Bessie! Bessie! Bessie!: Three Women to Know

Bessie Stringfield, the "Motorcycle Queen of Miami"

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. 

The Bessies

Bessie! Bessie! Bessie!

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