Bikes Are an Expression of Black Joy. Here’s How 5 Riders Break Through White Supremacy

Stephanie Sorrina Beecher
·6 min read

From Bicycling

For many riders, the global pandemic has provided the sort of rare downtime to indulge in the joys of biking: an opportunity to whisk away and escape the stressors of life in lockdown. But for Black riders, the crisis combined with the nation’s racial reckoning is putting a spotlight on the sport’s own systemic inequalities.

As we celebrate the expansion of the sport, riders at the intersection of race, gender, and cycling are striving to have their voices heard—and use their passion for biking to steer social justice and liberation.

In partnership with SRAM, Bicycling hosted a group of Black trans, femme, women, and non-binary cyclists who collectively shared their experiences of race and identity within the sport. The discussion featured four guests, Zahra Alabanza, Tamika Butler, Jesi Harris, and Iresha Picot. The conversation was moderated by Grace Anderson, a co-director for PGM ONE SUMMIT, a grassroots organization for BIPOC who work in connection with the land, who first approached the magazine to host the virtual event.

For these cyclists, biking has become an analogy for promoting BIPOC visibility and the racial justice movement. In a year chock-full of challenges, the panelists say confronting the tensions that exist for Black folks on bikes has bubbled to the surface.

Historically, Black people’s time outdoors was perceived as laborious, not leisurely, they said. That has gradually changed, but the fight to overcome misperceptions of how Black people spend their free time, highlighted by cases of people calling the cops on Black park dwellers and birdwatchers, continues to be a struggle.

When Alabanza first discovered her passion for biking as an adult, it was through a white woman she met at a reproductive rights conference who had just completed a cross-country trek. She remembers being shocked by the notion.

“What I learned was white people, and people with a lot of privilege, have the space and audacity to do things that I never knew I could do, [think] of, or dream of,” explained Alabanza. “But I said ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’” While she hasn’t yet ridden across the country, her bike tour from Eugene, Oregon to San Francisco with several other BIPOC women cyclists would become a transformative experience.

“It literally changed the trajectory of my entire life,” she added. Following the ride, she launched a chapter of Red, Bike & Green in Atlanta to provide community rides exclusively for fellow Black cyclists. “There are a million other rides in the city that do not center on us. I’m grateful for the space.”

Space and access is something Picot says she thinks of often. Living in Philadelphia, with its narrow streets and row houses, she attracts intrigue as a Black female cyclist navigating the avenues of her working-class block. That’s not the case for the white transplants living in nearby gentrified neighborhoods painted with bike lanes.

“I didn’t realize until I started cycling that a lot of my friends—the Philly natives—did not even know how to bike,” explains Picot. “They weren’t taught how to bike because of safety. I think that’s been a big [barrier] and why more Black folks don’t cycle.”

For Harris, who was raised in a primarily white environment, biking and identity has prompted her to think about how the sport provides freedom within, and freedom from the world, which often perceives her as a Black man. For example, Harris feels the most relief while riding her motorcycle covered in full gear.

“I didn’t realize how long I’ve been biking with this burden,” Harris said.

Still, the panelists worried that ceding to invisibility would result in an extension of systemic oppression. No matter their location, gender identity, or upbringing, all of the panelists touched upon the preservation of “Black bodies in motion,” as Picot put it.

Anderson prepares for rides by donning a full kit, Alabanza prefers riding with fellow BIPOC cyclists; Butler considers the gender she’s presenting through her attire; and Harris blares music from her speaker, always cognizant of what song is playing based on the neighborhood she’s riding through. The effort it takes to maintain safety while cycling threatens to overcome its benefits, they added.

“It breaks my heart that when we are moving freely, is when so much damage happens,” Butler said. “My bike is so tied to who I was as a kid. It’s totally connected to a feeling of freedom and liberation. For me, when we’re talking about the Black pain and the Black struggle, it’s also important to talk about Black joy. For me, bikes are a part of that.”

The key to maintaining enjoyment and breaking through the barriers created by white supremacy through bicycling is to continue occupying space and providing resources so other Black cyclists can do the same, the panelists said.

“Some of what we’re having to do is push white people’s imagination of what we are, and what we can be,” said Anderson.

It’s also important to stretch the imagination of fellow BIPOCs, said Picot. “If we talk more about how biking brings us joy and increases our serotonin, our happy genes, if we’re able to pour more back into ourselves when we’re out in nature, moving our bodies ... people will gradually be more open to choosing that for themselves.”

Despite the tumult of the past year, the riders said they were grateful for the challenging discussions being brought to light, and for their bikes, which provided the freedom, space, and mental health benefits to push their movement forward. They hope it inspires other cyclists to action.

“It’s always bigger than bikes,” Alabanza said. “Biking is just a tool to help us understand ourselves better. It’s an analogy for the experiences we’re having. This machine gives us a literal sense of liberation.”

As part of their compensation for participating, the guests and moderator will choose a group to receive a mini-grant of $1,100 through SRAM's support for the event. “This allows these brilliant riders to redistribute money to organizations and initiatives that are important to them,” says Anderson.

Butler is supporting Lambda Literary, which champions LGBTQ books and authors. Picot’s mini-grant will go to the Womanist Working Collective, a social action and support collective for Black womyn, transwomen, and gender variant folks. Alabanza is supporting Fort Negrita, a member cooperative that increases awareness of a non-extractive, environmentally-functional lifestyle. Harris’s will go to Sex Workers' Outreach Project USA, a national social justice network dedicated to fundamental human rights of sex workers focused on ending violence and stigma. And Anderson’s will support Southern Fried Queer Pride, a non-profit empowering Black queer and QTPOC centered communities in the South through the arts.

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