On today’s date in 1878, Marshall “Major” Taylor was born into an African-American family in Indianapolis. Taylor went on to a groundbreaking career as a bike racer, back in the age when Madison Square Garden was a velodrome and people flocked to see bike races. In an era characterized by the twisted asymmetry of “separate but equal,” when the League’s own membership was divided over racial segregation, Major Taylor flourished as the only African-American cyclist to reach the apex of the racing world.
He died at the relatively young age of 53, in a charity hospital in Chicago, his extraordinary story not enough to sustain him. Today, however, his legacy as a champion inspires bike clubs in African-American communities around the country.
These things I knew before reading Andrew Ritchie’s book Major Taylor: “The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World”, but in that biography something new caught my eye. As a young boy, Taylor started accompanying his father to work for a wealthy white family, where he was semi-adopted as a companion to a child his own age. He moved in with the family, and lived with them for about five years until they left the city.
This detail stuck out because it suggests that Taylor learned, intimately, how to live between two worlds at a very young age. Many of us do, to a greater or lesser extent. We learn how to use the right fork, or the right slang, or reference the right movies and music. And while many of us grow up knowing that we need to act differently according to our setting, there’s a power dynamic at play when the setting’s norms are expressed in race or class terms.
It matters who gets to define what counts as “normal.” Taylor probably experienced the shame and confusion that can occur when an individual must shift from one normal to another in a structure that told him one color’s norms are better.
When such irrefutable facts as skin color or family income prevent us from being normal in a given situation, it’s largely been considered our job to make do; it’s not the dominant group’s job to understand the efforts it takes to hide struggle. Those of us who cross these lines develop a cosmopolitan flexibility that can be an asset, but in a world of people reluctant to admit their own position in the social structure, our abilities get undervalued.
And this flexibility can take its own toll; Ritchie writes about how alienated Taylor felt from his family because of his acculturation into another world. He stayed close to his mother, Saphronia , but had only occasional communication with his seven siblings through his adult life.
Difference is a threat to our unity only insofar as one group perpetuates the idea that their way is best. This recreates that same burden to be borne silently by those of us who must tack between social worlds. Making this a more unified movement means including other voices, even when they come from a different place than our own. It means celebrating the many forms bicycling can take, and celebrating the people who make bicycling great.
In his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, Taylor reflected that “these reminiscences, covering the most colorful chapter in all the history of bicycle racing, bring out very clearly many of the outstanding qualities characteristic of my race, such as perseverance, courage, and that marvelous spirit of forgiveness. It also proves to the world…that there are positively no mental, physical, moral or other attainments too lofty for a Negro to accomplish if granted a fair and equal opportunity.”
Taylor used his exceptional talent to argue for the ordinary humanity of his people. It is fitting that he has been taken up as a symbol of equality by cyclists of color such as the National Brotherhood of Cyclists, whose clubs around the country are holding their third annual Major Taylor Birthday Rides this Saturday, November 30. And the Minneapolis Major Taylor Club has organized the Major Taylor Turkey Day 50k for this Friday. Many of the League’s Equity Advisory Councilmembers are also members of the NBC, and as the League’s new Equity Initiative Manager, I’ll continue exploring how Major Taylor inspires the equity movement happening in bicycling today.
Learn more about Major Taylor’s legacy: