Bessie Stringfield│Biography, Memoir, African American, Gender
Inside the Story of the Courageous Black Woman Who Rode Across America

An Introduction to the Authorized Biography

African American
Queen of the Road

The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield

A Memoir of Race, Resilience and the Road

© By Ann Ferrar

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© Copyrighted Material

All content on this website (text and photos) Copyright © 1990 - 2019, Ann Ferrar. Bessie Stringfield gave express, exclusive written consent to her life rights to Ann Ferrar in 1990. Thus, Ferrar reserves all rights to the life story of Bessie Stringfield as expressed. Ferrar is the author-originator, primary source and sole rights-holder of this material from "African American Queen of the Road," as well as the material in the author's previous, collected works on Ms. Stringfield. Strictly prohibited are derivative works on the life of Bessie Stringfield by other parties in any medium, in any format, non-fiction or fiction, as they violate the author's multiple copyrights. These are registered under different titles in the Library of Congress database. Read the full copyright notice at bottom for more on Ferrar's intellectual property rights and the legal restrictions which apply to everyone else. Please respect the author and the wishes of Bessie Stringfield and comply with U.S. and International Copyright laws.

 

Writing an Untold Life: Race, Gender and Resilience
In the Authorized Biography of Bessie Stringfield
© By Ann Ferrar

Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993) was a daring woman of color who rose above racial and gender barriers in the pre-Civil Rights era of the United States. Bessie navigated restrictions in a most unusual way—as a long-distance motorcycle rider when it was rare for any woman, and unprecedented for an African American woman. Bessie toured the USA eight times on her vintage Harley-Davidsons and was a World War II courier. Relying on her courage, resilience and faith, she rode alone on primitive roads despite the risks to lone female travelers. She faced the obstacles and dangers imposed on African Americans in the era of segregation. Yet despite her overcoming social and civil barriers, Bessie Stringfield was an undiscovered person, unknown even to African American and women's historians.

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Yet Bessie Stringfield was not unknown to me. I had the honor and privilege to call Bessie my friend, mentor—and creative muse—in the last three years of her life, 1990 to early 1993. Bessie asked me to preserve her story, and by extension her legacy, in my creative non-fiction writings. I promised her I would do so.

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When the rumble of the V-twin engines had long ago faded into memory, Bessie Stringfield arrived at quiet place in time, where she could finally sit and reflect on her extraordinary life. Except there was no one to listen to an elderly, African American woman tucked inside a modest home, encircled by a chain-link fence, in a sleepy corner of Miami-Dade County, Florida. That's when I walked, or more precisely rode my own motorcycle, into her life. And so, at the age of 79, Bessie Stringfield gave me the gift of her life story, enabling me to fulfill that promise. Bessie knew I would handle her story with care, and I have.

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With Bessie's blessing and encouragement, I began exclusively recording her on tape and writing her hidden life for publication, first in an international magazine for Harley bikers and then in my debut book, Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road (NY: Crown, 1996). Next, I excerpted my story "Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue" from Hear Me Roar for the website of the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame museum. Last year I abridged that story when this website went up; readers who missed my earlier, longer version are out of luck.

Bessie Stringfield and Ann Ferrar
Bessie Stringfield with her friend and biographer, Ann Ferrar, August 1990. At Bessie's request and with her blessing, thus began Ann’s work to preserve the elder's legacy exclusively on tape and in Ann’s original, copyrighted stories, published in print and online from the early 1990s to the present day. Bessie's untold life had never been documented or written until the two women, both bikers, became inter-generational friends.

Now, in response to tremendous interest from readers and Bessie's many fans, I am writing a new book, Bessie's authorized biography. It is called African American Queen of the Road: The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield, A Memoir of Race, Resilience and the Road. By combining two literary forms, biography and memoir, I am writing another original work that cannot be written or imitated by anyone else. I am the only primary source—living or dead for that matter—for the complete spectrum of the life of Bessie Stringfield.

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From my original short-form narratives, word of Bessie's unknown life gradually reached a wide global audience. My stories on Bessie were borne of the personal legacy pact between two vastly different women: her and me. Without our inter-generational, inter-racial friendship, and our mutual respect for each other, Bessie Stringfield would still be an unknown figure. Instead, I recognized the elder Bessie as an outstanding and singular role model, and thus, she became the heroine and protagonist of my stories. Had I been a novelist instead of a writer of narrative non-fiction, the world would be speaking of Bessie from a different angle. One analogy is that Bessie Stringfield is the real-life equivalent of a protagonist, or main character, in a novel, one who did not exist in the hearts and minds of anyone until one author put her real life on the page. So, as things stand in the real world, people are celebrating Bessie Stringfield's real-life achievements as I wrote them in my original, primary-sourced, non-fiction stories. This reality has been buried beneath the rolling avalanche of uncredited, recycled aggregates of my stories on the web. This vagary of the Internet plagues far too many author-originators these days.

Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar and must not be reproduced.

With Bessie's authorization, I became the only person to record Bessie's oral history on tape, exclusively capturing the voice and the stories of Bessie Stringfield told directly to me by the woman herself. No recordings or literature on the life of Bessie Stringfield could be found elsewhere. When Bessie gave me the gift of her life story—known more tangibly in legalese as her life rights—I began to write my narratives about Bessie's life, achievements and challenges over six decades on 27 Harleys and one Indian Scout motorcycle. My perspectives on her life in societal context, stemming from my first-hand knowledge of Bessie and her circumstances, are indelibly woven into my stories. That is why most of what is known about—and even thought about—Bessie Stringfield today can be traced directly back to the seminal stories written by a single author.

 

In the early 1990s when I began quietly writing the life of private citizen Bessie Stringfield, the Internet was not ubiquitous. There were no web encyclopedias and social media platforms, no grabby digital videos or other forms of noise, to manufacture spin and labels in which to box my elderly friend. "Rebel icon." "Bad-ass" and Kick-ass." "Public figure." An absurdity and a paradox, that last one, and misleading on all four counts. A deceased woman whose hidden life was written and introduced in print by a single author is not a public figure. The public has never even heard Bessie speak! I have never released the details behind the selected highlights of her life and achievements, which I chose to write about a quarter-century ago. The strength of those highlights in my stories has captured the world's admiration for, and curiosity about, Bessie Stringfield. Yet what the public knows about Bessie is really akin to mere SparkNotes of her life.

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In my published writings, I described events, actions and choices Bessie made to overcome racial and gender barriers in her day. My stories on Bessie portrayed how over 60 years, she rode at least a million miles in all kinds of conditions. By today's standards, Bessie's bikes were primitive and unreliable. Some circumstances she found herself in were treacherous because of rutted, muddy roads. Other circumstances were treacherous because of racial prejudice in the early and mid-20th century South, where "Jim Crow" and "the Klan" were pervasive in the lexicon and in Southern life. Some nights she had to sleep on her Harley at gas stations at night when no one would rent her a room. 

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Yet not all of Bessie's road trips involved struggle against racism. Bessie was drawn to the open road for the feeling of freedom and a wanderlust for seeing the country, but not just the vistas. She wanted to meet the melting pot of America and was rewarded with many life-affirming encounters with whites and other ethnic groups. I asked Bessie about this many times, to be sure I was hearing her straight, to be sure she wasn't softening the fabric for my sake. In the colloquial language of her era, Bessie assured me, "All along the way, wherever I rode, the people was [sic] overwhelmed to see a Negro woman ridin' a motorcycle."

 

Bessie also told me that in the 1950s and ’60s, she had a couple of monikers among locals in her home base of Miami, Florida. Depending on who was talking and when, she was the Negro Motorcycle Queen and later the Motorcycle Queen of Miami. Unabashedly, she rode her Harleys around town. Sometimes Bessie had a group of mostly black male riders in her wake; they were members of the former Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, which she founded and led in the 1960s. She even did trick riding at shows and carnivals, original vignettes of which I wove into my copyrighted stories.

 

In my eyes, Bessie had an aura even as an elderly woman. From the moment I met her in 1990, roughly three years before her death, I saw that beneath her age and physical frailty, her spirit and strength still resided in the present moment. That's why meeting Bessie was like a jolt of electricity, as when you touch something dormant that you didn't realize was statically charged. Bessie was 79 years old on the day of our first encounter—at a motorcycle museum, no less. It was the start of a conversation between us that lasted almost until her passing. Bessie had a lifetime of wisdom and experience contained in her memories and tiny frame. I was 35, in the prime of my own womanhood and writing career, and just starting to ride my own motorcycle. I knew almost instantly that this amazing yet understated woman would became a heroine in my writings and a role model for me personally.

 

As I peered into Bessie's past, I became more and more impressed with her risk-taking and explored this in my stories. In my view, with her wanderlust Bessie had strayed far from her station in life, taking risks in defiance of the disapproving Southern relatives upon whom she turned her back. I wrote of how Bessie skirted limits placed on race and gender to lead an unconventional life. But I found it almost equally impressive that she slid seamlessly back into traditional "feminine" roles in order to get by. Bessie saw my passion and determination to prevent the loss of her story. There was no precedent for what I wrote about Bessie Stringfield, as there was no precedent for her. She was truly that singular.

 

In my stories I conveyed how Bessie had risen above obstacles that might have defeated a weaker person. I pointed out to my readers that long before the Civil Rights and women’s movements, Bessie had already bucked convention in a society where suppression of both women and blacks was the cultural “norm.” But there was little “normal” about this elder despite her diminutive, unassuming appearance. Bessie Stringfield chose to exercise her freedom on motorcycles, but clearly, her life and her legacy transcend the sport.

 

Bessie died in 1993, before the vast majority of her 21st-century admirers had ever heard of her, and before many of her millennial fans were even born. Publicly, Bessie Stringfield as an actual person remains enigmatic to her admirers. The details behind the events, anecdotes, vignettes and quotes from Bessie that I wrote into my published works still reside in my exclusive, private tapes of Bessie, my notepads and journals of the period between 1990 and 1993, and in a few other hidden places. Bessie is the object of avid public curiosity even to the point of fascination. So today, I find myself in the position of keeper of the keys to Bessie's life story. This has its joys and as well as some unexpected challenges, which I will get to later.

 

My friend Bessie Stringfield was a daring, African American woman biker who took some astounding risks for her day, but she was not the one-dimensional "rebel icon" of the web and social media. "Kick-ass" is for action figures and multiplex superheroes. Bessie was bold and stood up for herself, but she was also a devout Catholic and of the generation where she was comfortable calling herself a Negro. She was a layered person who lived into the frailty of old age. This doesn't make for a grabby sound bite aimed at millennials, but that is Bessie's truth.

Bessie became like my surrogate aunt, as well as my mentor and muse—my personal trinity whom I held in high regard. Bessie had her deity and constant companion, Jesus, whom she referred to as the Man Upstairs, and to whom she prayed every day. I had my Aunt Bessie Stringfield, from whom I sought advice and even comfort. Over the long-distance phone lines of old Ma Bell, I called Bessie many nights from motel rooms and truck stops during my own motorcycle road trips. I was in my thirties back then and I, too, was mostly alone on the roads of America in the 1990's.

 

Today, it has been fascinating to watch how, from the seeds of my primary, published narratives on Bessie, over time she rose in stature from hidden figure to posthumous global legend in the age of the Internet and social media. Today, Bessie Stringfield is regarded as a culturally significant figure to a new generation that recognizes her bravery as a woman of color and her defiance of traditional gender roles. She stands out in their quest to find inspiring hidden figures from the past. Educators and museums have started to notice.

As noted earlier, Bessie Stringfield as an actual person remains enigmatic. She is the object of intense public curiosity. In 2018, a frustrated fan of Bessie's wrote to tell me I'm equally responsible for what is not known about the late woman. Part of that is on Bessie and part is on me as her authorized biographer. Bessie asked me not to to write about certain things until well after her death. Respectfully, I have kept parts of the story at the bottom of an allegorical memory box for a quarter-century.

 

From my close-up perspective as her biographer and friend, Bessie Stringfield was both a product of her era, yet simultaneously, she was ahead of her time. She was a solo act of contradictions who became a Roman Catholic, but married and divorced six times. I had never met anyone like her. I wrote of how she did tricks on her motorcycles and then stints as a housemaid. The younger Bessie had been bold and even audacious, and she had certainly withstood her share of racial prejudice. Yet she did not allow society's mistreatment of African Americans to define or limit her or the way she interacted with whites or other ethnic people. Throughout her life, Bessie Stringfield maintained a balance of grace and dignity along with strength and persistence. She kept her composure but she also kept secrets about conflicts in her past.

 

Over the last three years of her life, 1990 to early 1993, Bessie and I had many conversations that informed my perspectives and thus my writings about her. We talked about how we were each in our prime during our most adventurous, respective road trips. But our journeys and defiance of convention were half-a-century apart and we were each treated differently by society because of our skin colors. That is why awareness and sensitivity to race—specifically as Bessie lived it and spoke about it to me—have always been a foundation of my thoughts and my writings about Bessie Stringfield. Her story cannot be conveyed in a meaningful way without exploring how race and gender impacted her life. Bessie never felt that only a black woman could grasp what she had been through. If Bessie had set such a boundary, the world wouldn't be reading her life story now. I was the only person, of any race, who stepped up to the plate to preserve and write her story.

 

Bessie and I took to the open road in two different periods of time. Yet for each of us, our motorcycles were a timeless expression of freedom and exhilaration. They were also an exercise in daring, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Choosing a motorcycle to feel alive, free, and to seek adventure comes with placing oneself in a vulnerable spot, especially for women riding alone. But if I was at risk for bodily injury or death on my bikes, or harm at the hands of other people when I was actively riding solo in the 1990's and 2000's, the risks to Bessie were much greater because of her skin color and the tense times in which she was traveling. Yet we identified with each other in key areas that had nothing to do with race. We two were essentially tomboys who weren't going to let men, or other disapproving women, tell us we didn't belong on motorcycles. And we brushed off those who were so intrusive as to presume our sexual orientation based on our enjoyment of motorcycling.

 

I had so much respect for Bessie's determination, courage and resilience, and I learned a lot from her example. For me personally, one of the biggest things I learned from my conversations with her was the resilience. Even today, there have been times during my own life's challenges when I've asked myself, What would Bessie have told me to do? I saw in Bessie that there are different types of courage, some of which cannot be captured in sound bites aimed at millennials.

 

During the difficult or even dangerous times in the South, Bessie drew upon her faith in the Man Upstairs. Even through the frailty of her old age as she looked back on her life for me, I could tell she had a wellspring of quiet, understated courage that enabled her to form empathetic bonds with unlikely people. Many well-wishers, even some in the South, were impressed with her "nerve," as she put it. There were times when Bessie received help from white people who protected her from the bigotry of less-evolved whites in the Jim Crow era. Bessie Stringfield embraced diversity and it embraced her in some tense situations. She was that special. And that courageous.

As I grew to know Bessie, I gleaned that she had conflicts in her past and chose to escape from them. Those were difficult areas for her to talk about and for me to write about, and at her request, I didn't. For most of her adult life, Bessie told everyone she’d been born in Kingston, Jamaica to a white Dutch mother who died and that she was brought to New England by her black father, who abandoned her there to be raised by rich Catholic whites. Hence the adjective Dickensian that came to be used by some today in puzzling over her childhood.

 

Yet Bessie was born in the Southeastern region of the United States. She left her Southern relatives while still a stubborn teenager. “They told me good girls didn’t ride a motorcycle,” Bessie complained. “I wanted a motorcycle and I got it!” In my original stories, I described how the girl wrote letters to the Man Upstairs and put them under her pillow. She insisted to me that He taught her how to operate the gears and ride the bike around the neighborhood. Then Bessie left home and never looked back. No one had any idea of what become of her. Years later, they turned to me to find out.

 

Here's where the bottom of the allegorical box gets sticky. In 2018, The New York Times included Bessie in their "Overlooked" obituary series, which pays belated respects to notable, overlooked women of color. When the paper inquired about the discrepancies in Bessie's early life, I would not discuss certain things Bessie had entrusted to me with her life rights.

 

From a biographer's view, these were complex areas and parts of the untold story that need to be handled with the nuance and context that only my biography/memoir can allow. What a stranger may perceive as flaws, a friend perceives as human frailty. And quite frankly, as a writer and researcher myself, I wasn't going to reveal the as-yet unpublished parts of my primary-sourced, exclusive story for a newspaper piece to be reported by someone else! What author would? As a result, the paper's obituary dubbed these areas "untruths," an unfortunate consequence, which then wound its way into web encyclopedias.

 

So, while it may seem that I took one on the chin for Aunt Bessie, I stand fast. My role as Bessie's long-form biographer is vastly different from that of a news reporter writing a short piece a quarter-century in retrospect. The truth of a complex person like Bessie Stringfield cannot be extracted by way of a linear, one-hour interview, or from seeming, bare-boned facts in unreliable, century-old records. Bessie's truth is not that cut-and-dry. It took nearly three years of patience, earned trust and diligence for me to piece together the fragmented, meandering puzzle of her life that the elderly Bessie put on the table for me to digest. We weren't doing Meet the Press.

© Copyrighted Material; All rights reserved by the author.

© Copyrighted Material

 

Bessie chose to exercise her freedom on motorcycles, but the world's reaction clearly shows that her legacy transcends the sport. General readers from around the world who have found this website email me to tell me they are in awe of Bessie's daring. On social media, her American admirers post comments like, “Wow, Bessie was a badass woman!” Although I wouldn't use that word or its cousin kick-ass, and neither would Bessie, I do get it. Bessie was strong and a few choice slang words are a reflection of today’s movement for women’s empowerment. African American women have gone one step further. They have written to tell me me they feel an emotional connection to Bessie. They view her as a symbol of freedom and a role model for being unapologetically black. Rise and ride has become a mantra among a new generation of black women bikers who see themselves as torch-bearers of Bessie's legacy. She has inspired them to embark on their own long-distance road trips. Some of these women even view Bessie as an avatar of who they aspire to be. On social media I've seen the declaration, "We stand on her shoulders."

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Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar and must not be reproduced.

When Bessie and I got together in 1990 and I began recording and writing her life, neither of us could have predicted that Bessie's achievements would have such a resounding impact today. Clearly, the personal legacy pact that Bessie and I made has far exceeded its goal. I wanted Bessie to be known by historians and devotees of black, women's and motorcycling history, as well as by general readers, academics and students already inclined to explore those areas. The intense interest in Bessie Stringfield among a new, mass generation shows the timeless power of her story to inspire. Bessie's experiences and achievements in a society stacked against her strike a particular chord among those who have experienced prejudice in their own lives.

Bessie and I could not have known that editors of books for children and young adults would find my stories on Bessie and begin to introduce her to kids and teenagers. Most notable are the girl-power anthology books. One of the best is History vs. Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don't Want You to Know.  A quarter-century after her death, all this and more has come to pass. People who have discovered this website have written to me from across the USA and Canada to Europe (England, Spain, France, Germany) and Down Under (Australia, New Zealand).

 

As noted earlier, Bessie Stringfield is the object of intense public curiosity. This is vastly different from being a public figure. Wikipedia states: "A public figure is a person such as a politician, celebrity or business leader ... A fairly high threshold of public activity is necessary to elevate people to a public figure status." Unwittingly, Wikipedia confirms that Bessie Stringfield, as a deceased person—and one not known to the public in her lifetime—cannot be a public figure today. The late Bessie Stringfield is not an Aretha or a Jackie Robinson. They were achiever-celebrities who were ever-present in the public eye and whose mass impact was obvious during their lifetimes. They were, and will always be, bonafide public figures.

 

In Bessie's case, however, there are no recordings other than my privy audio tapes; the public has never even heard her speak. During her lifetime, she was neither open to popular celebration nor exposed to public scrutiny in the national press or anywhere else. No one except myself had ever gathered all the fragments of Bessie's story into a coherent whole. Thus, what the public really knows about Bessie Stringfield merely scratches the surface.

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For Bessie's achievements to even be evident today, first she had to be found, recorded and written about by someone who (a) recognized the significance of her achievements; who (b) was positioned to write her life for international publication; and who (c) obtained Bessie's permission. That is where I came in, strongly believing that Bessie's hidden story needed to be documented and written. Bessie had steered the handlebars on own path when the odds were stacked against her making it on so many levels. That is impressive. Clearly, the world agrees with me.

 

During Bessie's era when gender and racial restrictions were so stifling, there would be no movement among women of color for whom Bessie could tear down the floodgates, and certainly no media coverage. In mid-20th century America, there was a sole white women's biker group in the U.S. that had chapters across the country. Instead of being welcomed as a fellow maiden of the road, Bessie was excluded because of her skin color.

 

At the same time, Bessie's African American contemporaries either did not see the significance of her achievements and/or they were not in a position to bring them to light to people who would listen. Bessie was surely an unconventional heroine. At first I wondered, Why wasn’t she in black or women’s history books? I realized it was because Bessie's story had been overlooked, like that of so many accomplished black people, especially women. In many cases, the passing down of their stories was done orally; generally it was not written down and certainly not recorded in any other way. I saw the importance of recording Bessie's oral history on tape while there was still time.

© Copyrighted Material; All rights reserved by the author.

© Copyrighted Material

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Gone are the days of my old cassette tape recorder, pen and notebooks. I wrote the first drafts of my stories on Bessie in intimate longhand (cursive script) before typing the manuscripts and editing them in my buzzy computer with its box-shaped monitor and floppy disks. Gone are the days when readers and viewers could not simply press cut, paste, post or send without thinking it through. Today, the "wild west" nature of the Internet and social media has given rise to posthumous fame and runaway fandom for Bessie. Fame and overly avid fandom have posed challenges for me as the steward of Bessie's life story, the author-originator and the copyright holder. Especially since Bessie was a personal friend, I have worked to preserve the integrity of Bessie's memory, the expansive human spirit in which she lived her life, and the meaning of her achievements in societal context, all of which I wove into my narratives. All of these defining story elements of mine have been tampered with on the web and elsewhere.

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I've seen and heard almost every twist, angle and turn. There are some individuals and groups who have adopted Bessie as a symbol in the name of legacy, while omitting the fact that Bessie embraced diversity even in adversity. This may be a reflection of today's socially charged climate, as well as a testament to the power of Bessie's story to ignite such strong feelings. Nevertheless, it is a runaway omission that cuts out the heart of the real Bessie Stringfield. It also closes a door on the conversation, which so many in our country—black, brown and white—believe is needed today. The omission is a missed opportunity.

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Bessie was a woman biker who, in today's parlance, was unapologetically black. Yet she did not allow her racial identity to impose limits on her, nor did she want it to obscure the larger, wider meaning of her legacy. Her racial heritage was, in fact, mixed: black, white and Native American. Despite the challenges to me as her sole and authorized biographer, who happens to be white, it has been fascinating to watch how Bessie, by way of my stories, has such a powerful impact in the 21st century. Bessie's story resounds in this decade of renewed empowerment among both African Americans and women.

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The elder Bessie and I could not have predicted that my story "Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue" from my book Hear Me Roar would inspire a short video that went viral on social media, earning an astonishing 20 million views. The video, produced without my prior knowledge, dubs Bessie as a "rebel icon." While the video is fun and inspiring to watch, this label presents Bessie as a one-dimensional figure, a blank canvas onto which some fans have painted portraits more reflective, perhaps, of their own views than of Bessie's.

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Not fascinating are the uncredited, unauthorized aggregates of my stories on the Internet. You have probably seen these articles before finding this website. Since I do not promote the site or myself, my site comes up lower in search-engine results. The aggregates are latter-day articles and encyclopedia entries compiled by web-content writers who borrow from each other but omit reference to this author, since they don't do their homework. Where do these content-writers think the stories of Bessie Stringfield originated? Out of thin air? From nebulous myth? One reader commented that Bessie seems to be "shrouded in lore."

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In the the giant recycling bin of the Internet, I've seen anecdotes and quotes that Bessie told to me, and which I wrote into my stories, inserted into web articles as if Bessie had been speaking to no one, or to anonymous "reporters." This anonymity has consequences: It paves the way for plagiarism, piracy and other forms of exploitation. The massive view-count and hundreds of comments posted about the two-and-a-half minute video has led to the artificial designation of the late Bessie Stringfield as a so-called "public figure." This absurd label is a figment of Facebook algorithms and Wikipedia volunteers. It, too, has led to an array of negative exponential effects, which I call Bessie-grabs. These tamper not only with my work. In a few cases, they obscure the truth of Bessie Stringfield, and thus, they tamper with the integrity of her memory. Astoundingly, a few vocal fans have tried to claim, or possess, Bessie's legacy as their own, to the exclusion of other fans. 

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The recycled aggregate are the jumping-off point for an array of dubious practices surrounding the late, voiceless woman. Vendors on eBay lift and sell photos of Bessie, and there have been other unauthorized types of photo-grabs, to the point where I removed some pictures from this site. Then there are individuals and groups who do know the original source of the stories, yet who have plagiarized and even pirated entire stories of mine verbatim, but without my byline.

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My head nearly exploded when a hotel chain/credit card co-branding duo contacted me, wanting to link Bessie to their brands. Branding Bessie in any way is not permissible; she is not another Serena Williams! In this case, the duo did not even see the irony. Politely I explained that in the Jim Crow era, Bessie would have been turned away from their hotel and denied a credit line. When Bessie was forced to sleep at gas stations, there were no hotel mints on her rolled-up jacket, which served as her pillow. I thought of why writer Austin Channing Brown, in I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, began her book with: "White people can be exhausting."

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As for me, I've been called a few things during my time on this earth, but "exhausting white woman" has never been one of them:)  The old standbys Motorcycle Mama and Biker Chick have floated into my ears. Literary Biker Chick is one that I actually like; I just wish that one had stuck. If anything is exhausting, it's the time, energy and resources I've had to expend dealing with certain Bessie-grabbers. It should be clear by now that my copyrights are strictly enforced. In case anyone missed this, here I will remind everyone that derivative works on Bessie Stringfield by other parties in any medium, in any format, are prohibited, since they violate my registered copyrights. These are filed under different titles in the Library of Congress.

At Bessie's request and with her blessing, I became the only person to record the voice and the stories of Bessie Stringfield as told by the woman herself. Then with Bessie's permission, I began to write her life. It is vital that Bessie never felt that only a black woman could grasp what she had been through. If Bessie had made that narrow presumption, the world wouldn't be reading her story today. This is an inconvenient truth among a few in Bessie's 21st century fan-base, including some who celebrate and promote her on social media in the name of legacy. See The Curious History of Bessie's Viral Video on the last page for an example of this.

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As Bessie grew to know me, she realized that I saw something in her that her peers in Miami's African American community did not recognize. Bessie's contemporaries were impressed with her for being a black woman riding a Harley boldly around town regardless of what the white Miami PD, or anyone else, thought of her. I walked into Bessie's life decades later and from a vastly different vantage point. A New Yorker in the prime of my womanhood and writing career in the 1990's, I met her at the start of my work on Hear Me Roar. I myself was riding around the country to interview scores of dynamic women bikers who were riding motorcycles on the racetrack and making their mark in different biker lifestyles or subcultures in the 20th century. Like many of the women I featured in the book, I was in my prime and had come of age during the modern women's movement of the 1970's. With this background, I had a more expansive view of the maverick Bessie Stringfield.

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For starters, I didn’t see Bessie as a source of pride reserved only for the local black community, or as an eccentric destined for South Florida folklore. In the words of a mutual northeastern friend, "Bessie had gravitas. You don't forget a person like that." Indeed. I saw Bessie Stringfield as an undiscovered feminist who had, in her own way, quietly predated the women's movement. And while Bessie was not a Civil Rights marcher, I wrote that by her actions, she had pushed against restrictions on her own civil liberties in the era of segregation. My stories on Bessie Stringfield have always reflected these perspectives in various ways.

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Further in my view, the fact that Bessie held jobs as a domestic made her behavior in the flip side of her life all the more risky and daring. This rounded view was absent from the sensational viral video and it was dismissed in the staid New York Times obituary. So, I am all the more proud of my original stories on Bessie and of the expansive light in which my stories presented Bessie to the world. Had I not done so, the light on Bessie would have flickered out with her passing.

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Clearly, Bessie Stringfield's time is now. Socially and culturally significant figures sometimes take their place in history only after enough time has passed to enable appreciation. Equally important, the zeitgeist must also be there for society to recognize the trails blazed by those hidden figures. That is the case with Bessie Stringfield. Bessie has an outstanding legacy for her courage, individuality and grace in the face of prejudice based on race and gender. I have a legacy for being the writer, recordist and friend who noticed—and who worked diligently with the elderly woman to capture her memories before it was too late, and then, to write her life so that her achievements would be known far beyond Miami's finite radius. These truths can never be altered, buried or appropriated; they are and will always be. In her thoughtful book Becoming, First Lady Michelle Obama writes: "Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own." Indeed.

 

I was blessed to be an actual part of Bessie's life and to share our unusual friendship in her final three years. And as her biographer, a researcher and narrative storyteller, I am the only primary source for the full life of Bessie Stringfield—for what is known and as-yet untold. On this website, however, I will not reveal the still-hidden material in my tapes of Bessie, my journals and other corners. That is the purpose of my forthcoming book. For now, I invite you to turn the page for selected glimpses into Bessie's exclusive authorized biography, African American Queen of the Road—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield, A Memoir of Race, Resilience and the Road. — Ann Ferrar

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