Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman (2002) by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by E.B. Lewis.
This imaginative biography chronicles the life and achievements of pilot Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, also known as Queen Bess in her time. Nikki Grimes creates her life story by imagining what Coleman’s friends, family, news reporters and others might have said about her. Combined with E.B. Lewis’ always remarkable artwork, this book is sure to inspire.
Bessie Coleman was born in 1892 in segregated Texas. Her family moved to the Cotton belt when she was two where she spent her early childhood working the stuff. From the time that she was little, she had ambition to get out of that life, thirsting for knowledge at school, doing extra laundry for folks who lived five miles away, and finally moving up to Chicago to stay with an older brother. She was inspired by other powerful Black women who she read about in the paper; women like Ida B. Wells, Madame C.J. Walker, Mary Church Terrell. Bessie was searching for a way “to prove herself and make her people proud.”
She found her calling as a pilot. “She was twenty-seven then, and planned to be the first Colored woman in the world to fly. The problem was, no flight school in our color-minded nation would accept a woman, or a Negro.” So Bessie learned French and headed off to Europe where French women were already learning to fly planes.
When she returned home, her fame spread and her fans were devoted.
You shoulda seen her! She made her plane do spirals and fancy flips,
and made the plane quit, mid-air, and let it zoom down, like when
she crashed in California, and just when we thought she was surely
done for, she pulled the plane up again, and tore off for the sun!
Just think: we Colored folks almost didn’t get to see her, ‘cause the
air circus was usually Whites-only. But Bessie told the producers
if we couldn’t come to the show, she wouldn’t either! Her shows
were worth so much money, they finally let her have her way.
With the Tuskegee Airmen getting a lot of buzz right now with the release of Red Tails, Coleman’s story takes on another aspect. Coleman’s story helps us connect the dots of history to understand how the smaller steps made it possible for bigger shifts to happen.
(Image source: Scholastic Canada)