Behind the Memoir:
How One Author Honored a Woman's Hidden Legacy Through Friendship and the Prism of the Open Road
All content Copyright © 1990 - 2018, Ann Ferrar. All of the author's works on Bessie Stringfield, seen here and elsewhere, are protected by U.S. and International Copyright Laws under Registration # TX 8-473-178. All rights are reserved by Ann Ferrar and her works may not be reproduced, repackaged, stored or adapted to other media, in whole or in part, by other individuals or groups.
African American motorcycling pioneer Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993) broke through racial and gender barriers during the first half of the 20th century, riding her Harley-Davidsons around the USA eight times on her own. With uncommon courage, she rode through the Deep South during the era of segregation, when racial prejudice threatened her safety. As a woman of color on her own Harley, Bessie also turned quite a few heads. She won admirers of all races who were amazed by her moxie.
During the Second World War, Bessie worked for the US Army as a civilian motorcycle courier, riding rough roads on the home-front. Bessie navigated past bigotry and sexism, choosing to live the individualistic life she wanted. Settling in South Florida after the war, Bessie performed trick riding at motorcycle shows, prompting the local press to dub her "Motorcycle Queen of Miami."
Yet with all of Bessie's firsts, her exploits were largely unknown outside of Miami -- that is, until at age 79, she met a younger, passionate New York writer-biker named Ann Ferrar, in the summer of 1990.
With Bessie's blessing, trust and encouragement, Ann recorded and preserved Bessie's exclusive oral history -- becoming the only author to capture Bessie's voice. Ever the raconteur, Bessie's tales held secrets and contradictions that emerged over time. The recordings and countless other talks took place over the course of an unusual, beautiful friendship between the two women.
Bessie and Ann shared a love of unfettered, two-wheeled wanderlust and a penchant for being tomboys, but the women were naturally different in other ways. Still, they were drawn to each other, becoming good friends during Bessie's final three years. The women formed a bond that transcended racial, regional, ethnic and generational differences, exchanging ideas and personal histories, while confiding their deepest family secrets, fears and joys.
Their bond empowered and comforted both women as they struggled through very different life passages. Ann was entering an uncertain prime in her hectic, demanding surroundings in Manhattan. Bessie faced her mortality in a sleepy, declining section of northern Miami after 82 years of living larger than life. Bessie asked Ann to withhold certain details of her life until well after her death.
A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP
On the surface, Bessie Stringfield and Ann Ferrar could not be more different. Bessie, an African American of an earlier generation, had roots in the Southern USA. Ann Ferrar is a white woman born and raised in the Northeast -- South Brooklyn, New York to be precise. Yet with empathy and acceptance of each other's flaws and secrets as well as their strengths, the relationship between Bessie and Ann was mentor to protégé, surrogate aunt to surrogate niece, in the three years leading to Bessie's death in 1993.
Early on, Bessie had told Ann -- and thus, eventually the world via cyberspace -- that she'd been born in Kingston Jamaica to a white woman who died in childbirth. According to Bessie, she and her black father emigrated to New England, but he abandoned her there to be adopted by a white family. An extraordinary yet not totally implausible tale.
There were no surviving relatives in Bessie's obituary and no mention of them anywhere else. But with gentle questioning over time, Ann learned that Bessie had roots in North Carolina. Bessie clung to her Jamaica story until her last breath, and made Ann promise to stick to it, too, until well after Bessie was gone. The author respected the elder's wishes.
Ann had left Brooklyn and was living in Tribeca on Manhattan's Lower West Side when she wrote about Bessie for her first book of narrative non-fiction, Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road (Crown: 1996).
The author hung out in Manhattan's emerging biker scene in the early to mid-1990s, where she could be seen in her leather jacket, jeans and boots, her wild, shoulder-length chestnut hair streaming out from the back of her helmet. She rode her red café racer to watering holes like the Sidewalk Café in East Greenwich Village, with its motley crew of local and international bikers. As a woman on a motorcycle, Ann was an anomaly; her biker buddies were men.
Bessie, in her earlier milieu, was always a head-turner among men and alone among women of color. In the 1960s, Bessie founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, presiding over a group of black working men who were active weekend riders. They didn't need a Sidewalk Café, as Bessie turned her house into a clubhouse and a place for parties. But when the group disbanded, Bessie found herself alone again.
Ann Ferrar's forthcoming book of narrative non-fiction, Finding the Real Bessie Stringfield: A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road is the only long-form biography of Bessie Stringfield, and the only book authorized by Bessie herself. The book is also a memoir written from the author's first-hand perspective, including entries from Ann's diaries preserving the many informal conversations and interactions between the two women. It is a revealing, unique story that only this author can write.
The women's experiences -- those which had surprising parallels, and those which were wildly divergent -- are interwoven throughout through the narrative. Bessie reflected on her extraordinary life before, during and after the Civil Rights era, sharing her most intimate memories with the author over a three-year time frame. In turn, Ann told Bessie of her family's past, and of her adventures and travails on the road, when women on motorcycles were viewed either as "biker chicks" and "biker mamas," or as unfeminine, at the other end of the spectrum.
TWO WOMEN, TWO GYPSY ROADS
During the years of their friendship, Ann traveled through some of the same U.S. states that Bessie had traveled through during the pre-Civil Rights decades of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Unlike Bessie, however, Ann was never denied lodging, gas, or a meal at a diner. Never did the author have to ride her mechanically sound, high-tech street bike on a rutted backroad as the only route available. Never did she have to swerve around beer cans deliberately tossed in her path. And unlike Bessie, Ann was never stalked by a bigot in a pickup truck who ran her off the road, causing damage to her bike and injury to herself.
Yet even in the 1990s, half-a-century after Bessie’s gypsy tours, and approaching the new millennium, the sport of motorcycling and the lifestyle were still dictated by men. Ann discovered that she was sometimes viewed as being outside of mainstream society. A lone woman biker could still be judged with disapproval or suspicion through the eyes of tired old stereotypes.
Issues of personal safety still dictated where a woman could ride alone, and where that woman would be ill-advised to venture. Ann often called Bessie in the early evenings from lonely motel rooms while on the road during her own motorcycle travels around the continent. The elder Bessie loved to offer advice and wisdom borne of her long experience. Bessie radiated warmth and empathy, instilling in Ann a lost belief in the higher power of faith. During challenging times, the two women prayed together over the long-distance telephone lines.
Their talks included some of the same issues faced by both women regardless of race and era: The pros and cons of carrying mace; if one took a spill, how to use lower-body strength to lift a fallen motorcycle from the ground if no one was around to help; how to make it to the nearest town with damaged controls and an injured arm.
Interstate truck stops, which did not exist in the pre-World War II years, were a concern for Ann on nights when she was nearly hypnotized by the lines of the endless asphalt slabs, growing so tired that she could not ride on. Bessie gave her views on how to judge if a truck stop was safe for a woman to stay overnight: "Never! Find yourself some woods before dark and stay put until morning."
A SOLO ACT ON HEAVY METAL
Bessie Stringfield told Ann Ferrar the details of her 60-year motorcycle riding career, and of her unusual personal circumstances. While still a teenager, Bessie said she began her adventures by riding her first bike, a 1928 Indian Scout. Subsequently she fell in love with Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and said she toured the country eight times on 27 consecutive Harleys -- often by tossing a penny over a map and riding to wherever it landed. This type of travel was called "gypsy" touring.
Bessie told Ann of her experiences riding through Southern states, where at times, her skin color made her vulnerable to threats and even to physical harm. Ann gleaned that her mentor survived because she was able to think through fear and survive on her wits even more than her nerve. Thus, Bessie dealt with whatever Jim Crow flung at her.
Bessie always insisted that she placed her welfare in the hands of The Man Upstairs, her nickname for Jesus, and that He kept her safe on the road. Downplaying her courage, she told Ann, "Nobody killed me, thank God." Bessie also spoke of many happy encounters with people of all races who were astonished and delighted to see a woman on a motorcycle.
On the home front during World War II, Bessie described riding her Harley on back roads through rough terrain as a civilian courier for the army. She was the only woman in her dispatch unit of black men, and as an African American woman on her own motorcycle, she turned quite a few heads. After settling in Florida in the 1950s, Bessie worked as a licensed practical nurse, or LPN.
Awestruck, Ann listened as Bessie described how she did stunts such as cruising while standing in the saddle of her Harley. Antics such as this earned Bessie the nickname "Motorcycle Queen of Miami." Bessie told the author how she even tried her hand at flat-track racing while disguised as a man. Bessie said she won a race, but when she took off her helmet, race officials denied her the prize.
WOULD BESSIE HAVE WANTED TO GO 'VIRAL?'
Ann Ferrar's original features and short-form biographies of Bessie Stringfield have informed successive generations about this extraordinary woman of color who was ahead of her time. Bessie's life as written by Ann Ferrar is still so inspiring that in 2016, a short video on Bessie, based on Ann's work, went viral. An updated video is coming soon. Like other icons and legends, Bessie is famous in posterity. Ann fulfilled her promise to her mentor to "let folks know" that Bessie Stringfield was here and that she was amazing.
Today, a quarter-century after Bessie's death, the author's early stories about Bessie Stringfield's achievements have been rediscovered by educators and by women bikers -- especially African American women bikers – among many others. While they learned of Ms. Stringfield retrospectively, today's black women riders have told the author that they feel a connection to Bessie as a role model and a symbol of freedom.
Yet with the explosion of social media, Ferrar's original writings on Bessie Stringfield were spread exponentially by others. Uncredited fragments of the author's work have seeped into secondary and tertiary reference sites and into unauthorized adaptations, paving the way for errors and misconceptions about Bessie and what she stood for.
Bessie Stringfield was a woman of a different era, who deserves to be remembered in her own milieu and admired for her individualism, as well as for her faith and tolerance for all people. These qualities were Bessie's weapons of choice even when alone on her motorcycle and confronted with prejudice. These were the guiding principles that influenced Bessie's choices and her destiny. Amidst the social media buzz of a different generation, the real Bessie Stringfield has no voice.
And so, this author and friend of the actual, flesh-and-blood woman must wonder: At what point does the real Bessie Stringfield become buried beneath her own legend? Or has it already happened?
THE REAL BESSIE STRINGFIELD HAS NOT LEFT THE BUILDING
The forthcoming Finding the Real Bessie Stringfield: A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road is intended to prevent premature burials of the real Bessie Stringfield, and of the real Ann Ferrar. Ann witnessed the quiet courage Bessie displayed in advanced age. The author learned the truth of Bessie's early childhood and youth, which Bessie had withheld even from Ann for as long as she could.
The story also interweaves roughly the first 15,000 miles of the 30,000-mile journey made by the author -- then in her mid-thirties -- to research and write Hear Me Roar, during which time she often called Bessie for her opinions and advice. Bessie eagerly awaited these calls, doling out equal-parts hope, equal-parts pragmatism, and equal-parts levity, while teaching her protégé the value of faith in The Man Upstairs.
The intertwining stories of these two very different women have a relevance to these times -- where ageism and sexism undercut women of all races and in all walks of life, and where racial and ethnic diversity are challenged or downplayed at every turn.
The forthcoming biography and memoir delves deeper into the lives of two complex, mature women's lives, which cannot be distilled for the voracious pace of the Internet. Finer works, and real women's lives, are far more nuanced than that. Stay tuned for more.
All material (text and photos) Copyright © 1990 - 2018, Ann Ferrar. All of the author's works on Bessie Stringfield, seen here and elsewhere, are protected from duplication, adaptation, repackaging, electronic storage and other forms of piracy by U.S. and International Copyright Laws under Registration # TX 8-473-178. All rights to all content are reserved by Ann Ferrar. This material and the author's other versions of it in print, on the web, and in other media, are the author's intellectual property, including quotes from Bessie Stringfield as told to Ann Ferrar; the author's original storylines, narrative voice, prose phrasings, perspectives, opinions and conclusions on Bessie Stringfield and her life, as well as the author’s life.