woman in their club, so the fact that she is in this club and is the road captain is a stamp of respect."
As road captain, Showtime directs the members of the club when they're on the asphalt. She can set the driving speed for the riders and initiate lane changes. In addition to the Magnificent Seven, Showtime was voted into a group for older riders called 50 Plus, which is made up of riders from 30 different clubs. Traditionally, the organization is all-male.
Showtime believes she has been welcomed by all-male clubs "because of my status on the bike set," she said, referring to the motorcycling world. "Now, I'm a living legend."
Showtime follows in the footsteps of black female motorcycling pioneers such as Bessie B. Stringfield, who, starting in the 1930s, travelled by motorcycle alone through each American state (there were 48 states in The Union at the time). Back then, many black riders were introduced to motorcycle riding during their service in the armed forces.
Despite the long history African Americans have of riding motorcycles, the contributions blacks have made to motorcycle culture were not always acknowledged.
For instance, a black man named Ben Hardy played a key role in designing the bikes featured in the film "Easy Rider." Sugar Bear, who has worked with Hardy, also faced blatant discrimination. Motorcycle magazines wanted to feature his bikes without including a picture of him, lest white readers be put off.
"White bikers and black bikers are in two separate worlds," Showtime said.
She credits the 2003 film "Biker Boyz" for exposing black motorcycle culture to the mainstream. It's Showtime's belief that the media doesn't show black motorcyclists engaging in bike runs and other activities, as it does for white motorcyclists.
According to her, many of the crew members on the "Biker Boyz" set didn't realize that black motorcyclists even existed. And black women motorcyclists have yet to garner the attention their male peers have.
Annette "Brown T. Sugar" Collins has helped to bring focus to black women riders. A decade ago, she established the Hawg Divas, which she and Showtime say is the Los Angeles area's first black female club.
The club, like Brown T. Sugar, has experienced its share of challenges. Similar to Showtime, Brown T. Sugar mostly taught herself how to ride. She was inspired to do so 20 years ago, after her then-husband rode her on the back of his motorcycle several times. When Brown T. Sugar decided to ride herself, both her husband and other family members reacted with skepticism.
"My dad told me I was crazy," she remembered. Many tried to dissuade her from riding. They would say, " 'I know someone, and they got hit on a motorcycle, and they died,' " Brown T. Sugar said.
Despite the fears of her friends and family, she excelled in riding. She even beat her husband at the time in a race to Terminal Island, which sits between Long Beach and Los Angeles harbors.
"I whooped his butt ... The man was so embarrassed," she said.
She joined an all-male motorcycle club, the L.A. Deuces. To be accepted, Brown T. Sugar said she had to show that she was unafraid and that the men would not be able to leave her behind.
She ultimately started a club for women because men didn't always appreciate the stylistic components of riding: How gloves fit, how hair is styled under a helmet, and so on, is important to women riders but not so significant to men riders, Brown T. Sugar believes.
Today, a few all-female riding clubs exist in the Los Angeles area.
"I guess women got tired of being on the back (of motorcycles)," Brown T. Sugar said. "You're not in control when you're back there. That guy is in control of your life."
Those who encounter her and her club of female riders exhibit a wide range of reactions — from disgust to awe. The women riders have been referred to as "dykes on the bikes." Other times, onlookers are delighted to see them.
"People are always pulling out their camcorders," Brown T. Sugar said. "They stop and they want to take a picture."
Brown T. Sugar said that she understands why the Hawg Divas create a spectacle of sorts:
"It's not a lot of ladies out here, especially not sisters."
Nadra Kareem is a writer for the L.A. Watts Times.
Harley-Davidson motorcycle photo from Wikimedia Commons; photos of Ms. Showtime and Annett "Brown T. Sugar" by L.A. Watts Times
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