Thursday, January 26, 2017

Bessie Coleman: advice for success from a fearless pioneer

Today's the 125th anniversary of Bessie Coleman's birth. She's also my "kickass woman of the month" for January this year, as many of my Patreon supporters learned when they received their monthly reward postcard featuring her photo a couple of weeks ago. And she really was a kickass woman!

Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman was born in a tiny town in Northeast Texas to parents who worked staggeringly hard as sharecroppers under terrible social conditions. When she was still a young girl, her father moved to the newly opened Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), but her mother stayed in Texas with their children. As the oldest child living at home (her older brothers had already moved north looking for work), she stepped in to take care of household chores, tend to her younger siblings, or help with the back-breaking work of washing her mother brought in for extra income. And when it came time to pick cotton, she was out in the fields like everyone else.

She was a smart child and a dedicated student who made the four mile trip to the nearest school for black children as often as she could. She knew she needed the skills she'd learn in school to help support her family. During cotton harvest, she would handle the accounting, doing the math to make sure they got the best price possible. She also knew she needed the education to keep her dreams for a better future aflame. At night she would read to her mother and siblings, often from the Bible, but just as often from her favorite book Uncle Tom's Cabin, and then she'd go to bed dreaming about what she'd do when she was older. It was always something exciting and important. At such a young age she already knew she didn't want to spend her life picking cotton. She had big plans, even if she didn't know exactly what they were quite yet.

Of course, we know now she became one of the era's most famous barnstormers -- acrobatic pilots who toured the country performing amazing stunts in front of thousands.

But as impressive as her stunts were, I am even more impressed by the story of how this tiny girl from rural Texas found her way to the front pages of newspapers around the world, and went looking to see what life lessons we can learn from her.

1. Dream Big
"If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets."
The audacity of this sharecropper's daughter reading by firelight thinking she could just go off into the world and make herself into something new and amazing is remarkable in itself. She knew she was going to find something remarkable to do with her life, and she convinced everyone else of it too.

And once she'd actually done it, she kept on dreaming of new and better things to do. She wasn't content to simply be a licensed pilot, but went and learned how to do tricks. And once she'd learned a few tricks, she want to know more. And when she'd mastered those, she decided to open a school to teach others.

2. Stay Strong
"I refused to take no for an answer."
Few of the biographies I've read about her talk about obstacles she faced, aside from the obvious one of being a black woman in the time of Jim Crow. I have to wonder how many times she heard the word "no" in its different forms -- the overt statement as well as the more subtle, often internalized, social cues -- and just made up her mind to ignore it and keep on working toward her goal? Probably more often than I'd care to imagine, honestly. And yet, at every set back she just picked herself up and found a new way to move forward.

The most well-known example of her refusal to accept a "no" is story of how she learned French so she could travel to France to learn to fly since no American flight schools would accept a black woman as their student. That was a pretty enormous "no" that she just brushed off.

3. Be Brave
"The air is the only place free from prejudices."
The courage it took for her to find a way to get to France to learn to fly didn't just show up overnight. Certainly it had been cultivated throughout her life by other acts of bravery -- taking on the role of parent to her brothers and sisters, moving to Chicago, protecting her family during the terror of the 1919 riots -- as well as the daily fortitude necessary to exist in a dangerously racist and misogynistic era.

Each time she survived a challenging experience, she fortified her fearless nature for her next feat of derring-do -- whether on the ground or in the air. With all this experience behind her, once she knew what she wanted to do there was no stopping her. And once she'd tasted the freedom of flight, she would do whatever it took to continue flying.

4. Don't Give Up
"Tell them that as soon as I can walk I'm going to fly!"
By the time Bessie had begun to make a name for herself as a fearless barnstormer, she was already familiar with how to handle setbacks and obstacles. She just kept pushing. She pushed back on promoters who refused to let African Americans attend her shows to change their policies. She pushed away movie executives who wanted her to sell out her race by playing a stereotyped character. And, most importantly, she pushed herself forward.

Of course, fearlessness won't protect you from failure. And failure as a acrobatic pilot could be dangerous. While practicing a particularly challenging stunt, she crashed her plane. Fortunately, she survived, but with a broken leg that took several months to heal. But, true to her nature, even that brush with death couldn't put a dint in her determination. She had a goal of earning enough money for a flight school, and as soon as possible, she was back in the air.

5. Give Back
"I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly."
No doubt her love of flight was the most important motivator in her drive to continue flying as long as she could, but all along she harbored the hope that she could use she talents to improve the lives of other African American women of her era. Part of her job as a barnstormer was to sell tickets to the general public for a short flight after the show was over. While she'd already had the idea of teaching others of her race to fly, her resolve was magnified as she witnessed firsthand the amazement of the women she piloted, as they were introduced to the magical sensation of leaving the ground.

She knew that the thrill of flight and the skill to control an airplane would give others a sense of empowerment and freedom no one could ever steal. Her last flight was to be the last job she needed to earn enough money to open her school. It's natural to imagine how different the world might be if she'd survived and had been able to carry out the next step in her dream.

But even so, she left a legacy that continues to inspire nearly a century later. In 1992 when astronaut Mae Jemison took her flight as the first African-American woman in space, she carried a photograph of Bessie Coleman in her flight suit.

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For more info about Bessie Coleman:

Bessie, Queen of the Sky
Bessie, Queen of the Sky is a delightfully charming picture book re-imagining the life of Bessie Coleman in the form of a fairy tale, making it an excellent book for a bedtime story for young adventurers. The illustrations by Chiara Fabbri are full of movement and life, perfect for setting young imaginations soaring as they drift off to sleep.

Bessie Coleman: Pioneering Black Woman Aviator
This short book is chock full of information presented in a lively and engaging style. It feels almost like it had originally been written as a screenplay and then adapted to text -- Holway develops each scene on the page as though it were unfolding on the big screen.

Talkin' About Bessie
Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman wins the Self-Rescuing Princess Society seal of approval for sharing both the struggles and determination that led Bessie Coleman to France, as well as her thrill of success and her drive to share her love of flying with the rest of her race -- lifting them up in more ways than one.

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