An Introduction to the Upcoming Book
Queen of the Road
The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield
A Memoir of Resilience and the Road
© By Ann Ferrar
All content (text and visuals) on this website Copyright © 1990 - 2019, Ann Ferrar. Bessie Stringfield entrusted her life rights to Ann Ferrar in 1990. Ferrar is the author-originator, primary source and sole rights-holder of this material from African American Queen of the Road: The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield, as well as her earlier stories on Ms. Stringfield, including: the author's various works published in print and online; the oral history of Bessie Stringfield recorded by the author; and other primary story elements. The author's works are protected under Library of Congress Registration Numbers TX0004341049; TX8473178; TXU2088760; and 1-635-1434791. Ferrar's stories must not be pirated, imitated, aggregated and disseminated without credit, adapted to other media, duplicated, scanned, stored, or otherwise plagiarized in any media. Please respect the author and the wishes of Bessie Stringfield. More details on coyright and intellectual property are at bottom.
Writing an Untold Life
Behind 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 skirted 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 defiance of social and civil barriers, Bessie Stringfield was undiscovered, unknown even to African American and women's historians. But she was not unknown to me. I had the good fortune to call Bessie Stringfield my friend, mentor and muse in the last three years of her life. She asked me to preserve her story, and thus her legacy, in my writings.
With Bessie's blessing, encouragement and permission, I became the only author to record Bessie's oral history on tape, capturing the voice and the stories of Bessie Stringfield as told by the woman herself. No recordings or literature on the life of Bessie Stringfield existed anywhere else. When Bessie gave me the gift of her life story, I began to write of her achievements and challenges over six decades on 27 Harleys and one Indian Scout motorcycle. My work as her biographer began as a personal legacy project for a deserving hidden figure, though Bessie did not live to see herself in any of my stories. The first one I wrote was her eulogy in 1993, published as an article in American Iron, an international magazine for devotees of American-made motorcycles. My next story, Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue, had an even broader global reach. It was featured in Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road. This was my debut book of narrative non-fiction, published in 1996 by Crown, an imprint of Random House. A quarter-century later, Bessie/Color Blue formed the basis for a video that went viral on social media, earning 20 million views.
In my original writings, I described events, actions and choices Bessie made to defy 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 the rutted, muddy roads decades before "interstate highways" would become part of our lexicon. 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 American life.
Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.
At the same time, not all of Bessie's road trips involved struggle. She enjoyed connecting with a diverse array of people who wished her well. Many were impressed with her "nerve," as she put it. During difficult or dangerous times, Bessie drew upon her faith in her deity and constant companion, whom she referred to as the Man Upstairs. I could tell she had a wellspring of courage and an ability to form empathetic bonds with people who did not look like her. She called upon these traits to survive the roughest of times. In my prose portraits of Bessie, I drew upon these traits as well; they showed her "nerve" but also her vulnerability and humanity. That is how I saw Bessie Stringfield and thus how I wrote her life and her truth.
Bessie 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, 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 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, vignettes of which I wove into my original stories.
From the seeds of this writer's primary, published narratives on Bessie Stringfield, over time Bessie rose in stature from hidden figure to posthumous global legend in the age of the Internet and social media. Today, Bessie 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 museum directors have started to notice.
Yet as with other larger-than-life figures, Bessie Stringfield as an actual person remains enigmatic. In 2018, a reader wrote to tell me I'm equally responsible for what is not known about the late woman. To a degree, part of that is on Bessie and part is on me. 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. The details behind the events, anecdotes and vignettes that I have written into my early works still reside in my private tapes of Bessie, in my notepads and journals of the period between 1990 and 1993, and in a few other hidden places.
Now, readers of my original stories have sought me out. They have asked me to reveal more of the woman behind the limited information on the Internet. In response, this website was created to introduce African American Queen of the Road—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield, A Memoir of Resilience and the Road. This is my book-in-progress, Bessie's authorized biography. By combining two literary forms, biography and memoir, I am delving deeper into Bessie's life, revealing more about the woman, including her conflicts. Professionals should know that the forthcoming book is not a self-publishing endeavor; the publishing house will be announced later.
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Bessie chose to exercise her freedom on motorcycles, but clearly, her legacy transcends the sport. Readers write to tell me they are are in awe of Bessie's daring. On social media, the late woman has a huge global fan base. Her admirers post comments like, “Wow, Bessie was a badass woman!” I get it. Bessie was strong and the word reflects today’s movement for women’s empowerment. African American women 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 powerful sentiment among a new generation of black women riders who see themselves as torch-bearers of Bessie's legacy. She has inspired them to embark on their own long-distance road trips. On social media I've seen the proclamation, "We stand on her shoulders." Some of these women even view Bessie as an avatar of who they aspire to be.
Yet Bessie died in 1993, before the vast majority of her 21st-century admirers had ever heard of her, and before most of her millennial fans were even born. So today, I find myself in the position of keeper of the keys. I met Bessie in 1990, about three years before her passing. I, too, was a biker back then. The day of our first encounter was the start of a conversation between us that lasted almost until her death. As I peered into Bessie's past, I became more and more impressed with her risk-taking and explored it in my stories. In my view, with her wanderlust Bessie had strayed far from her station, taking risks in defiance of disapproving relatives in the Southern USA, where she was from. I wrote that 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.
Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.
From my close-up perspective as her biographer, 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 I knew 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. In my writings, I conveyed that throughout her life, Bessie Stringfield maintained her balance along with her dignity.
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. Likewise, our talks informed her perspectives of me. 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—have always been the foundation of my writings about Bessie Stringfield. Her story cannot be conveyed in a meaningful way without this.
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, the risks to Bessie were much greater because of her skin color and the times in which she was traveling. I had so much respect for her persistence and bravery.
The setting for our first encounter in 1990 could not have been more apropos. It was a niche motorcycle museum in the small suburb of Pickerington, Ohio, the heart of the country as it were. In a modest exhibit on female bikers, a hand-drawn portrait of Bessie was part of the display. I was there doing research for Hear Me Roar. This was my debut book of narrative non-fiction, where I explored this little-known facet of women's mobility and gender role-reversal. I wrote about Bessie and other women who had broken the gender barrier on motorcycles in various ways, including on the race track. My story about Bessie was called Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue.
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On that first day at the museum, Bessie and I began exchanging stories as we stood in front of the hand-drawn portrait of Bessie in her youth. I had arrived by motorcycle with a club called Women in the Wind. I wore goggles pulled up over my head—much like the museum portrait of the younger Bessie. Except the biggest challenge I'd faced that day on the road was the wind whipping my wild hair into my mouth.
Very quickly I knew that the elderly woman with whom I was speaking had risen above obstacles that might have defeated a weaker person. I perceived 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. The brief paragraph on the museum wall could never convey what Bessie's achievements meant in larger society, nor could it reach a broad audience. I became determined to write about Bessie in more detail and to introduce her to the world. With Bessie's permission, cooperation and friendship, that's exactly what I did.
Bessie was comfortable entrusting her life story (aka life rights) to me because despite our obvious differences, we identified in key areas of gender, attitude and behavior that were unconventional in any era. Bessie knew that I, like her, had been a stubborn, rebellious daughter who dug in my heels against the pull of my family's ethnic and social traditions. Before the 1990s, arguably nearly any woman who threw a leg over a motorcycle and roared away from family was different by default.
Bessie's racial heritage actually was mixed and took hold in the Southern USA, with strong influences of Black Baptist in humble beginnings in the Jim Crow era. She later became a Catholic. My ancestral roots were in Southern Italy and equally humble. I am the granddaughter of Ellis Island immigrants, born into Catholicism in a post-World War II, working class Italian American family in Brooklyn, New York. What two women, and what two backgrounds, could be more ostensibly mismatched?
Still, we connected on mutual respect, curiosity and a shared love of the open road on two wheels. Bessie gave me the gift of her life story because my ethnic tradition of respecting one's elders was so apparent. She recognized the old soul in me. My white skin and Brooklyn accent were irrelevant to the pact that we made and the personal legacy project on which it was founded. I was there for her and ready to step up to the plate with my writing. Had I not taped Bessie's oral history, nor written her life on the blank page and on the web, Bessie's legacy would surely have died with her in the sleepy Miami neighborhood where she had settled.
In my eyes, Bessie Stringfield had an aura even as an elderly woman. I saw that beneath her physical frailty, spirit and strength still resided. Meeting her was like an electrical jolt, so it was inevitable that this amazing yet understated woman became the heroine of my stories. My biography of Bessie Stringfield cannot be written by anyone else. Since I have never released the rest of her story anywhere, scores of Google hits on Bessie lead to pieces that go in circles, merely aggregating and disseminating material and perspectives from my original works, often without citation of the primary source. But despite the web's sense of entitlement for quick, effortless information, my stories on Bessie are not, and have never been, in the public domain. (Hence the ©Copyright notices all over the site.) The Internet cannot provide the answers, especially not when it comes to the nuances of Bessie's life. That is why readers—from students and academics to museum directors and other professionals—have sought me out.
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When Bessie and I made our personal legacy pact in 1990 and I began writing her life, neither of us could have predicted that Bessie's achievements would have such a resounding impact today. We could not have known that in 2017, my story on Bessie from Hear Me Roar would be condensed anonymously into a short video that went viral on Facebook, earning an astonishing 20 million views. We did not foresee that in 2002, Bessie would be inducted into the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame. My stories on Bessie informed the voters, became the foundation of the speech at her induction ceremony, and were posted on the Hall of Fame website for the world to read. We did not imagine that someday, when thousands of black women would learn of the late Bessie Stringfield, they would assemble for cross-country motorcycle rides named after her.
Bessie and I could not have predicted that in 2018, The New York Times would search their own archives to find a 1996 piece that reported on my work about Bessie in a piece titled Hear Me Roar: A Woman's Symphony on the Road. The paper then recognized Bessie with an obituary in a series on notable yet overlooked women of color. And we could not have known that recently, educators would begin to introduce Bessie to children and young adults. A quarter-century after Bessie's death, all this and more has come to pass. I have received inquiries about Bessie from readers and professionals from across the USA and Canada to Europe (England, Spain, France, Germany) and Down Under (Australia, New Zealand).
Yet even from the grave, contradictions follow Bessie Stringfield. In the next section, I'll discuss how—despite the posthumous recognition and mass admiration for her achievements—Bessie Stringfield is still not a public figure. Paradoxically, as a multi-dimensional person who lived and who died, Bessie Stringfield remains alluringly unknown, the object of public curiosity to the point of fascination. What the public knows about Bessie Stringfield is akin to mere Sparknotes of her life. This is why, especially since the viral video, I have received a stream of emails from Bessie's admirers and from professionals who want to know more.
For those professionals and for Bessie's admirers, especially Internet users who were unaware, until now, that I am the author-originator of the first stories on Bessie, in the next section I'll tell the backstory behind my writing of the authorized biography of Bessie Stringfield. I'll share some of my creative and intellectual process and the nuts-and-bolts of how Bessie's hidden story went from my analog tape recorder, pen, notepads and floppy disks to 21st-century pixels in cyberspace—how she went from hidden figure to posthumous global legend on the Internet and social media.
It is clear that the personal legacy pact that Bessie and I made in the early 1990s 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 inclined to explore those areas. I am heartened to know that Bessie has such a huge popular fan base in the 21st century, but I could not have predicted it. As an author-originator, I surely did not foresee that some fans—and the voracious web culture at large—would run with my stories on Bessie to the point of running away with them.
So, in the next section I'll discuss how pass-along aggregates of my work and 20 million video views have opened Bessie up to certain things that neither of us had anticipated in the early 1990s, when social media did not exist. Finally, I'll share a bit more relevant background about me. Since I find myself in the position of keeper of the keys, Bessie's admirers and new readers should know a little about who I am. I was a part of Bessie's life in her final three years as her friend, recordist and the only journalist who saw the importance of preserving and conveying Bessie's hidden story. As an author, researcher and narrative storyteller, I am the only living primary source for the complete spectrum of the life of Bessie Stringfield—for what is known and as-yet untold. —Ann Ferrar