Nikki Grimes

Talkin’ About Bessie

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Talkin’ About Bessie Summary

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Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was eleven years old in 1903, the year the Wright brothers first achieved flight in a powered aircraft. Despite the challenges posed by her gender and race, Bessie became the first woman of African and Native American descent to secure a pilot’s license. Nikki Grimes’s 2002 children’s book, Talkin’ About Bessie, tells the aviator’s remarkable story through a series of eulogies delivered at a fictionalized memorial service following her death in 1926. More than twenty people who knew Bessie, including her family and flight instructor, give brief oral testimonies that read like poetry. Together with the accompanying watercolor illustrations, the multiple voices reveal the spirited character of Bessie Coleman.

Grimes provides a preface to contextualize Bessie’s accomplishments within the social and cultural environment of early twentieth-century America. This was the era of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws. In the South, lynchings of African Americans occurred routinely. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan promoted white supremacist ideas, and many whites believed African Americans were intellectually inferior. Moreover, social norms discouraged women from pursuing any activity that had no domestic or moral value.

Enter Bessie Coleman. She was born into a family of fieldworkers in 1890s rural Texas. Talkin’ About Bessie begins, ironically, just after a plane crash claims her life. Grimes explains at the start the central conceit of her creative biography: “Somewhere on the South Side of Chicago, […] twenty souls gather to mourn the death of Bessie Coleman and share their memories of her.” [TT1] While “the voices, styles of speech, and characterizations are all imaginary devices,” they represent, in a chronological fashion, the consequential events in Bessie’s life, from childhood to death.

The first “soul” to voice his memories of Bessie is her father, George Coleman, a “man of African and Choctaw blood.” He recalls the cold January day the family’s tenth child, Bessie, was born. Already directing her energy skyward, “Bessie’s first cry raised the roof off that dirt-floor cabin, back in Texas.” When Bessie was nine, George returned to Oklahoma hoping for better job prospects. Bessie’s mother, Susan, was obliged to clean houses to support her thirteen children.

Although Bessie’s elementary school studies competed with her duties at home, she was a bright, eager student. The teacher at her one-room schoolhouse remembers, “When it came to knowledge, Bessie was a miser, hoarding up facts and figures like gold coins she was saving up.” Math was particularly appealing to young Bessie.

However, an uninterrupted education was a luxury Bessie’s impoverished family couldn’t afford. At harvest time, Bessie stopped attending school and went to pick cotton. She also earned money washing laundry for wealthy white folks. One customer testifies to Bessie’s diligence and reliability, noting that she walked five miles to collect the laundry and always returned it punctually and spotless. Despite her praise for Bessie’s competence, the customer expresses indignation that when Bessie came “to the back door, like they were supposed to in those days,” she would look “me straight in the eye […]. You know, like we were equals.”

After dropping out of the “Colored Agricultural and Normal University” because she couldn’t pay the tuition, Bessie happened upon a Chicago newspaper. Its stories of determined women like Ida B. Wells convinced twenty-three-year-old Bessie that Chicago was a promising place for African Americans. She moved to Chicago with her two brothers and took a job in a barbershop as a men’s manicurist. Some of her customers were WWI pilots, and their stories captivated her.

Bessie’s brother John recounts the moment she decided to become a pilot herself. During his own tour of duty in France, John had seen women flying planes. When he told Bessie this, he added that “Negro women” could never achieve such heights. With that challenge, John says, “She gave up her manicurin’ job that very day. That’s when I knew: by whatever miracle was required, Bessie would learn to fly.”

Because American aviation schools of the time refused to admit women or African Americans, Bessie resolved to go to France. She studied French and received funding for her venture from Robert Abbott, the editor of an African American newspaper. In 1920, Bessie sailed for France. A year later, she became the first woman of color to obtain an international pilot’s license, which, along with her daredevil stunt flying, made her something of a celebrity.

Bessie returned to the U.S. and began entertaining crowds with her “barnstorming” shows. Although these “air circuses” usually admitted only “white” spectators, Bessie demanded that her shows dispense with such restrictions. One African American fan describes Bessie’s stunts: “She made her plane do spirals and fancy flips, and made the plane quit, mid-air, and let it zoom down.” Recalling the time he saw Bessie in 1922, a reporter says the goggled aviator waved to her audience as they “showered her with applause.”

Despite her fame, Bessie faced financial obstacles. She couldn’t afford her own plane, and while she dreamed of opening a flight school for African Americans, she lacked the resources. At the age of thirty-four, while preparing for a show in Florida, Bessie fell from her plane and died.

The last “soul” to speak in Talkin’ About Bessie is Bessie herself. Her photo, situated on a mantel in the room of twenty mourners, serves as the locus of her viewpoint. From there, she observes the gathering. She expresses the joy she felt while flying, and concludes her biography by affirming, “You have never lived until you have flown!”

By using multiple points of view to tell Bessie Coleman’s story, Talkin’ About Bessie acknowledges that a biography is a particular interpretation of a life, just like the book’s detailed illustrations are. Grimes’s “interpretation” of Bessie emphasizes the themes of education, determination, and persistence as they played out in her eventful life. Talkin’ About Bessie was named the 2003 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, and it also received the 2003 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.

 

 [TT1]Quotations should have attribution