Stepping Out Into the Unknown: Bessie Coleman & the Millennium

Stepping Out Into the Unknown: Bessie Coleman & the Millennium

In preparation for a Black History Month celebration at the Federal Aviation Administration, I probed over a series of books in search for a metaphor that both reflected the theme of “Heritage and Horizons, Legacy and Challenges,” and spoke to the work of the audience. Mae Jemison, our astronaut, comes immediately to mind, as do the Tuskegee Airmen. When Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., and Second Lieutenants Mac Ross, Charles DeBow, L.R. Curtis and George Roberts became the first five graduates of the Tuskegee Flying School in 1942, and part of the 99th pursuit squadron, they certainly made history. 
So did Charles Alfred Anderson and Albert Forsythe, the first African American civilian pilots to make a transcontinental flight. For all of this history, though, I kept coming back to Bessie Coleman, focusing on her story as a metaphor for the space in which African American people find ourselves in the 21st century.
    Born in Texas in 1893 (or 1896 according to some biographers), Coleman was fascinated by flight. One biographer has her picking cotton in a Waxahachie, Texas, field imagining that she is a bird, spreading her wings and flying. She graduated from high school, migrated to Chicago, where she enrolled in beauty school and became a skilled manicurist. She remained interested in flying, though, but could find no flight school in the United States that would admit her. 
Coleman traveled to Europe and, in 1921, was the first African American woman to become a licensed pilot. According to Sharon Harley’s Timetable of African American History (Simon and Schuster, 1995), when Coleman received the pilot’s certification from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in France, she was the first Black woman to become a licensed pilot. Additionally, she was the first person of any race or sex to receive an international pilot’s license, enabling her to fly in any part of the world.
License notwithstanding, opportunities for Coleman were few and far between.  Racism, sexism and a series of accidents thwarted her ambition to start a flying school in the United States. Instead, she earned a living in air shows and as a stunt pilot, flying at least two years before the far more celebrated Amelia Earhart. Her first appearance was on Labor Day, 1922, “astounding audiences with her daring maneuvers.”
Tragically, Coleman died in a plane crash in 1926, perhaps because of the failure of substandard equipment, which was the best she could afford. Discrimination hit Bessie Coleman upside the head no matter which way she turned, yet she did not allow the pervasiveness of discrimination to prevent her from working toward her goals.
As African Americans look backward and forward, the Coleman tenacity is a necessary ingredient to both celebrate and replicate. As we look ahead, especially, understanding that there is nothing certain about the future, little charted about the millennium, it is important for us to do as Bessie Coleman did, which is step out into the unknown.
This millennium strikes me, as one in which there will be new rules for engagement educationally, politically and economically. At the same time, there seem to be too many African American people who are stuck on the old rules, bonded to old tools.  In education, this has often meant a resistance to technology, to new ways of delivering educational services and to reaching out to nontraditional students. What if Bessie Coleman said, “Black women have never flown before so I don’t think I’ll try it?” Too many have said much the equivalent: “We’ve never done this, been there, tried that, and new horizons are frightening.”
We can’t afford the fear. The future is being shaped by two trends that we must immerse ourselves in — globalization and the proliferation of technology. Yet only one in six Americans, and even fewer African Americans, speak a language other than English or their native language — so Ebonics don’t count, y’all. Few of us travel internationally and too few could name even half of the countries on the African continent, not to mention the components of the former Soviet Union. 
On the technology front, the digital divide persists despite our awareness of its consequences.  Political shifts that may take place this year make gaps even harder to close, as some well-financed candidates seem inattentive to issues like economic justice, preferring to pander to those corporate interests that have fuelled their campaigns.
Issues of stepping out and taking risks are permanent parts of the African American challenge, but these themes must be more closely explored during African American History and Heritage Month. After all, if we reflect on the origins of the month, once Negro History Week, and the brilliance of the man, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who conceived the month, the utter necessity of stepping out, especially when we have a foundation of knowledge and history, is all the more clear. Dr. Woodson wrote, in The Miseducation of the Negro, about the many ways we sabotage ourselves by accepting the status quo imposed by the oppressor.
For some, the new millennium makes concepts like “the oppressor” obsolete. Some would ignore gaps that exist or assert that gaps will close “in time.” Yet, the example of Bessie Coleman reminds us that barriers will only move when we confront them systematically. The millennium may have new rules but it will also be defined by some of the old realities — which we should reflect on daily, not only during African American History and Heritage Month.    



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