Girl meets sky: Beautiful, daring Bessie Coleman

This public domain photo was posted at http://kareemabduljabbar.com/blog/ among Kareem's reflections on black history.

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

This is the second article in a four-part series about girls, both fictional and real, seeking adventure in the sky.

Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was 11 years old when the Wright Brothers made history in 1903 by piloting a “flying machine” at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This was a seminal event in her life, because it inspired a passion that guided nearly all the choices she made until the tragic day at age 34 when her life was cut short by a fall from the clouds.

Eleven years old! That is an age when many a dream is born. Bird McGill, the fictional heroine of Born to Fly, the first book featured in this “girl meets sky” series, is also 11 when she discovers her passion for airplanes.

Coleman wanted to fly more than anything else. She wanted to fly so much that she ignored all who said that women were not meant for the sky. She wanted it so much that she ignored the bigots of the day who would not allow blacks to attend flight school in the U.S. and had to travel to France to learn. “Queen Bessie,” as she came to be known, wanted it so much that she took huge risks much the same as her contemporary, Amelia Earhart.

But she was wise enough to know that you don’t give up a dream just because others say it is impossible. So, as noted by the International Organization of Women Pilots—better known as the Ninety Nines— Coleman became the first woman in the world to earn an international aviation license and the first licensed black aviator.

Coleman  dropped out of school at age 9 to cook, clean, and tend to her two younger sisters in Waxahachie, Texas, when her newly single mother had no choice but to work. Maybe Bessie was born wise beyond her years or maybe this early experience fueled her ambition “to amount to something.” But when she read about the miracle of the Wright brothers’ flight, Coleman knew the “something” that she wanted to become—the first African-American woman pilot.

There are a numerous children’s books available about the great Bessie Coleman. This article reflects just a few of the fine choices available in public libraries for students, teachers, parents, and  all who love history and the fight for equality.

Up In the Air, the Story of Bessie Coleman, by Philip S. Hart, Carolrhoda Books, 1996
This information-packed, 90-page biography is just right for children from about third grade through middle school or older students who are learning English as a second language.

The author, Philip S. Hart, PhD, is a sociologist, filmmaker, and the former executive director of the Urban Land Institute in Los Angeles. His great-uncle, James Herman Banning, was another pioneering black aviator who flew in the 1920s.

Hart details Bessie’s journey from childhood to her days in Chicago working in barbershops and chili parlors and from her aviation studies in France to her death during an aviation show in Florida in 1926. He notes that the accident likely would not have occurred if Bessie could have afforded a newer, safer plane instead of a beat-up World War I fighter plane.

Shortly after gaining her international pilot’s license in the early 1920s, Coleman began “barnstorming”—performing dangerous aviation maneuvers in air shows around the nation. She did this not only because she loved flying but also to save money to open a flight school for African-American students.

Hart concludes his book by saying, “Bessie Coleman’s story tells us all that no matter how humble our beginnings, if we dare to dream, we can succeed.”

The Story of Brave Bessie Coleman:
Nobody Owns the Sky
, by Reeve Lindbergh,
Candlewick Press, 1996

Written in rhyming verse so lovely it seems to sing, this charming picture book features vibrant, detailed illustrations by Pamela Paparone.

The pictures show vignettes from Coleman’s life including scrubbing laundry and picking cotton as a little girl, manicuring customers’ nails as an adult, and—finally and triumphantly—soaring over Paris and American cities as a licensed aviator.

Bessie’s mother had not learned to read or to write,
But her children were raised to be eager and bright.
Bessie worked hard at school, and she dreamed about flight.
People sad she was crazy; it wouldn’t be right.
‘You’re a girl, not a man, and you’re not even white!’
But did she stop dreaming? Not quite!

Author Reeve Lindbergh is the youngest child of Charles Lindbergh and Ann Morrow Lindbergh. What planted the spine-tingling line “Nobody owns the sky!” in her mind? Perhaps Lindbergh’s aviator father or her mother, a famous writer, expressed the sentiment to her as a child.

The line doesn’t appear to come from Coleman, although she has been quoted as saying “The air is the only place free from prejudice.” Certainly it is an idea that is old as the Greeks, because the poet Euripides is quoted as saying “There is the sky, which is all men’s together.”

Whatever the provenance, it is the kind of saying that children love and that one might imagine them repeating or paraphrasing while standing up for their rights on the playground.

Talkin’ About Bessie:
The story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman
, by Nikki Grimes, Orchard Books, Scholastic Publishing, 2002
Poet Nikki Grimes’ rich retelling of the Coleman story is organized into a series of free-verse poems, each told by a different person who knew the aviator. These pastiches recount memories of Coleman from earliest childhood to her last flight.

The first one is told with longing from the viewpoint of her father, “A man of African and Choctaw blood,” who decided to return to Oklahoma not long after Bessie, his tenth child, was born. George Coleman wanted his family to come with him, but that didn’t happen.

Here is what Grimes imagines one of Coleman’s elementary school teachers saying:

When it came to knowledge, Bessie was a miser,
hoarding up facts and figures like gold coins she was
saving up to spend on something special.

I’d watch her sometimes
poring over her lessons,
lips pursed in concentration.
Often, when the subject turned to math,
she’d glance up at me and, I’d swear,
she’d get a sort of greedy look in her eyes.

Coleman was good at math, and this was a fine trait for someone who wanted to fly. She also was a good listener and a great risk taker as evidenced by her response to teasing from her brother, John.

In his poem, John has just returned from World War I and he taunts Coleman about her dream of flying. As she manicures men’s nails in a barbershop, he makes the customers laugh by saying, “You Negro women ain’t never goin’ to fly./ Not like those women I saw in France.”

That was the day that Coleman realized she had to go to France. It was also the day she quit manicuring nails.

Grimes also had an exceedingly difficult childhood. One of her coping mechanisms was reading. “You know, I lived in books,” she said when interviewed by the superb literacy website Reading Rockets. “I lived in the library…,” Grimes said, but added that in all the many books she read, “I rarely saw anyone in them who looked like me, or who had my life experience….So I began to feel invisible.”

In 2003, when Grimes won a Coretta Scott King Book Award for Talkin’ About Bessie, she received it in part for giving such “invisible” children stories that connect to their lives.

Talkin’ About Bessie is the kind of sophisticated picture book that children of many ages will enjoy and that could be used in older grades to teach free verse and the use of poetry to retell a life. It is a moving tribute to a woman who broke racial barriers and sped upward to the clouds despite sexual discrimination.

Bessie on video
Somewhere out there  is a wonderful teacher named “Mr. Grace” who encouraged his students to make videos about Coleman’s remarkable life. Click here to view their work.

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