Bessie! Bessie! Bessie! Three Women to Know
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Ebony magazine. Many thanks to Dream Hampton for permission to re-publish. -E.B.
That the Latin definition of triumvirate translates literally into "of three men" hasn't stopped my favorite triumvirate from being three Bessies: three very special sister-heroes who just happen to share the same name. I came to these women from very different directions, but they triangulate my ancestral altar in deeply personal and meaningful ways. For Black History Month, I'll share "my" Bessies.
Of "my" Bessies, Bessie Coleman is the most famous. As a biographical sketch, Coleman's story reads more epic than most novels. Born in 1892, she was near last in a Texas sharecropping family of thirteen. At 18, she left home for college, ran out of money after a year in school, then made her way to her brother's in Chicago where she worked as a manicurist in a barber shop. It was the turn of the century and shop gossip was full of war tales, but it was the pilots' stories that captivated Bessie Coleman's imagination. She set her sights on France because they didn't bar women from being pilots. By 28 years old, with a decent command of the language, she moved to Paris to pursue her dream of flying. In France she became both the first African American to earn an international license and the first African American woman with a pilot's license of any sort. These wiki-like facts barely communicate her daring and gumption, or the huge fact that Black people were not a generation out of slavery. But know this too---this was pre-commercial aviation. People still sailed in her day. When she sailed back to the United States from France with the ability to pilot bi-planes, she realized she'd need to learn to fly stunts to make a living in the sky. So she sailed back to Europe, to the Netherlands and then Germany, where she learned to parachute from planes and do dazzling aerial stunts. She came home and wowed crowds at aviation stunt shows with her daring tricks known for their precision.
On the ground Black people couldn't vote and traveled in segregated second-class train cars, but in the sky, Bessie Coleman was free. She died at a stunt show at 36. At 35, in honor of Bessie, I began taking flight lessons, flying small single engine planes, some of them built only a few decades after Bessie died. By 36 I'd flown solo, a promise I'd whispered to Bessie one day during my morning prayers. Whenever I fly, I keep a picture of Bessie above my magnet compass.
I came to know biracial South African novelist Bessie Head in the quiet solitude of the page. When Head was born to a wealthy white South African mother and a Black servant father in 1936, interracial marriage and sex was as illegal in her country as it was in the U.S. Her mother's crime was so unthinkable to her family that they committed her to a mental institution and these facts of Head's birth resurface in her work in important ways. In "A Question of Power," a kind of auto-mythography, Bessie struggles with what we'd now call bipolar 2. Her interior space is crowded and sometimes untrustworthy at the same time that it takes a fine toothcomb through staggering themes about race and gender and wandering. Bessie lived much of her life as an outsider, and when she was forced across the border because of her political views, her 15 years as a refugee in Botswana only made her isolation more pronounced. Her novel "Maru" is at once a chaste threesome of a love story, but also the story of the outsider, whose difference relegates her to near slave-like status.
To say Bessie Head's writing is sublime and nuanced is itself an understatement. I discovered her work at a time where I felt too big for where I was born, but tiny in the new island-city I'd chose to inhabit. Feeling lonely in crowded New York is damn near cliche, but still true. I was in my early 20s when I read "Maru", and like the lead character I was in the breathless kind of in love that quarters you in one hour and radiates from your pores the next. Bessie Head's writing was more than a revelation, it was a kind of salvation.
I came to Bessie Stringfield last, when I was profiling Black women motorcycle clubs for a now defunct women's magazine. Among the black women bikers who know about Stringfield, she is a goddess. Born in Jamaica in 1911, she migrated to the U.S. as a child with her parents. She was adopted by an Irish woman in Boston when she was five after her parents died. By 16 she was riding motorcycles. By 21 she'd crossed the United States on her Harley eight times. Take a moment and wrap your mind around that fact. In the early 1930's...a Black woman...rode her....motorcycle....through the 48 states....8 times. In one of my favorite pictures of Stringfield, she is laying atop her Harley the length of the bike. The truth is, she often had to sleep that way, outdoors, because she was riding cross country in a nation where Black men were confined to lesser quarters and there was no such thing as accommodations for a solo traveling Black woman. Still, I can't imagine her feeling more free than she must have beneath the wide night sky, perched on her beloved motorcycle.
Like Coleman, Bessie Stringfield made a living on her bike competing in stunt shows and cycling races. Beneath a helmet and in layered protective gear, she could pass for a man and she often competed as one, daring the show's organizer's to deny her her prize after she removed her head gear to collect her money. She settled in Miami where she was crowned its motorcycle queen. Harley Davidson sponsored her in races and stunt shows. Bessie rode until she was well into her seventies. Though it's long been a dream and I never felt more at one with the road than in the seat of a motorcycle, I decided not to purchase one when I became a mother. Still, I know the freedom the adventure of travel affords and I'm ever grateful for the fast and early way Bessie blazed the path of the wide open road. Ever fearless.