It was Easter Weekend of 1928 when five black women took off on an ambitious bike ride from New York City to Washington, D.C. The women—Marylou Jackson, Velma Jackson, Ethyl Miller, Leolya Nelson and Constance White—weren’t out to make a political point. They were motivated simply by their “love for the great outdoors,” according to an account decades later by the League of American Bicyclists. They biked 250 miles over the course of three days and once they arrived they did some sightseeing in the Capitol.
Their ride has inspired a current group of black bicyclists whose ambitions are political as much as they are personal. “Those five women who rode from New York City to D.C. set this platform for dopeness,” says Zahra Alabanza, an Atlanta-based tour organizer for a black bicyclists collective called Red, Bike, and Green. Alabanza is one of a half dozen black bicyclists who made the reverse trek— from Washington, D.C. to Brooklyn’s Afropunk festival—this past weekend. The ride was a first in the history of Red, Bike, and Green, a loose collective of black cyclists who came together in Oakland back in 2009. The group has organized free group rides on the first Friday of each month and collected funds to give away free bikes and helmets to members of local communities. “We see biking as a vehicle for change,” says Alabanza, whose branch has started a self-sustained bike farm in Atlanta’s Bankhead neighborhood. “The community rides are a way of introducing folks to businesses that are black-owned and they’re a way to hold spaces for black people in a positive way— usually when you see people biking in major cities, they’re not black.”
It’s that absence that led to the formation of Red, Bike, and Green in the first place. Biking has become a significant part of America’s cultural landscape in recent years. It’s a healthy, affordable form of transportation, as noted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he introduced the Big Apple’s fleet of CitiBikes earlier in 2013.
Yet while biking is often seen as a largely white pastime in America (remember Stuff White People Like?), it’s getting more diverse. According to a 2013 study by the League of American Bicyclists and the Sierra Club, the fastest growth rate in bicycling is among Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans. Between 2001 and 2009, the percentage of bike trips taken by these three groups rose from 16 to 23. What’s more, the study found that 86 percent of people of color had a positive view of bicyclists, and 71 percent surveyed said that safer cycling would make their communities better.
“Part of the reason why I started doing RBG was that I immediately saw the revolutionary potential of it,” says co-founder Juliana “Jewels” Smith.”It’s a practice in creating spaces where black people can love one another and it’s not necessarily a meet-up or a happy hour. It’s an unpretentious way of black folks getting together and creating community, and it’s way bigger than cycling—even though that’s at the center of it.” The collective has expanded to several cities, including Atlanta, Brooklyn and Chicago. Smith says that rides now draw between 60 to 65 people.
The rides and free bike giveaways are centered around a three-point program modeled on the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’s political platform of the late 1960s. The plan centers on three themes—health, economics and the environment. It argues that if more black folks take to biking, they can help improve life in all three areas. “The thinking of [the Black Panthers’] plan and ours is pretty similar,” Burton says. “We’re trying to build a healthier, stronger community and to strengthen the notions of empowerment and self-determination in the black community.”
The group’s formation was also in reaction to rapidly changing ideas of how to use public infrastructure in Oakland. “Some people say that bike lanes are the first indicator of gentrification,” says Burton of why she started the group. “When you see these large groups of black people riding on bikes, it’s kind of a statement to black and non-black folks that we’re actively demanding to be part of the conversation around how the [city’s] infrastructure is changing.”
Another key aspect of Red, Bike and Green is an aesthetic (see poster above) that marries history with contemporary style. You can see it on everything from the group’s Facebook page to its T-shirts, and posters. “The aesthetic is a big part of Red, Bike and Green,” says Smith. “With our photos and our messaging, there’s clearly a historical element that ties black folks and cycling to a longer history.”
Adds Burton, “You kind of have these mainstream stereotypes about the way black folks are expected to carry themselves and present themselves, with all of these assumptions based on our lifestyle. Much like Afropunk, [Red, Bike, and Green] is about creating space for [African-Americans] to embrace an alternative lifestyle.”