Helmets, Public Safety, and Black Biking Culture in Chicago

Streetriders for Black Lives Matter took to the streets in Times Square, New York, NY / USA – June 20th 2020 (Kevin RC Wilson/ Shutterstock)

On any given day in Chicago, if the weather permits, I can count on seeing a Black person riding a bike, scooter, or skateboard with no helmet in sight. Black folks are not the only people riding without helmets, but six years in Chicago left me wondering why Black people seem to be riding disproportionately unprotected. Most bike helmets are not designed for Black hair, much less Black public health and safety.

Chicago has a long history and promising future of Black biking, but is there a historical place for safety in Black biking culture? As early as 1898, Chicago’s Westside became the home of a Black cycling club (Dolinar, 2013). Black cycling clubs also emerged in New York and other cities. From 1898 to 1910, the world’s best cyclist was a Black man from Indiana who tragically died in Chicago in 1932. During his reign, Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor (1878-1932) recorded seven cycling world records and won a world championship in 1899 (The Chicago Defender). This required overcoming an equally impressive amount of racism along the way. White racers actively tried to avoid racing “the great negro,” by evoking Jim Crow restrictions to ban Taylor from races. But when that failed, many white racers even threatened Taylor physically. It got so bad that Taylor’s manager tried to “protect” the athlete with skin-whitening creams (Kranish, 2019). His manager’s efforts did little to shield Taylor from harm’s way, but most people had no protection at all. This was the case for Joseph Lovings , (1878-1919), who accidentally rode his bicycle into Little Italy in the summer of 1919 and was shot in the context of ongoing racial violence against Black people.

At the same time, Black people have used wheels to ease the strain of pushing against racism for over a century. In the 1920s and 1930s, Black newspapers like Chicago Defender occasionally held contests for neighborhood newsies (newspaper boys and girls) to win bicycles.1 Bicycles aided the dissemination of Black voices, so it was a win-win. Once in 1940, the Chicago Defender gave away 20 bikes to its best newsies. This was not uncommon. During these years, other Black newspapers like New York Amsterdam News, Call and Post (Cleveland), and the Afro-American (Baltimore) also held similar contests to reward its best newsies with bicycles.2 It is worth noting that girl newsies were few and far between. My grandmother, who grew up in Philadelphia in the 1940s, remembers that newsies were always boys; selling newspapers was a rite of passage for them.

Twenty years later in 1960, cab driver Lawrence Young started the Lawrence Young Woodlawn Bicycle Club to promote better safety for children biking in his South Side neighborhood. Young created the club for his kids (mostly boys), but “before [he] knew it, there were kids calling and dropping by [his] house.” Young was convinced that riding on the streets was the real danger.3

Despite the historical involvement of Black people with cycling, bike-riding culture has yet to yield materials, such as helmets, that fit Black people and Black hair. Given today’s widespread embrace of natural hair, can Black riders demand more helmets that accommodate our health and culture?

I’ve been primed to ask this question for some time. I’ve been growing locs for thirteen years, and I personally do not ride bikes without helmets. Even before growing my hair, my father never let me ride anywhere without protection. He works in trauma care and has seen the results of far too many avoidable tragedies.

Helmets are certainly no silver bullet or panacea. They provide one layer of defense. Bike lanes offer another; like helmets, they are conduits of public transportation. Cities and communities cannot get complacent regarding safe, inclusive, and green infrastructure for bike and scooter riders. This requires more maintenance, improvement, and imagination in and for Black communities. In 2018, the Chicago Regional Crash Report tracked that neighborhoods with higher economic hardship also experience three times as many traffic accidents. According to Block Club Chicago, the lack of bicycle lanes in Chicago’s Westside leaves Black and Latinx more vulnerable to collisions with cars and police officers. Helmets will do little to protect riders of color from police officers who target and ticket riders for using sidewalks where safer options do not exist.

Like bike riding, Black hair is an expression of freedom. However, a lack of helmet options can put the two at odds. Protecting Black hair is distinct from avoiding head trauma. Social media and interviews with Black riders suggest that more Black folks would wear helmets if they did not ruin their afros, box braids, or locs. Laura Rojas (she/her), a Chicagoan who identifies as Afro-Latina, told me that she put satin in her extra-large helmet to protect her hair. Zoe Bishop (she/her), another self-identifying Chicagoan Afro-Latina, admitted to riding more without a helmet because it wrecked her hair. “I feel like I have to accommodate for the helmet more than it accommodates for me,” Bishop said without mincing one word. Some Black riders have found helmet brands with adjustable dials, such as Lumos, Thousand Helmets, and Specialized Align II. But like Bishop, most Black riders tend to accommodate their helmets with bonnets, low ponytails, and low buns. Some people even have multiple helmets to serve different hairstyles.

Many Black riders must accommodate for poor helmets and, absent bike lanes, resort to riding only in parks and on sidewalks. Other Black people with locs like me can’t even wrap their heads around carrying a helmet large enough for their hair. For instance, Garrett Riley (he/his), a Depaul University alumni with locs, questioned: “how does the helmet travel?” Can it hang from his backpack or attach to his board?

Victoria Brown (she/her) wears an extra-large Cannondale Quick helmet with a loc-soc over her locs, but it took her a “long time to find a real extra large.” Brown is no stranger to helmets. She has worked in bike shops in Georgia and North Carolina, where it has been company policy to wear helmets on site. However, she had to buy at least ten helmets elsewhere before finding the right fit. And regarding the airbag protective gear more common today in Europe, Brown asks, “has it really come to this?” Not only does it “look crazy,” but they are expensive and single-use. “People joke that Black hair is [also] a cushion,” Brown remarked, “but it doesn’t work like that.”

Like Brown, Shane Whittington (he/his) has a good sense of how the cycling industry and its helmets work. He’s been cycling and training cyclists for over twenty years and hopes to eventually open the first Black-owned bike shop in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. When Whittington coached an all-Black women’s cycling team, stylish helmets that fit were a serious concern. He uses a large helmet to protect his head and hair and is optimistic that a helmet does exist for everyone. It just takes time. However, he is less convinced that we need helmets at all. Like Lawrence Young in 1960, Whittington sees an abundance of cars as an obstacle to bike safety more than an absence of helmets. Without discouraging helmet use, he would not push helmets in cycling-friendly environments. “What’s the purpose of a helmet?” he asked. They are products of roads and cars, not bikes. Even worse, Whittington suggests that helmets are inadequate products of cars because though many collisions are “side hits,” helmets tend to protect the top of the head. When a car hit Whittington and his bike from the side, his helmet did little to protect him. His experience working for Oregon’s Department of Transportation has also left him wondering why some states’ laws only require helmet use for youth under 16 years of age, whereas no equivalent law exists for seat belts.

For Whittington, the real question is accessibility. Beyond just helmets, he believes that historically the “sport of cycling is specifically for white men” and “very little clothing [today] accommodates women’s bodies or larger bodies.” He’s convinced that so long as most bikes are produced in China, Taiwan, and Japan, they will never account for our hair and bodies.

Bicycle-related companies and biking culture must continue to push for more inclusive and innovative solutions for the broadest ridership possible. If my sister can design clothes for queer people of color then helmet manufacturers can provide more options for Black riders. I focus here on bikes and scooters to frame Black-helmet healthcare within the context of environmental justice, even though this issue extends to skateboarders, skiers, motorcyclists, horseback riding, athletes (football, baseball, hockey), construction workers, and many others. The onus of public safety is not solely on the biker rider, worker, or athlete; better helmets protect our heads, our hair, and our more sustainable futures.

  1. On Newsie contests for bicycles, please see “Defender to Give Newsies Bicycles,” The Chicago Defender, December 7, 1929; “Defender gives away 20 Bicycles,” The Chicago Defender, September 21, 1940.
  2. “Newsie Wins Bicycle,” New York Amsterdam News, August 17, 1940; “Bicycle Winner,” Cleveland Call and Post, September 10, 1936; “George Legon is Names Top Philly Afro Newsie,” Afro-American, January 17, 1942.
  3. Henry Hardy, “Bike Club Formed for Safety and Fun,” The Chicago Defender, October 8, 1960.
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Jayson Maurice Porter

Jayson Maurice Porter is an environmental historian of Mexico and the Americas, focusing on agrochemicals, rural food deserts, and Black ecologies. He is the Voss Postdoctoral Research Associate in Environment and Society at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @RogueChieftan.

Comments on “Helmets, Public Safety, and Black Biking Culture in Chicago

  • I am a bicycle commuter where I live, and also use bike-share programs as my primary method of getting around other cities when I travel. I always wear a helmet, because I know that statistically over 90% of cycling fatalities occur when the rider has no helmet. Yes, cars and other anti-bike infrastructure are also involved, but the helmet is a life-saver. I also know that as a white person, it is not hard for me to find a helmet that fits comfortably. I can choose from styles and features and fashionable options. Very few white bicyclists — or bicyclists of other races/ethnicities who can find “standard” helmets that fit) realize how much of a racial privilege this is. The fact that no company is serious about producing life-saving gear that meets the needs of Black cyclists is maddening. And it’s one more way racism jeopardizes lives and well-being. Thank you, Jayson Maurice Porter, for putting the history and the present need together. I hope this post gets attention from bicycling communities and ultimately from someone who will make the range of gear that’s needed.

    Reply
    • What a fascinating article!

      I enjoyed reading it, not just as a road cyclist but as someone who treasures well-planned and research pieces.

      Bravo!

      Please forward this and other AAIHS articles to your contacts to support the authors and this esoteric AAIHS group!!

      Reply
  • Are helmets different than flat-bib baseball caps?

    Reply

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