Doing There?: A Cycling-Inspired Riff on Embodied History

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This is the third in a series, “History En Vêlo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with Active History.

In the west hills outside of Portland, there is a climb popular with road cyclists called Old Germantown Road. It’s the sort of climb cyclists often describe as “punchy” — that is, it is not particularly long, but peppered with the whimsical steep pitches that characterize the back roads of regions that rarely see snow. I make it a regular feature of my Portland rides. It never feels good — in fact it usually feels like taking knives to the legs — but I like the aesthetic and the lack of traffic, and I am a sucker for difficult things.

Recently, toward the bottom of the most sustained section of the climb, someone has stenciled the name MAJOR TAYLOR in white paint on the gray pavement. It got me thinking. About cycling. About bodies. And about history.

Marshall “Major” Taylor, photographed by Jules Beau (Photographs Sportifs, 1906-07), Gallica Digital Library (Wikimedia)

Marshall “Major” Taylor was an African-American professional cyclist who raced in an otherwise all-white world cycling tour in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Over his career, he racked up a pile of world records and a world sprint championship. He also faced rampant racism and discrimination across three continents during his time on the bike, only to be all but “forgotten” for almost a century by sports historians focused on other, whiter things. His story is fascinating, and has rightly resurfaced in a variety of media after nearly a century of neglect.1

Madison Square Garden set up as a Velodrome (Six Jours de New York, Madison Square Garden, 1908). From the George Grantham Bain collection of the Library of Congress (Wikimedia).

On the one hand, in a city reckoning with its own history of racial exclusion, discrimination, and marginalization, it makes sense that some part of the cycling community might choose to express an awakened sense of history in big block letters on one of the city’s marquee climbs. The graffiti hardly rights cycling’s or the city’s wrongs, but it is at least a gesture toward writing Black Americans back into cycling’s collective memory.

And yet, it also puzzles me. Why would someone would write any historical cycling figure’s name in big white block letters at the base of a punishing stretch of pavement? Higher on the hill, Old Germantown Road bares the faded stencils of other names from other years, but I have always assumed that these are leftover present-tense exhortations to current riders competing in one of Portland’s official or unofficial races that traverses this terrain. “Popp” and “Adam” likely felt loved, seen, and supported as they rolled up over their own names in some dark moment of maximum effort. I get that. But why write MAJOR TAYLOR — or, as someone has on the painful grades of nearby Newbury road, MERCKX — in ephemeral white for the wheeled about-to-be weary?

Photograph by the author.

I don’t know the answer to this question, but in my oxygen debt on my rides up Old Germantown Road, I have begun to suspect there is something important for historians to consider here.

Old Germantown Road, Portland, OR Photograph by the author.

Think for a moment about MAJOR TAYLOR in the way you would think about other memorial. This is not a street sign or a statue. Rather, MAJOR TAYLOR is written on the road — in the middle of the road, legible right-side-up traveling uphill on a stretch frequented primarily by cyclists. It has been curated just so. And no museum director in the world could curate a memorial more effectively. These letters are targeted specifically at cyclists. And not just cyclists: cyclists on a climb, either currently or about to be under duress. “Consider MAJOR TAYLOR,” it says, “and suffer.”

And don’t just suffer. The stencil demands that you suffer precisely the way Major Taylor might have suffered on some similar climb on some similar road on a similar machine on the east coast or in Europe or in Australia more than a hundred years ago. The MAJOR TAYLOR stencil works very differently from a street sign or a statue that asks you to engage intellectually with a historical moment or figure. It asks you to engage bodily with that figure, to consider that turn-of-the-century human not only with your twenty-first-century mind, but also with your twenty-first-century legs and lungs. Knives and all.

Major Taylor Statue. By Worcester Public Library.

I won’t speculate on the intentions of the person with the white paint—perhaps they were a clever academic provocateur — but as a historian, I wonder if MAJOR TAYLOR hasn’t poked us in a soft spot. Over the past two decades in environmental history, “the body” has emerged as a subject, object, and discursive category in creative ways that have enriched and diversified the field. Meanwhile, careful, productive revisions to older forms of materialist history have helped make some of the embodied, lived experiences of historical actors more legible and accessible. This is something we historians have decided we value.

And yet, “active history” notwithstanding, this is not the way we actually do history. Historians typically only think about bodies and minds and lived experience; we do not feel or act out embodied history. Most of us have given up on Robin Collingwood’s famous injunction “to know the mind of Caesar.”2 But I am not sure historians ever seriously considered what it might mean to feel the body of Major Taylor. What would that look like?

This question, to be clear, is mostly a cycling-inspired historiographical riff. I don’t think it takes riding up Old Germantown Road to write a good history of Major Taylor — indeed, even accounting for the kind of embodied knowledge I am hinting at here, Major Taylor’s lived experience as a black man and a black athlete in a world and a sport dominated by white supremacist ideology likely counts for more than how his legs felt riding uphill on a bike. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that narrow historical re-enactment serve as a standard for “authentic” historical knowledge.

Even so, MAJOR TAYLOR reminds me that there is a category of bodily knowledge that many of us say we value, but one that we rarely take seriously as a form of practice. As I labor my way up Old Germantown Road thinking about these white-on-black capital letters, I wonder if we might take a moment to play with Kate Brown’s wise and nuanced words for historians about the value of “Being There” in both their research and their narrative. What possibilities lie in wait for historians willing to explore “Doing There,” too?3

1. Major Taylor has resurfaced most recently in a series of Hennessey Whiskey advertisements, as well as in a number of books published over the last decade and a half. The most recent is Michael Kranish, The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero (Simon and Shuster, 2019). To my knowledge, the only monograph under academic imprint (and presumably peer-review) on Taylor to date is Andrew Ritchie, Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer (John’s Hopkins University Press, 1996), originally published by Bicycle Books in 1988.
2. Robin G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford University Press, 1946), pg. 215.
3. Kate Brown, “Being There,” in Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (Chicago University Press, 2015), pg. 1-18.
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Josh Howe

Josh Howe is Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

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