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Worcester Film Screening to Discuss the Realities of ‘Biking While Black’

A Black man wearing shorts and a t-shirt rides a chopper bicycle past a mural with flowers that says "Black Lives Matter"

A still from the movie “Biking While Black” by director Yolanda Davis-Overstreet. Courtesy of Yolanda Davis-Overstreet.

Over a century ago, Major Taylor, one of Worcester's most famous residents, had to contend with violence from jealous white competitors as he broke bike racing speed records all around the world.

Many white people dismiss the overt racism that Major Taylor faced as a bygone relic of the Jim Crow era. But while there aren't as many stories of white athletes choking their Black colleagues to unconsciousness (which happened to Major Taylor during an 1897 bicycle race in Taunton), Black people are still facing serious and disproportionate threats to their physical safety on our streets.

Data from MassDOT shows that fatal crashes that kill pedestrians are signficantly more likely to occur in neighborhoods that have higher proportions of Black residents, like Mattapan in Boston, McKnight in Springfield, and Worcester's north side.

And just last week, when two predominantly-Black running clubs set up a cheering section for the Boston Marathon near Boston College in Newton, a city where only three percent of residents are Black, they found themselves surrounded by a blockade of Newton Police officers (white spectators nearby experienced a much sparser police presence).

“This continues to occur everywhere," says filmmaker Yolanda Davis-Overstreet, who is visiting Worcester this week for a Tuesday screening of her documentary "Biking While Black."

"We’re talking about being able to simply enjoy our public outdoor spaces," Davis-Overstreet told StreetsblogMASS in a phone conversation last Friday. "It taps into our wellness and mental health, to be able to get outside and be on the streets and in our parks. But to do that we have to continue to be profiled and monitored by police, and that's traumatizing.”

Davis-Overstreet grew up bicycling, "and I was fortunate not to have to face a lot of the traffic violence that’s out there today," she says.

"When there's a disenfranchised community with unsafe streets – how can you tell a kid to go out and ride a bike when they could be killed?" she asks. "The wellness and the joy that bicycling brings, it’s missing for so many households. It’s going to take all of us to make it possible to ride a bike."

Tuesday's screening of Davis-Overstreet's "Biking While Black" documentary is being sponsored by Worcester's Major Taylor Association, whose president, Lynne Tolman, recognizes the parallels between the discrimination that Major Taylor endured and the present-day threats that Black people face in Massachusetts.

"This film explores mobility justice for all through a public health lens. It brings street design, transit systems, housing growth and gentrification, health equity, and environmental factors into the discussion," said Tolman. "With this film, we're hoping to foster conversation about how to make Worcester easier for everyone to get around."

Event details:
Screening begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at North High School in Worcester.
Ride the (free) WRTA route 16 from Worcester Union Station – buses run every 40 minutes until 9:20 p.m.
A Q&A with filmmaker Yolanda Davis-Overstreet will follow the film. Admission is free; RSVP here.

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