Wonder Woman: Bessie Coleman

“Queen Bess”: a model of determination, courage, and integrity. And cool goggles!

A month since I last posted. Yikes! However, I do have a good excuse: I’ve been busy rewriting my novel—92,000 words in eight weeks. When I work that intensely, it’s almost impossible to think about other creative projects, and therefore I took a hiatus from the blog, even though my list of cool things to draw has only accumulated. So while the manuscript sits and rests, I’ll take a moment and catch up on some visuals.

This illustration is the second in my Wonder Woman series, a set of portraits highlighting the lives and stories of badass women. I’m hoping to draw women from a range of backgrounds and experiences: artists, innovators, revolutionaries, or any woman who can inspire others by her aesthetic vision and/or the strength of her spirit (Adrienne Rich was my first Wonder Woman post).

Today’s portrait features Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman. I only recently learned about Brave Bessie last February, shortly after the film Red Tails came out. I’d heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, and since I’d been jonesing to draw some retro airplanes in a vaguely Pictoral Modernist style, I considered drawing them. But in the course of my research, I learned about Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman in the world to earn an international pilot’s license. The story of her determination to fly at a time when it was difficult for any woman to do so—to say nothing of a poor, black woman from the South—just blew me away.

Bessie Coleman was the 10th of 13 children born into a family of Texas sharecroppers. There are a ton of great sites out there detailing her family’s struggles and how Coleman made her way north to Chicago, where she figured out what she wanted most in the world. And how that happened to be one of the most remote and absurd things any woman could desire at that time: she wanted to fly.

Of course, being both female and black during a time when women had just earned the right even to vote, Coleman couldn’t find a U.S.-based aviation school that would take her. But she didn’t let that stop her. She saved her money, learned French by night, and then traveled to France, which was, in 1920, considered one of the world’s most racially-progressive nations. In seven months, she obtained her pilot’s license from Federation Aeronautique Internationale, then returned to the U.S. to earn fame as a barnstormer.

Coleman flew a Curtis Jenny. I’ve never flown anything, but I did jump out of the back of a Cessna once.

What I love most about this story is that, while everything and everyone in the world told Coleman her dreams were ridiculous and impossible, she figured out a way to make them happen. And because of this indomitable spirit, she changed history. Despite her tragic death during preparation for an airshow, she lived her life the way she wanted it and died doing what she loved most. She inspired generations of African-Americans to take to the skies, including Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space*. In the book Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator (1993), Jemison stated: “I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty. It looks like a good day for flying.”

So any time I think my own dreams are ridiculous and impossible, I look to the sky and think of Brave Bessie. Dream big, work hard, and tell everyone to kiss your ass while you make it happen.

It does indeed look like a good day for flying.

* Jemison said she was also inspired to join NASA by Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Yet another example of why Star Trek is awesome.

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2 thoughts on “Wonder Woman: Bessie Coleman

  1. This is the first time I’ve heard of Bessie and makes me wonder why I haven’t heard of her. Thanks for the history lesson! And the illustration’s amazing, as usual. Should’ve given her a smirk that says “Kiss my ass, people!” Haha.

  2. LOL! Now that I think of it, she should be in the plane, giving everyone the finger. Heheh. She did get a U.S. postage stamp, but otherwise, I’d never heard of her until I stumbled upon her story myself.

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