African American Queen of the Road
The Original Stories of Bessie B. Stringfield
Narratives of Resilience and the Road 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 the pre-Civil Rights era of the United States. They sparked the global fascination with Bessie that exists to this day. Here is a retrospective of those stories, along with previews of the author's upcoming works.
© Copyright-registered and protected material. Ann Ferrar reserves all rights to this content and to her earlier stories of Bessie Stringfield, upon which this content is based. The author's stories, past and present, seen here and elsewhere, are not in the public domain. Detailed copyright notice is posted at bottom; please adhere to restrictions therein.
Ann Ferrar's stories of Bessie Stringfield were borne of the 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. Akin to melody and lyrics in a song, Bessie's quotes and anecdotes in all of Ferrar's stories—those past and present—are copyright-protected. And like the original arrangement and interpretation of the song, all of Ferrar's narratives bear the author's creative stamp and are copyright-protected as well.
Here, read the backstory of the legacy pact between the two women that led to the author'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 breaking through racial and gender barriers in the era of segregation. Ferrar's works are the only original, authentic, primary-sourced stories on the life and times of Bessie Stringfield in Jim Crow America and beyond. Bessie was a private woman, a hidden figure until the two women met and Ferrar began documenting and writing Stringfield's life with Bessie's permission.
A 25th anniversary global edition of "Hear Me Roar" is in the works. The author is looking back on her earlier stories of Bessie and other daring female bikers from the acclaimed first edition. A diverse array of new riders will be introduced. Next, Ann Ferrar's long-awaited biographical memoir devoted solely to Bessie will be released. This second book includes as-yet untold parts of Bessie's life, known only to Bessie and Ann. Stay tuned for future announcements.
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.
Bessie told me that in her younger years, she rode her 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 in awe that Bessie had made these solo road trips in the pre-Civil Rights era of the mid-20th century, when racial prejudice was a threat to her safety. I knew instantly that Bessie had a certain gravitas and that I would write her courageous life.
Bessie Stringfield was a hidden figure, unknown to the larger public and overlooked even by black and women's historians. But she was not unknown to me. And so, with Bessie's blessing and encouragement, I devoted myself to shedding light on her achievements. 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 in Jim Crow America, with its "no coloreds allowed" signs marring the country, gypsy touring was not the safest mode of travel for African Americans.
Here, I look back on some of my favorite, best-known stories of Bessie Stringfield, what she means to me as a role model and the elder woman who became like my surrogate aunt, as well as my muse. I explore what Bessie means to a new generation that is inspired by her courage and determination against daunting odds. My early short-form narratives about Bessie Stringfield sparked the worldwide fascination and admiration for her that extends into the 21st century. Especially since this website went up, I have heard from readers from around the world, from New York to New Zealand, ranging from schoolchildren of generation Z to seniors who remember their own lives in the decades of segregation. Clearly, Bessie Stringfield's legacy far transcends the sport of motorcycling.
All photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar and must not be reproduced.
With my first-hand knowledge of the woman, I knew that Bessie's understated bravery and the significance of her achievements in the pre-Civil Rights era could not be conveyed in a meaningful way without exploring how race, gender, faith and social circumstance affected her life. So, I drew upon the dialogue of our exclusive recorded interviews and our many other anecdotal conversations—all of which are copyrighted along with the material I wrote in my journals during our friendship, and all that I further researched to elucidate and commentate on her life in my published works.
In my stories, I wrote of how Bessie 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 rule 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 the life of Bessie Stringfield, and that is the Bessie Stringfield you've seen or read about on the internet today.
In a recorded conversation between us 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, Jesus Christ. 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!" Clearly, Bessie was a natural from the start.
"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."
In my narratives, I wrote of how Bessie dodged the hard-balls that Jim crow and even the Klan itself had flung at her along the way. Yet in a an era so full of threats and great challenges to a black woman, 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 said to me. "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."
As if Bessie's audacity wasn't enough, I pointed out to readers 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 issues. 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.
My very first narrative story, her eulogy, described how Bessie rode the walls of a vintage motordrome, which is a huge barrel constructed of wood. That story was published as a feature article in American Iron, an international magazine for devotees of Harleys and other 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. My story helped Bessie become inducted posthumously to the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame by informing voters of Bessie's character, background and her achievements against the odds.
A 25th anniversary global edition of Hear me Roar is in the works. In African American Queen of the Road: Reflections on Bessie Stringfield and the Women Bikers of Hear Me Roar, I am looking back and expanding upon the original narrative stories I wrote of Bessie and other daring women bikers from the first edition. I will also introduce a diverse array of new bikers, especially women who have been riding at least as far back as the 1990s and early 2000s. Next, my long-awaited biographical memoir devoted solely to Bessie will be released. While combining the two forms, biography and memoir, I will reveal the still-hidden aspects of Bessie's life that were known only to her, and which she shared exclusively with me. The dedicated biography is called Finding the Real Bessie Stringfield: A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road.
The most vital and prescient thing I did to preserve Bessie Stringfield's legacy—and have a solid foundation for my creative writings—was to record Bessie on audio tape with her permission while there was still time. My exclusive audio tapes of Bessie are the only sound recordings of the late Bessie Stringfield in existence. As noted earlier, they are copyright-registered in the Library of Congress, but they are not available to the public. My tapes hold the keys to Bessie's life story as I elicited it from her with my specific questions, as I navigated my way through the labyrinthine paths of her memories, as I developed the material, interpreted her life, and expanded upon it in my published stories.
Thus, Bessie Stringfield's life story and my stories about Bessie's life are inseparable. They are the literary equivalent of conjoined twins, which is why they are not in the public domain. While remaining mostly under the radar for the past quarter-century, I have been the quiet steward of Bessie's life story, thus enabling her legacy to live on and inspire a new generation. My stories are the only original, authentic, primary-sourced stories covering the full spectrum of this outstanding yet unknown woman's life. In copyright parlance, they are the intellectual and creative property of this author.
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I concluded and wrote that Bessie was an unusual black woman in her era—in any era—who had chosen a path especially challenging for women, not just for breaking with female tradition, but also for somehow managing to choose a free-spirited life path that was not even feasible for most women in her heyday. There was no movement of women 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 on a Harley and ride away from maternal duties and/or "women's jobs."
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. 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.
All photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar and must not be reproduced.
"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 back to me. "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.
When Bessie and I struck up our friendship, I was living in an apartment in my native New York City, my trusty motorcycle parked in the lot beneath my TriBeCa building. Bessie was in declining health but still very much alive during the first three years of my two-wheeled travels—1990 to 1993—for Hear Me Roar. I finished writing the book in 1995; it was published in 1996 by Crown Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of Random House, and reissued by Whitehorse Press in 2000.
The first time I encountered Bessie was at a motorcycle museum, no less. 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. At age 35, I was more than 40 years younger than Bessie. As a journalist and life-long student of women's and 20th-century American history, I recognized Bessie Stringfield not as a light that had dimmed, but rather as a daring woman of color who had risen above racial and gender barriers in the pre-Civil Rights era. And as a biker myself, I loved that she had done it from a very unusual and under-appreciated vantage point: the saddles of her motorcycles.
In the early 1950s, Bessie had bought a house in a mostly black community in Miami, Florida, where she would spend the rest of her life. I was born a few years later in Brooklyn, New York, a baby boomer who came of age as a college student during the modern women's movement of the 1970s. Thus, I viewed Bessie in a different light than did her peers in the local African American community where she lived. I saw her as an undiscovered feminist who had predated the modern women's movement. Yet when I met her, Bessie Stringfield was a hidden, unheralded figure, unknown to the larger public and, as noted earlier, she was overlooked even by African American and women's historians. I said to myself, That just isn't right.
From the first day I met her, I saw the elder Bessie as an avatar of living history standing right in front of me, smiling up and talking to me about her unsung past, but in a very understated way. I knew that Bessie—who was nearly invisible as so many elderly women are—had an amazing story to tell. But nobody's ears except mine were attuned to it. It was the start of a fascinating conversation and a friendship between us that lasted until her passing in early 1993.
"I believed ... the world needed to know
what a kick-ass biker Bessie had been in a
milieu that was largely male and white."
As a biker myself, I believed there was another facet of her story that cried out to be told. The world needed to know what a kick-ass biker Bessie had been in a milieu that was largely male and white. In my stories I wrote of how Bessie handled gender bias when she donned a disguise to join the fray—and win—an all-male flat-track race, but was denied the prize when she took off her helmet.
I am the daughter of a World War II veteran, so I was especially awed by how Bessie earned her spot as a civilian courier, or dispatch rider, on the home-front during the Second World War. My stories described how she trained rigorously alongside black men, the only woman in a small unit in the segregated army. Bessie shared with me a skill peculiar to the pre-interstate era: how to weave a makeshift bridge with tree limbs and rope to get the motorcycle across a swamp, though she never had to do this in the line of duty. With a borrowed military crest on the front of her own, blue 61 cubic-inch Harley, she traversed America's rough roads to carry documents in her saddlebags among domestic bases.
Then I covered Bessie's escapades in post-World War II Miami, where she settled, founded, and led a group of mostly black men in her Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. Bessie told me she was dubbed by some locals as the "Negro Motorcycle Queen" and later the "Motorcycle Queen of Miami." The Miami PD had a different view of her, at least in the beginning. My stories described how Bessie dealt with hassles from the police and demonstrated to a precinct captain that she had more than enough skills to handle her big bike in traffic. She also became licensed as a practical nurse or LPN.
At the same time, I can tell you that Bessie Stringfield was a mystery. Even with those nicknames, she was a lovely and yet an aloof, fleeting figure cruising past the eyes of onlookers. Bessie kept her cards close to her chest. She was a private citizen, by no means a public figure. With her private nature, she lived mostly by two sets of rules: her own and those of her deity, Jesus. She told me, "I didn't want nobody [sic] knowing my business, except for the Man Upstairs." And thus no one—not her Iron Horse buddies and not even her husbands—really knew what made her tick. Nor did they know much about her beyond the version of Bessie standing in front of them at different points in their lives. That is why I was so privileged when Bessie welcomed me behind the curtain of her private life and shared her memories, which had been locked away for so long and were in danger of being lost forever upon her passing.
I also spent time with some of Bessie's closest contemporaries, including her last husband, who corroborated her secretive nature and confirmed that his wife was not a public figure. Those contemporaries are now deceased. And so, I take my role as the documentarian and steward of Bessie's life story quite seriously. In preserving Bessie's worthy life, I am blessed to have known her and those good people, who were so warm and supportive of my mission.
In my view, Bessie's strength, resilience and faith-based courage in the face of bigotry and sexism are what made her so extraordinary. In my works I called Bessie a one-woman civil rights movement. While she was not a marcher, I described how Bessie had chosen an unusual form of freedom—that which can only be felt in the wind on a motorcycle.
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These stories and others about Bessie Stringfield from my original short-form narratives will be included in a 25th anniversary global edition of Hear Me Roar. In the anniversary edition, I will reintroduce Bessie and other daring women bikers of the 20th century to a new generation.
During the first three years of my road trips for the original edition of Hear Me Roar, often I phoned Bessie from spartan motel rooms in the evenings to chat. She enjoyed giving me advice and encouragement. We shared doses of humor and our calls always ended with a prayer for our mutual safety.
Very quickly we learned which types of experiences we had in common and which ones we did not. Bessie and I traded stories of her experiences as a black Southern woman on a persnickety Harley in a segregated era, and mine as a white, Brooklyn-born woman, zooming along the asphalt slabs of America on a high-tech bike. I rode on paved roads and had my pick of motels and diners. I was alone, but not alone in society as Bessie could be when trying to find access even to life's bare necessities in the South.
Unlike Bessie, throughout my journeys I was never denied lodging, gas or a restaurant meal. Never did I have to ride my mechanically sound bike on a creepy back road as the only route available to avoid the Klan. Never did I have to swerve around beer cans deliberately tossed in my path by rednecks. And unlike Bessie, I was never stalked by a bigot in a pickup truck who ran me off the road, wrecking my bike and scraping me up. This incident, which I related in my early narratives about Bessie, has struck a chord among African American bikers today. They point out, and rightly so, that in some areas of the country, not nearly enough has changed in our society.
I asked Bessie how she got through such times and how she felt about the people who harbored ill intent toward her. Bessie did not need to ponder the answer. "I knew Jesus Christ and I know Him now," she said to me. "Those men did not know Jesus Christ. He was always with me. They couldn't see Him, but I felt Him. Oh, I was tested a few times to find the good in some people. In the end, no matter what happens in our lives, it's got to be about love. That is the final conclusion you must always try to attain."
It is important to note that Bessie's faith and her capacity to love are also why she experienced an abundance of positive, life-affirming encounters with people of all races in her 60 years of riding around America. She met many locals who were curious and friendly, and white gas station owners who were impressed at her "nerve," as she put it. Some—even in the South—were so taken with Bessie that they filled her tanks for free. I asked Bessie about this many times, to be sure I was hearing her straight, to be sure she wasn't softening the fabric of white society 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."
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Still, Bessie told me that in the South she had to look over her shoulder. “If you had black skin, you couldn’t get a place to stay,” she said to me. “I slept with people’s children a lot because no one would rent me a motel room.” I wrote of how sometimes, Bessie slept on her bike at gas stations, using her rolled-up jacket as a pillow across the handlebars, while resting her feet on the rear fender. Bessie gave me this exuberant photo above, along with other vintage pictures snapped at different stages of her life. Here in the photo, she is vamping for the camera, but alone on the road, finding a place to spend the night was a serious matter.
"Weren't you afraid, being so alone and vulnerable out there?" I asked her.
"I was not alone," she replied. "When I get on the motorcycle I put the Man Upstairs on the front. I'm very happy on two wheels." Bessie often spoke to me of her riding days in the present tense, even though a chronic heart condition had kept her off motorcycles for several years already.
Today, people have asked me, what of the Green Book, the guide for black motorists that began circulating in 1936. Well, not all of those black-friendly motels were welcoming for a single, unescorted woman biker who was doing something so far afield from what was expected of her. Nor were there always lodgings along her penny-toss routes. Nor were some even open when Bessie began her travels.
For me as the author-originator and narrator of Bessie's life story, it has been fascinating to watch how, from the seeds of my early written and spoken stories about Bessie, she has risen in stature from hidden figure to posthumous global legend. As noted earlier, her legacy far transcends motorcycling. 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. In this 21st-century age of renewed female empowerment, Bessie stands out in this generation's quest to find inspiring figures from the past. Educators and museums have started to notice.
In particular, it has been gratifying to hear from prominent African American women bikers, who have emailed me to say they feel an emotional connection to Bessie. They view her as a role model of cultural pride and are proud of her for being unapologetically black. They tell me that even they can't imagine how hard it must have been for Bessie to ride in the days of Jim Crow. Her story inspires them on their own long-distance voyages today.
Bessie with her bravery deserves every bit of recognition that she has received from readers around the world. From their reactions, it is clear that one doesn't have to be black, or a woman, to be inspired by Bessie Stringfield. I have been asked to speak about her for outlets ranging from Harley-Davidson's century-old Enthusiast magazine, to the German magazine Der Spiegel, to Broadly.vice.com, aimed at the LGBTQ community. Admiration for Bessie could not be more diverse and universal than that!
My being the steward and the only knowledgeable source for the complete spectrum of Bessie's life—including that which is celebrated, that which is still unpublished, and even that which is controversial—comes with responsibilities. My first responsibility is to Bessie and that which she shared with me, some of it in confidence. For instance, she kept secrets about conflicts in her past that she chose to escape from.
Bessie told everyone she'd been born in Kingston, Jamaica, that she was brought to New England by her biological father and abandoned there. Yet Bessie was born in North Carolina and it was she who left. There is much more material on Bessie in my tapes, in my journals, and in other hidden corners known only to Bessie and me, which I have never released anywhere. I have kept the material at the bottom of an allegorical memory box since her passing. When Bessie gave me the gift of her life story, she asked me not to write or talk about certain sensitive things until well after her death. I have respected her wishes.
My loyalty to Bessie was evident in 2018 when the New York Times launched its "Overlooked" obituary series to pay belated respects to notable yet overlooked women of color. First, The Times searched for such women in its archives. They found a 1996 article by their own reporter about Hear Me Roar, which discussed my work on Bessie. (See Stevenson, Jed: "Hear Me Roar, A Woman's Symphony on the Road," New York Times, July 28, 1996). The paper deemed Bessie worthy of being featured in "Overlooked." They asked me to reminisce about her and I did so; however, I would not discuss the sensitive matters she had entrusted to me. I knew the gray areas of Bessie's early life need to be handled with the nuance and context that only my forthcoming, long-form biography / memoir will allow. The short obituary left no room on the canvas for the unfinished parts of Bessie's portrait. It dubbed the gray areas "untruths," and this got picked up by web encyclopedias. If anything, this simply adds to the mystery.
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When I met Bessie she was 79 and in declining health, having cut off all family and marital ties decades earlier. Bessie knew she had a legacy to leave, but there was no one in her small circle to preserve it, nor even anyone who saw the significance of why the world needed to know about her. That's when I walked into her life with my analog tape recorder, my spiral notebooks, my respect for her elder status, and my passion for keeping Bessie's story alive in the best way that I knew how: through my writing. Bessie gave me a precious gift—the gift of her life story—and asked me to write her biography. I promised her I would and thus we were a team, a duet in which she was the raconteur and I was the writer and interpreter of her life.
I came to feel that Bessie needed a title, even if just between us two. Into my head popped one of my favorite classic films, The African Queen, a saga of grit and hard-earned triumph over impossible odds if ever there was one. That was it! To me, Bessie 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 grammar school as a kid, and since Bessie was devout, faith came up a lot.
Bessie has had an unusual afterlife here on this earth—or in cyberspace, depending on how you look at it. When I wrote my original stories, I wanted Bessie to be recognized by historians of black, women's and motorcycling history, as well as by students, aficionados and general readers inclined to explore those areas. But interest in Bessie has grown so much wider than that, due to the pervasive influence of mass online venues, which did not exist in the early 1990s when Bessie and I got together.
Curiously, Facebook, Wikipedia and others have manufactured the long-deceased, previously unknown Bessie as a personality. In so doing, they have erroneously dubbed her a "public figure," even though Bessie does not fit the definition of a public figure. She is not like an Aretha, who lived her life in public and in the press and needs no surname. Nor is Bessie akin to a person like Rosa Parks, who made her mark in history at precisely the right moment. Within her own lifetime, Ms. Parks was symbolic of a mass movement. Bessie Stringfield, on the other hand, was ahead of her time. Bessie was under the radar in a niche milieu and she remained undiscovered in her own lifetime.
"It has been gratifying to hear from prominent
African American women bikers who say
they feel an emotional connection to Bessie."
Today's masses have never heard Bessie speak. And yet, swept up in the powerful currents of the web, Bessie has been carried to a dimension that neither of us could have predicted: posthumous internet fame. Practically overnight, Bessie—or the symbolic version of her—became posthumously famous because of a lively, 2-1/2 minute video montage of still shots with captions. The video, which debuted on Facebook in December 2016, dubbed her a "rebel icon" and went viral with more than 20 million views.
Suddenly, there was a re-cast, condensed version of Bessie that millions of people clicked on for a dose of inspiration. She popped up on screens as an exciting yet one-dimensional "figure." However, as an actual person with a long and complex life, Bessie Stringfield is still alluringly unknown to her millions of new fans. That is why she is not a public figure; rather, she is a figure hidden in plain sight.
Of course, the real Bessie Stringfield is not unknown to me. It is intriguing to see how my late friend has deservedly become the object of such intense interest around the world, even to the point of fascination in some quarters. It's what every dedicated author-originator wants: to see tangible evidence that her stories on a worthy subject have made an impact.
Many readers and viewers—regardless of race and gender—from many walks of life, from schoolchildren to seniors, have expressed their admiration for Bessie Stringfield. Emails have come into my inbox from across the United States, Canada, England, France, Spain, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. One prominent African American female biker told me she is "obsessed with Bessie Stringfield." This sentiment is shared by her circle of colleagues and friends. On social media they have declared, "We stand on Bessie's shoulders."
As a senior, Bessie was still riding Harleys for as long as she was physically able. She recalled, "I told the doctor that if I don't ride, I won't live long. And so I never did quit." But for the last decade of her life, Bessie gradually retreated as her social circle dwindled. And in reality, her chronic heart condition worsened and she was forced to retreat from the road as well. In 1993, at the age of 82, Bessie passed into what she believed would be her greatest glory, to be received by the Man Upstairs.
In one of our last conversations, Bessie told me, "They say my heart is three times the size it's supposed to be." I have always felt this is an apt metaphor for an unconventional woman whose heart and spirited determination have touched so many lives.
All these years later, readers are asking me to finish the full, still-untold story of Bessie's life that I began in my short-form narratives a quarter-century ago. This is very gratifying to me as the author-originator. In response to these readers and the avid worldwide interest in Bessie, I am in the process of returning to my privy audio tapes, my other proprietary materials, as well as other hidden corners known only to Bessie and me. By combining two literary forms, biography and memoir, in a forthcoming book, I am able to delve deeper into the still-unpublished parts of Bessie's life that reside in the allegorical memory box that I've kept since she passed away.
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But first, the 25th anniversary global edition of Hear Me Roar, with Bessie in the lead, is a happy coincidence. I have rechristened it as African American Queen of the Road: Reflections on Bessie Stringfield and the Women Bikers of Hear Me Roar.
In the special anniversary edition of Roar, I am taking an expanded look back on Bessie and other bold American women in the original edition. I am including my own experiences among these bikers, as well as my solo time on the road in the 1990s. It was the era of big hair and when the leather-clad biker look—aka biker chic—exploded onto the pages of fashion magazines. At the same time, we, the real women bikers, were often viewed by onlookers as if we were riding our motorcycles in a fishbowl. Everything from our sexual orientation to our level of lawfulness was an object of curiosity. I discussed this long-standing cultural quirk with Bessie. She identified with it, telling me, "It feels like it was yesterday."
The older women in the first edition of Roar were contemporaries of Bessie Stringfield's. Many others were contemporaries of mine. All these women ventured out on the roads of the Americas in defiance of gender stereotypes. Some achieved firsts and set records in different motor sports throughout the 20th century. Others used their two-wheeling wanderlust to raise awareness and funds for causes like breast cancer research. As an added feature in the anniversary book, I am introducing a diverse array of new bikers, with emphasis on women who have been riding at least as far back as the 1990s and early 2000s. I've made some announcements about this on Facebook, so if you would like to add your voice to this empowering project, send me a brief email about yourself at WomenRoar@yahoo.com.
As for the singular Bessie Stringfield, clearly her time is now. There are many outstanding, strong women in Hear Me Roar, including some who persevered through physical disability to keep riding; they were role models of grit and never-say-die. Yet Bessie was larger than life in my eyes. She was perhaps the most unexpected role model who ever came into my life, inspiring me to be resilient and push through my own obstacles. Even today, when faced with certain challenges, I still ask myself, What would Bessie have told me to do? In a very personal way, Bessie also reminded me to ponder America from a different perspective.
Bessie is still inspiring me to assert my voice, both as an original storyteller and as a mature woman. I just wish she were here to see that her legacy lives on in me and in countless other women in the 21st century. I was blessed to be an actual part of Bessie's later life and to share our friendship in her twilight years. I am grateful to have been there for Bessie as a witness and documentarian. Socially and culturally significant figures sometimes take their place in history only after enough time has passed to enable appreciation and recognition. That is the case with Bessie Stringfield.
My early stories about Bessie's hidden life and achievements were ahead of the curve when I wrote them and presented her to the wider world beyond Miami's radius in the 1990s. Bessie left her mark on humanity for her bravery, determination and grace in the face of prejudice based on race and gender. I was the writer and respectful friend who noticed—and who worked diligently with the elderly woman to capture her memories before it was too late. I was the recordist and an avid witness to a slice of living history in my surrogate Aunt Bessie Stringfield. Bessie has a legacy for her courage and achievements against society's odds. I did not let her slip away. That is my legacy. — Ann Ferrar