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Oakland 'Bike Black' Group Goes National

Posted: May 23, 2012

Since launching in 2010, Red Bike and Green has been a welcome addition to Oakland’s burgeoning bicycle culture.

Beginning with monthly First Friday rides throughout Oakland, the organization has given African-American cyclists, both newbies and hardcore aficionados, a space to socialize - and see and be seen - while also supporting healthy living.

Those First Friday rides have grown into two new rides: A second Saturday excursion of about 20-25 miles for in-shape, experienced riders, called “Flight Club,” which debuts this Saturday, May 12, and a family-oriented, kid-friendly ride every third Saturday, which travels at an easy-going pace.

All RBG rides meet at “the pillars” on the North side of Lake Merritt; visit RBG’s website for times (or to order cool merchandise like T-shirts, posters and patches).

Oakland Local recently caught up with RBG founder Jenna Burton to get the rundown on why “biking black” has become the latest cultural movement to originate out of Oakland.

For someone who’s never heard of Red Bike and Green, Burton explained, it’s a “cycling collective for people of African descent. It’s intended to strengthen the presence of bike culture in the black community, for self, environmental and health reasons.”

Although there’s a “strong bike presence in the bay area in general, that doesn’t necessarily mean it applies to the black community,” Burton said.

She points to the green movement and the push for healthy living and food justice as not always being as inclusive or accessible to African Americans as perhaps they should be. For that reason, she said, "there needs to be a space so black folks can see the application and how it can work for their lives and their communities.”

The reaction Oaklanders have upon seeing a peloton of black bicyclists for the first time, Burton says, is one of surprise.

“People are pretty shocked to see so many black people … on bikes … at one time … together.”

Once they get past the initial reaction, she said, “it’s support or people are just really jubilant or just happy to see us, especially when we ride through black neighborhoods or by black families or businesses. We get a lot of love and support.”

Burton said RBG’s first regular ride, a First Friday jaunt, came out of the idea to make black folks a more visible aspect of the cultural renaissance Oakland’s been undergoing.

“The first Friday ride was supposed to coincide with the Oakland Art Murmur and the strong bike culture around the Art Murmur,” Burton recalled. “When we started four years ago, we didn’t see a whole lot of folks of color. And Oakland is very black or brown. And so, it was a little shocking to see, this great event is starting to happen in Oakland and revive the city center, make it a fun place to be and socialize and you didn’t really see a whole lot of people of color participating in it.

"That’s why we decided to start doing bike rides on First Friday, so we could have some kind of presence,” she added.

Every year, RBG’s kick-off ride for the season touches on black history in Oakland, Burton said.

“West Oakland is such a good ride for that,” she added. There are several reasons for that: "It’s flat, things are relatively close together … and there are a lot of historical landmarks there. DeFremery Park is better known as 'Lil' Bobby Hutton Park' to a lot of black historians, we have the UNIA building that we ride past, there’s the Pullman Porters monument that we ride past sometimes. It’s a nice way of connecting black folks with their history here in Oakland. And it’s a history that’s part of the larger black history as well.”

A clear sign that RBG has become a cultural institution in 2012 is its expansion, into Chicago and Atlanta.

“The Chicago founder, she was originally a member of RBG in Oakland,” Burton said. “When she moved to Chicago, she took Red Bike and Green with her. Atlanta, it was started by a woman who did bike tours with lots of folks in the Bay Area and had been hearing about the work.”

Asked if non-black folks are welcome on RBG rides, Burton discouraged the notion, but noted a collaborative RBG does ride with People of Color Everyday Ride (POCER), to “create space for people who aren’t black.”

Finally, Burton speculated on how the city of Oakland can make the town even more bike-friendly than it already is.

“I think Oakland has a lot of work to do in East Oakland,” she stated emphatically. “It’s hard for us to ride in East Oakland, which is such - geographically speaking, it’s such a huge part of Oakland.

Everything that’s happening and growing by Lake Merritt or North Oakland, even West Oakland, it’s like, East Oakland is excluded from everything there, which is really sad because there’s a lot of history there," Burton went on to say. "A lot of families have been living in East Oakland for generations. And unless they make their way to the lake or the center of Oakland, it’s like a completely different city or another world. So, focusing on even more bike lanes would be a start for East Oakland."

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