African American Queen of the Road
Bessie Stringfield: Writing a Life for Our Times
The First Narratives About Bessie (Part 1) by Ann Ferrar
The original stories of Bessie Stringfield, African American motorcycling pioneer, were written by journalist and former biker Ann Ferrar in the 1990s. The author's narratives shed light on Bessie's hidden life and achievements in America's pre-Civil Rights era. They sparked the global fascination with Bessie that exists to this day. Here is a retrospective of those stories and a preview of the author's upcoming book, "African American Queen of the Road," the definitive biography of Bessie.
© Copyright-registered and protected material. Ann Ferrar reserves all rights to this content and her earlier stories of Bessie Stringfield, upon which this content is based. The author's stories, seen here and elsewhere, are not in the public domain. Strictly prohibited are derivative, adaptive and imitative works by other parties in any media, non-fiction or fiction. Full copyright notice with Library of Congress Registration Numbers are posted in link on menu bar. Please respect the author and the wishes of Bessie Stringfield by adhering to restrictions and licensing protocols.
The authentic stories of Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993) were borne of Ann Ferrar's exclusive sound recordings of Bessie, conducted and recorded by the author for her 1996 debut book, "Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road." Taped during the women's friendship in the early 1990s, these are the only recordings of the late Bessie Stringfield in existence.
Here, read the backstory of the legacy pact between the two women that led to Ferrar's story "Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue." First published in "Hear Me Roar" and again for the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame, this piece and others by Ferrar have inspired a new generation that recognizes Bessie's courage in quietly breaking through racial and gender barriers in the pre-Civil Rights era of segregation.
Ferrar's works are the only original, authentic, primary-sourced stories on the life of Bessie Stringfield. Bessie's quotes and anecdotes from the author's private tapes are inseparably woven into Ferrar's stories, those past and present. The quotes and anecdotes are copyright-protected, as are the finished stories. These prose works bear Ferrar's creative stamp and expression of thought on the life of Bessie Stringfield.
"African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield—A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road," is the author's definitive, upcoming biography of Bessie. The book includes as-yet untold parts of Stringfield's life known only to Bessie and Ann. Also upcoming is the 25th Anniversary Global Edition of "Hear Me Roar." Release dates for both books are TBA.
A Woman on the Road Surmounts Challenges of Race and Gender
My Original Stories on the Hidden Life of Bessie Stringfield
By Ann Ferrar
I met and befriended Bessie B. Stringfield in 1990, three years before the end of her long life. At age 79, Bessie was thin as a wisp and tiny at less than five feet. She was barely recognizable from the young, robust black woman biker she had been in her prime. Yet there was something about Bessie that drew me to her and made me look past the frailty of her advanced age. Bessie had been born into a modest home in the southeastern region of America in 1911. In my eyes, she had an unusual aura. I saw that beneath her age and fragility, her spirit and strength still resided in the present moment.
I was 35 when we met and still a novice biker in my native New York City at the time. I hung on her every word while Bessie told me how she rode her Indian and Harley-Davidson motorcycles across the United States eight times, alone except for her deity and constant companion, Jesus, whom she called the Man Upstairs. Even with divine providence, I was amazed that Bessie had made these solo road trips in the early- and mid-20th century, before Civil Rights had taken hold as a mass movement, and when both racism and gender vulnerability were threats to her safety. I felt the diminutive Bessie had a certain gravitas. Right away I knew that I would record and write her brave yet hidden life. So, with Bessie's blessing, encouragement and permission, that's exactly what I did.
Bessie Stringfield was under the radar, an obscure figure, unknown to the larger public and overlooked even by black and women's historians. But she was not unknown to me. So I recorded Bessie on audio tape and shed light on her achievements and her character in my prose. Bessie did not live to see herself in any of my stories. The first one I wrote was her eulogy when she passed away in 1993.
In my narrative stories, I described how over 60 years, Bessie racked up about a million miles on the 27 Harleys and one Indian Scout motorcycle that she owned and rode in her lifetime. I described Bessie's favorite mode of travel, known as gypsy touring. In the 1930s and beyond, she planned her routes—NOT!—by tossing a penny over a map and riding to wherever it landed. Suffice it to say that gypsy touring was not the safest mode of travel for African Americans back then, given that the nation was marred with signs such as "no coloreds allowed" and worse.
Today, I look back on my favorite, best-known stories of Bessie Stringfield. Some of you may have rediscovered them in various places, including inside the first edition of my book Hear Me Roar, which has become a cult classic since its release a quarter-century ago. Or you may have seen my stories about Bessie on the web, at the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame, or in print biker periodicals, including American Iron and American Motorcyclist, throughout the years.
Here, I talk about what Bessie means to me as a role model, both in life and on the road. Bessie was the elder woman who became like my surrogate aunt. She was also my mentor and creative muse. I explore what Bessie means to a new generation that is inspired by her courage and determination against daunting odds. And in describing the origin of the Bessie Stringfield stories, I share some of the nuts and bolts of how I wrote them.
With my first-hand knowledge of the woman, I knew that Bessie's understated bravery and the significance of her achievements could not be conveyed in a meaningful way without exploring how race, gender, faith and social circumstance affected her life. So, to craft my stories, I drew upon: the dialogue of our exclusive recorded interviews; our many other anecdotal conversations; the notes I wrote in my journals during our friendship; and personal interviews with Bessie's closest African American and other contemporaries, all of whom were so generous and supportive of my mission.
Along with my additional findings from further research into hidden corners of Bessie's life, I had gathered a solid base of exclusive material. Building on this foundation, I elucidated, commentated and created story-lines of her life in my short-form published works. I am expanding on all these elements in my upcoming book, the definitive long-form biography African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield—A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road. The book includes unpublished material on Bessie's life that I have never released anywhere before.
Photos are from Ann Ferrar's collection and must not be reproduced.
From the get-go, in my stories of Bessie Stringfield dating back to the early 1990s, I wrote of how she navigated her way around restrictions on race despite segregation, and of how she rejected conventions of gender and even familial ties. Bessie turned her back on disapproving relatives who scolded her for such "unladylike" behavior. Dismissing their dictate that "nice girls didn't go around riding motorcycles," Bessie left while still a teenager and never saw them again. Instead, she chose a path that was unusual for any woman, and unprecedented for an African American woman. That is how I wrote and presented Bessie's unknown life in my copyrighted stories.
In a recorded conversation between Bessie and me in February 1991—two years before her death—Bessie recalled the tomboy stubbornness of her youth. "I wanted a motorcycle and I got it!" she insisted to me, as if I were one of her Baptist aunts and their argument were only yesterday. She then conceded she had no idea how to ride her first machine, a 1928 Indian Scout.
"Who taught you to ride it?" I asked her.
Bessie replied with conviction: "I wrote letters to the Man Upstairs. I put the letters under my pillow and He taught me. One night in my sleep, I saw myself shifting gears and riding around the block. When I got out on the street, that's just what I did!" Bessie was a natural on the Indian Scout and I never doubted it.
In my narratives, I wrote of how Bessie dodged the hard-balls that rednecks and even the Klan itself had flung at her along the way. Yet in an era so full of threats and great challenges to people of color, inwardly I wondered if Bessie was so full of wanderlust that she had given way to reckless abandon. But I simply asked, "What if the penny landed someplace where you knew it might be, or would be, Klan country? Did you do another toss?"
"Nope," she replied on my tape. "A penny makes a wide circle on a map. I could ride anywhere I wanted inside the circle or around the edges if I had to." But then she added, "Nobody killed me, thank God."
This is an excellent spot for me to clarify an important theme in my writings about Bessie—why I included the word race in the subtitle of the forthcoming biography and what it means for me to explore how race influenced Bessie's life, among other vital factors. I want all my readers to know that it is not my view of race as a white woman who was still in the cradle when Rosa Parks sat down on that bus. Rather, it's Bessie's experiences of race as she described them to me and as they informed my perspectives of the woman and what she had lived through. It's what Bessie and her closest peers, including African American elders and others with whom I spent time, taught me. It was eye-opening and even humbling at times.
Here, I'll quote Ms. Austin Channing Brown, author of the book I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Her first chapter begins with a frank, albeit blanket, observation: "White people can be exhausting." In my role as the author-originator of the Bessie Stringfield story, and as Bessie's messenger, if you will, I pledge not to tire anybody out:)
As people have gotten word of the forthcoming biography, it has been gratifying to hear from some prominent African American women bikers and opinion-leaders, who have written to let me know they appreciate my mission. They say they feel an emotional connection to Bessie. They view her as a role model of cultural pride and have explained to me why they are proud of her for being unapologetically black. They tell me that even they cannot imagine how hard it must have been for Bessie to ride in the oppressive days of Jim Crow. By her example, Bessie inspires them on their own long-distance voyages today. On social media, one group of strong, joyous female bikers has declared, "We stand on her shoulders."
"For me, meeting Bessie Stringfield
was like a jolt of electricity, as when you
touch something dormant that you didn't
realize was statically charged."
Many other users of the internet and social media today may not realize that my early narratives about Bessie Stringfield sparked the worldwide fascination and admiration for her that extends into the 21st century. I am the bonafide author-originator of the Bessie Stringfield story and have been its steward for 30 years. The authentic, primary-sourced material that I gathered directly from Bessie and her closest peers resides in my personal audio tapes of Bessie and in my many other transcripts and files. My tapes and transcripts containing Bessie's quotes and anecdotes are copyright-registered in the Library of Congress but they are not available for use by other parties. My prose stories of Bessie Stringfield were born of the human connection between her and me. My stories predate all the imitative, reductive and repetitive pieces that pop up in search engines and web encyclopedias today.
Yet like Bessie in her day, I too have flown mostly under the radar. But then this website went up a few years ago, and more recently I was asked to step in as editor of Bessie's fan page on Facebook. So, by now I have heard from readers from New York to New Zealand, ranging from schoolchildren of generation Z to African American seniors who remember their own lives in the decades of segregation, who have graciously shared their memories with me. Most people who have contacted me have never been on a motorcycle. It is wonderful to see that clearly, Bessie Stringfield's legacy far transcends motorcycling.
The more I listened to Bessie's experiences and as I grew to know her, I felt she deserved a more regal nickname, even if just between us two. Into my head popped the title of one of my favorite classic films, The African Queen, a saga of grit and triumph over impossible odds if ever there was one. That was it! Though Bessie was of mixed heritage, to me she was The African American Queen of the Road. One day, when I trotted that out in conversation, Bessie cackled with glee and bemusement.
Characteristically, she said, "If you say I am a queen in your mind, I won't take away how you feel. But if I am any kind of queen, it is because Jesus put me there. He is the King. His mother Mary is The Queen. I know those Dominican nuns in Brooklyn taught you that." I had gone to Catholic school and since Bessie had converted to Catholicism, faith came up a lot.
Given everything that Bessie had lived through, and almost as if her sheer audacity wasn't enough, I pointed out to readers in my stories that she made the bulk of her long-distance road trips well before the age of interstate highways, and when her vintage Harleys, primitive by today's standards, often had mechanical problems. Somehow she persevered astride those heavy bikes on many an unpaved, rutted road. I wrote of how Bessie, with her can-do attitude, did hill-climbing and stopped at the odd carnival here and there, where she did trick or "fancy" riding moves.
In my very first narrative story—the 1993 eulogy—I described how Bessie rode the walls of a vintage motordrome, which is a huge barrel constructed of wood. The eulogy was published as a feature article called "Bessie Stringfield: A Tribute to a Life-Long Harley Girl" in American Iron, an international magazine for devotees of American-made motorcycles. I expanded on that eulogy to write a narrative for my 1996 debut book, Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road. I named the story "Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue," for her favorite color.
Photos are from Ann Ferrar's collection and must not be reproduced.
Later, my story appeared at the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame museum when Bessie was inducted posthumously in 2002. With my perspectives expressed therein, the narrative helped Bessie become inducted by informing the Hall of Fame board and the larger biker community of Bessie's character and achievements against the odds. But if you missed the first, longer version of my story on the Hall of Fame museum website, you're out of luck now. I finally had to abridge it because it was too popular for its own good. Too many people lifted and spread it verbatim but without my byline.
In my narratives, I wrote that Bessie was an unusual woman of color who had chosen a path especially challenging for all women in her era. She broke with female tradition and also managed to choose a free-spirited life path that was not even feasible for most women back then. I wrote of how there was no movement of women—black, white or otherwise—for whom Bessie could tear down the floodgates. Large groups of females did not rally behind Bessie on motorcycles. Most African American women, as well as most whites and women of any ethnicity, were not positioned in society to let loose, hop onto motorcycles and ride away from maternal duties and/or "women's work."
It did not escape me, however, that Bessie slid seamlessly back into traditional "feminine" roles when the need arose. Bessie could be the maid, cook, practical nurse and even a nanny to white children at times, but with a twist. I described how Bessie showed up for work on her Harley. 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. I can tell you that Bessie Stringfield was a solo act of contradictions: She became a Roman Catholic but married and divorced six times, against the strict rules of the Church.
"If you kissed, you got married," Bessie told me by way of explanation.
With good nature I bantered, "Yes, but what about all the divorces? Who are you, Miss Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor?"
"If I had a big diamond, I could be," she quipped. "But I don't need any diamonds. All I need is the Man Upstairs." It was true. Jesus was the only man to whom she ever made a lifelong commitment.