Race Empress of the Air: Remembering Bessie Coleman, Aviatrix, Who Died on April 30, 96 Years Ago

African-American “aviatrix” Bessie Coleman in a 1922 photograph.

 

 

 

It seems fitting to refer to Bessie Coleman as an aviatrix, not an aviator. It was how she identified herself. The fact that she was Black was important to her but the fact that she was a woman was equally important. Some feminine versions of nouns are useful, even compelling, poetical: actress, for instance, or mistress, or stewardess. (If one wants to be radical about this and subsume everything under one noun, why not call, for example, all thespians, male and female, actresses and not actors? What is so liberating about calling them all actors?) Aviatrix sounded almost mystical to me when I first learned about Coleman when I was a kid from one of my Black teachers: Coleman was called, even then, years after her death, a “colored aviatrix.”

The teacher had taken my elementary school class to the airport. Not only had none of us ever been on an airplane but had never seen a plane except flying over our heads or in the movies or on television. We thought we were actually going to take a plane ride.

“Do you know the first Black person to fly a plane was Bessie Coleman, the first aviatrix of our race?” our teacher told us as we stood around her at one of the gates of the Philadelphia airport. This was before airport security. We could walk to any passenger gate we wanted to.

We did not say anything when the teacher told us that. We wanted to get on an airplane.

“She inspired a lot of our people to become pilots and learn about airplanes. She would give colored folks rides on her airplane,” our teacher continued.

They were luckier than we are, I thought. They got to go up in an airplane, instead of just looking at them through a window, which is pretty lame. That is all I remember of going to the airport and hearing Bessie Coleman’s name, all for the first time.

 

 

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Coleman was 34 years old when she died on April 30, 1926, but she was passing herself off in the press and in public appearances as 24. She was a good-looking woman, everyone who knew her said so. Her biographer, Doris L. Rich, never lets the reader forget it. Coleman knew so herself; the photos of her bear this out. She could easily pass for a younger woman. But she was more than good-looking. She seemed regal but kind, a sort of royalty but every older brother’s kid sister, assured but pulsing with energy. As a boy, I imagined her with a swagger, the only woman I ever thought of in that way. She was The Forever Ingenue who was more cunning, more alert, more purely intelligent, than the men around her. She was, too, a race woman all the way. As she said once, in walking out on a film role, “No Uncle Tom stuff for me.” In that instance, her race pride cost her as she should have gone ahead with playing herself when the Seminole Film Producing Company offered her the chance. Besides, it was a Black-owned company and Coleman always professed that she wanted to help the race. A biopic would have made her even more famous. But then again, as she wrote in a letter dated February 3, 1926, “I am, and know it, the Most Known Colored person (woman alive) other than the Jazz singers.” That is arguably: she might have been at least as famous as Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith.

Fame was what she always wanted. She was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892 to a poor but hardworking Black couple, one of eight children. The family eventually moved to Waxahachie, where Coleman’s father bought a tiny patch of land. But he left his family. Two of her brothers moved to Chicago where she wound up in 1915 at the age of 23. She attended a beauty culture school and became a manicurist. She was not interested in back-breaking labor of the sort she saw her family doing in the South. That too was “Uncle Tom stuff.” She made a good living at this trade, good tips, as she had a winning personality and looks. She grew to learn about Black Chicago’s movers and shakers: hustlers like Jesse Binga and the owner of The Chicago Defender, Robert Sengstacke Abbott. But she dreamed of bigger things for herself. She wanted to be somebody, but she did not know exactly what she could be. The story goes that one day while she was working, one of her brothers, somewhat drunk, came into the barbershop and began ragging on Black women, about how they were nothing compared to French women (he had gone overseas as a soldier during World War I) and that they even flew planes. “You nigger women ain’t never goin’ to fly,” he reportedly said. That is when Coleman decided, perhaps to spite her brother, perhaps because it sounded exotic, perhaps because other women were doing it, that she would be an aviatrix.

Of course, no aviation school in the United States would accept a Black woman (or man). So, she scrapped together her money to learn French and, on the advice of Abbott, on November 20, 1920, at the age of 28, went to France to learn to fly. The sheer nerve of this is remarkable: a working-class Black woman with a rudimentary knowledge of French decides to go to France to learn to fly airplanes. It was not easy to learn to fly the airplanes of that era: challenging to maneuver, fragile, subject to engine failure and mechanical malfunction, and still not seen as a particularly practical invention, extraordinary though it was that people could finally, after untold centuries of dreaming, leave the ground and fly. Fatal accidents were common. Most people feared going aloft in one. Coleman would become a stunt flyer, performing at fairs and circuses, doing aerial tricks, and taking people up for short rides. Those Black people who could spare two or four bits and had the intestinal fortitude.

Coleman rather embodied the spirt of this age of Blackness, the New Negro, as it were: she tried to be an entrepreneur at a time when Blacks were organizing baseball leagues with some success, attempting to have their own state fairs, trying their hand at feature filmmaking, becoming a major presence in American popular music, were trying to publish everything from children’s magazines to novels. Blackness was a form of endeavor. She was a stunt performer in a way not unlike trumpeter Louis Armstrong would blow twenty high Fs in a row. Blackness was a kind of performance stunt, a new virtuosity to hit the scene. If Houdini’s breaking out of straitjackets and chains represented the vitality of liberation in the 1920s, so did Coleman defying death in her daredevil flying. And finally, Coleman was a fake. She lied and exaggerated to the press and her audiences constantly, bragging that she was going to open an aviation school for Blacks (she never did but her desire was sincere), that she owned airplanes (she never did), that she flew airplanes in certain European countries where she never did. Coleman made herself into the most famous person of her time. She could walk down the streets of Chicago and New York and attract crowds of Blacks, even Whites. Her 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.

On April 30, 1926, at an airshow, her dilapidated JN-4 with its OX-5 engine, the first plane she ever owned and which she had just purchased, malfunctioned. The engine, it was discovered after the fact, had a wrench stuck in its mechanism. Her co-pilot completely lost control of the plane. She was not wearing her seat belt because she wanted to look out of the plane and could do so more easily without it. The plane flipped over and she fell out, falling 500 feet to her death. As the plane crashed and went up in flames, she would have died anyway had she been wearing the seat belt. I wonder what went through her mind as she fell. There was something so alive about this woman that your heart breaks as you think of her body breaking on the ground. Perhaps as she fell to earth, she thought that for at least a little while she knew what it was to be alive, and she had inspired a lot of Black people to have less fear.

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