by Stan Purdum
The protests against systemic racism in many parts of our country following the unwarranted killing of George Floyd, a black man, under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer caused me to recall a scene from my bicycle trip on U.S. Route 62 some 20 years ago. There was no black person involved in that scene, but in a way, that’s the point.
It was my second day in Missouri, and it was very hot. I stopped for lunch at a store/café combination in a tiny hamlet that Rt. 62 passed through. Sitting at the counter, I was glad for the respite from the heat provided by the store’s overworked air-conditioning.
The friendly proprietor served me my hamburger, and I soon fell into easy conversation with four men seated at a nearby table. The men were interested in my trip, answered my question about a field crop I’d seen and didn’t recognize (it was cotton, which isn’t grown in the north, where I lived) and they warned me not to camp that night near any fields of what looked like bright green grass. It was actually rice, they said, which grows in water, and the mosquitoes who breed in the water come out after dark and would eat me alive.
I was grateful for the warning.
When I was ready to resume my ride, everyone, including the proprietor, wished me well on my continuing journey.
I couldn’t have asked for a more generous welcome or more friendly treatment, but for some reason, as I rolled further on 62, I found myself wondering if my experience there would have been different if I were a black man. Everyone in the store was white, and no one said or even hinted at anything derogatory about other races or cultures. For all I knew, they may all have been progressive thinkers who treated everyone kindly and as equals.
But still, there the unbidden thought was in my head: My time there would have been different — probably less comfortable — if I were a black rider.
Perhaps the thought came to me because of two very recent experiences.
The first one was the day before. Shortly after I pedaled into the state on Route 62, I came to Wilson City, which bore the bleak look of poverty. The people I saw were black, though I didn’t know then and don’t know now if that describes the whole population of the town. An economic development agency for the delta area was housed in a school building along 62. Charleston, a county seat town just seven miles further on, looked more prosperous and had a lush golf course. Most of the people I saw there were white, but again, whether that defined the town’s population, I didn’t and don’t know. But the contrast between the appearance and apparent affluence of the two communities was significant.
The second experience was just an hour or so before arriving at the store where I received the friendly welcome. Before leading me into that hamlet, Route 62 brought me to New Madrid, which sits right on the outside of a 360-degree bend of the Mississippi River and had long served as a port for the river trade.
Visiting a modest museum there, I learned that New Madrid is notable for two events, the first being a series of earthquakes centered there beginning in December 1811 and continuing almost daily for nearly two years. The main shock was the most violent known to have occurred in North America.
The other major event was an 1862 Civil War battle involving Island No. 10, a few miles downriver from New Madrid, which the Union forces won. And that, of course, reminded me of the slavery that was a major cause of that war, and of the long subsequent struggle for equal treatment, which was still going on 20 years ago, and, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us, continues today.
My thought that life on a bike tour would be a more anxious experience for a lone black rider was reinforced later that same afternoon when Route 62 led me into Arkansas, where I rode past a homestead that gave me, a white man, an uneasy feeling. The house sat in the center of a rectangular grassy lawn. The place was not fenced, but on each of the four corners, cement-block walls had been erected, bracketing the site. A painting of the Confederate battle flag was displayed on the house itself and on each of the four corner enclosures, giving the place the distinctly unwelcoming look of a compound.
Imagine living in a culture where you are the frequent target of profiling. I think of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing after being considered “suspicious” for jogging in a white neighborhood. I think of black cyclist Sean Hopkins’ comments in the current issue of Bicycling magazine, telling of being loaned a Pinarello bicycle by a neighbor and then being stopped by police who suspected he’d stolen it because he was riding fast. I remember being in line in a major department store to pay for a clothing purchase, when the young black man in line ahead of me paid for his purchase, a pair of expensive trousers, in cash instead of with a credit card. The white clerk handled the transaction fine, but after the man left, the clerk snickered, and some others in line — all white — nodded in agreement.
So would a black cyclist receive the warm welcome I did? Could he or she enjoy the freedom of the road on a bike tour as I did? I hope so, but what I hear in the news and from the reports of black riders tells me we are not there yet. But just as important, I ask myself what I can do to contribute to positive change in this matter.
“I can’t breathe,” George Floyd said as he was dying under the knee of that police officer. Let’s make sure the bike community is a place where everyone can fill their lungs with the breath of joy and freedom. And let’s acknowledge that responding to Black Life Matters by saying “All life matters,” while true, misses the point.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.