Bessie Coleman’s real life made her something larger than most Blacks and most women could imagine themselves to be, and her fictionalizing made her large life larger. Blackness had become something ultra-modern with Coleman, a meta-fiction, the mastery of fabrication, of image, for public consumption. She was the heroine of velocity. She ushered Black people into the age of speed.
My father was there, the photograph says to me directly. But he was also not there. Not only not visible in the photograph—which, taken from the wing, shows no hunched shoulder or flying cap to indicate the person pressing the firing button—but not there at all. Concentrating, yes; in fear for his life, yes. Supremely there, of course, while the shipboard German gunners sprayed flak at him and he dropped his powerful twin-engine airplane into a dive. But also absent, in a reverie.
As I write this essay, I am listening to Bird’s records. I love the inventiveness, the breakneck pace, and the flights of fancy of his melodies. I admire his daring and ingenuity, just as I do the Wright brothers’ daring and ingenuity: over a century after they occurred, it is thrilling to read accounts of their first successful powered flights.
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