Here is a piece I wrote a little while ago for a book on female aviation pioneers. It saw print in 2004 in a newspaper called Women’s Independent Press, but second rights are available if anyone likes it.
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
She was the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license. Bessie Coleman was born close to where the borders of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana meet, one of thirteen children. Her father moved around, and when her mother went to work as a cook/housekeeper for a prosperous white family, 9-year-old Bessie was left to raise her younger sisters. Bessie didn’t attend school regularly, but loved to read and dreamed of going to college. She worked as a laundress to raise money, and by 1910 she had enough money for one year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal College in Langston, Oklahoma. She couldn’t afford more than the one year, but by 1915 she was on her way to a new life in Chicago, where two of her brothers lived. In Chicago’s African American section, she found opportunities and support that weren’t available in the South.
She trained as a manicurist, and within a year she won a contest as the best and fastest manicurist in black Chicago. Her name was linked with several men, but it came as a surprise to her family when she married Claude Glenn, 14 years her senior. Stranger still, they never lived together, and never formally announced their marriage.
Bessie’s life changed when the United States entered World War I. Her brothers went to serve in France, and came back talking of the lack of racial prejudice there. Some French women had high-powered careers, and even flew airplanes. Despite the pioneering efforts of Harriet Quimby, Ruth Law and others, there was still a lot of resistance in America to women learning to fly; for an African American woman to do so was unthinkable.
Bessie quit her job as a manicurist and got a better paying job as manager of a chili parlor. By November 1920, she was on her way to France. She enrolled in the Caudron Brothers flying school, and finished the course three months early. On June 15th, 1921, she received a pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. After further training in Paris, she returned to Chicago in October. However, the air show circuit of the day demanded aerobatic skills, and even with her International Pilot’s License, Bessie couldn’t find anyone to teach her. The following February she returned to France. She trained there for the next six months, meeting legendary aircraft designer Anthony Fokker and flying in Germany and elsewhere. Some of her flights were filmed, and suddenly she was news. Reporters met her ship when she returned to New York, and she played to the press with a prepared biography that gave her a more interesting life and cut a few years from her age. She knew that the goodwill of the press would be vital in accomplishing her new ambition – to found a flight school for African Americans.
Bessie hit the air show circuit. Refusing to appear in any air show that did not allow blacks to attend – “No Uncle Tom stuff for me,” she said – she fought both racial and sexual prejudice. She also dropped advertising leaflets. While preparing for an air show in Los Angeles in early 1923, she suffered a bad crash and was hospitalized for three months. It would be September before she was fit to fly again, and she filled in time by giving a series of lectures on aviation. She was scheduled to appear in two air shows in September 1923, but neither took place, and she started to get a reputation for being temperamental and unreliable. Air shows became reluctant to book her, and it was May 1925 before she succeeded in lining up an air show and lecture series in Texas. By September she had added parachute jumping to her repertoire. In early 1926 she lectured in Georgia and Florida, raising money to pay for a plane of her own to replace the one she had crashed.
Edwin Beeman, the wealthy owner of a chewing gum company who was fascinated with aviation, gave Bessie the money for her final payment, and the plane, a Curtiss Jenny, was to be delivered to Jacksonville, Florida, in time for an air show scheduled for May 1st, 1926. It barely made it, as its 90 horsepower engine was so worn and badly maintained that it was developing less than two-thirds of full power. The morning before the air show, Bessie took off to check out landing places for a parachute jump. With her mechanic at the controls, Bessie unfastened her seat belt so that she could look over the side of the plane. Ten minutes into the flight, the plane suddenly went into a tailspin and flipped over, throwing Bessie out; she fell to her death. An examination of the charred wreckage revealed that a wrench had slid into the control gears and jammed them.
In 1995, the US Post Office issued a Black Heritage postage stamp in Bessie’s honor. Every year on the anniversary of her death, African American pilots fly over her grave in Chicago to drop flowers.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting some short pieces of nonfiction that I’ve written over the years. Most of them were writing samples to accompany book proposals, and I’ll tell the story of each piece as I go. And if anyone reading this is in publishing and interested in using any of them, then I’d love to hear from you.
This first piece is about Brigid (a.k.a. Saint Bridget), a pagan Celtic goddess who changed teams and became a Christian saint. The style is inspired by Vicki Leon’s brilliant Uppity Women series of books, and also by Trina Robbins’ Eternally Bad: Goddesses With Attitude. I initially proposed Eternally Bad 2 to publishers Conari Press, but was told they had changed their editorial direction. I still have plans to write a book on goddesses in this style, but I haven’t yet found the right publisher.
Copyright (c) 2012 Graeme Davis
If proof were ever needed that you can’t keep a goddess down, Brigid is it. Thanks to a shrewd career move, this former Celtic goddess is now a Christian saint, whose feast day just happens to fall on the same date as the previous pagan festival. The church tends to play down rumors that Saint Mel consecrated her a full-fledged bishop after a few too many goblets of communion wine, but no-one can deny her hard work and persistence.
Brigid – according to who you believe, her name could mean “fiery arrow,” “bright one,” or “exalted one” – was born into the Tuatha De Danann, the race of gods who conquered Ireland from the brutish Fomorians. Her father was no less than the Dagda, or All-Father. At her birth, it is said, a pillar of flame rose up from her head into the dawn sky, making the house look as though it was on fire. While the other gods stood around gaping, Brigid went straight to work.
She broke off a piece of the fire and dropped it on the floor, where it became the first hearth. Reaching into this fire, she pulled out a tongue of flame and swallowed it, where it burned inside her and caused flames to shoot from her hands; she used her magma manicure to invent the craft of metalworking. Drawing water from a nearby well, she heated it with her fire and made a range of herbal teas that were both delicious and good for the health. From the fire that burned inside her head she poured forth poetry and other forms of artistic inspiration. So she became the patroness of the hearth, healing, poetry, and metalworking, and the number one goddess of the Celtic pantheon.
Well, maybe not number one – that spot went to the enigmatic Danu, who gave her name to the whole race of gods (Tuatha De Danann means “Tribe of the Goddess Danu”) – but there are those who say that she actually was Danu, in addition to her other talents. In fact, she was so busy that some sources claim the Dagda had three daughters, and named them all Brigid. A few jealous souls began to whisper that, while one side of her face was beautiful, the other was quite homely, but she paid them no mind.
Being the daughter of the king of the gods carried the same hazards as mortal princesses faced. Brigid had to put up with a dynastic marriage with Bres Mac Elatha, who was half-Fomorian on his father’s side – a severe handicap in both the looks and personality departments – and penny-pinching into the bargain, which the rest of the Tuatha couldn‘t stand. Eventually they kicked him out, but rather than learning from the experience and working on his social skills, he ran off to the Fomorian side of his family for help, which started a series of wars. Brigid, meanwhile, started hanging out with the good-looking and cultured Turenn, whose father Oghma held the patent on the ogham writing system. Turenn was also her cousin and her ex’s nephew, but gods are usually broadminded about such things. This relationship (having been bitten once, she wasn’t in a hurry to get married again) was altogether happier, and produced three sons: Bran, Iuchar and Iucharba. They all went into the family business as gods of poetry.
While the other Tuatha De Danann were content with Ireland, Brigid had bigger ideas. Soon, she was worshiped across Celtic Europe; Brigantia, her brand name in mainland Britain, became a major kingdom, and a constant thorn in the side of the Romans when they showed up.
Brigid’s feast day was Imbolc, the Celtic festival when winter turned to spring. In addition to her other interests, she took on the seasonal job of making sure the ewes produced enough milk, which soon developed into overall responsibility for flocks and herds.
Her skill in poetry extended to mystical knowledge, and made her a favorite of witches and wise-women. She could look into her cupped hands for visions of things to come or things happening far away. Crystal balls were for amateurs. People were constantly around her door clamoring for her herbal recipes, but they had trouble remembering what she told them. Turning a handy twig into charcoal with the fire that still wreathed her head, Brigid taught them how to make Oghma’s marks on bark, so they could write the recipes down. It’s not known if he got royalties, but then it’s not known if she got a marketing fee either.
As the guardian of the hearth, Brigid’s permission had to be asked before banking the fire for the night, and her protection sought for the house and its occupants. She had a sacred fire at Kildare, which was watched over by 19 priestesses. They took turns on a 20-day rotation; on the 20th day, the fire was tended by Brigid herself. For all her success, she never lost touch with her constituents.
Of all her fires, the warm glow of compassion was her favorite. Once, two men came to her complaining of leprosy. A dip in her sacred well cured one of them, but when he was reluctant to help his still-leprous friend wash those hard-to-reach places with the healing water, Brigid saw red. She gave him his leprosy back, telling him not to talk to her again until he had learned compassion. Then, just to drive the point home, she cured his friend.
When St. Patrick showed up and started spreading Christianity, Brigid wasn’t at all impressed. She laughed at his snake-charming act, and spoke her mind about the new religion, which caused a few problems. The Christians slaughtered her priestesses and put out her fire, but she wasn’t ready to fade into obscurity with the rest of the Tuatha De Danann. Instead, she invited Paddy over for some tea and a chat, and by the end of their conversation she had decided that since she couldn’t beat ‘em, she might as well join ‘em. Before you could say “Christianized pagan deity,” Brigid was set up with the title of saint and an impeccably Christian background as the midwife who delivered Jesus.
According to the official story, she was the illegitimate daughter of a pagan Irish chieftain (some say he was a druid) and a Christian slave girl; mother died early, and she was raised by her father, who was quite tolerant of her Christian leanings. She kept the household in butter, employing miraculous means when natural sources ran dry. The story has her born 66 years after Patrick hung up his shillelagh, even though he is supposed to have baptized her personally. The Pagan Goddess Protection Program obviously slipped up here and there with her new identity. But then, her absolute refusal to change her name must have made them wonder why they were trying in the first place.
Her aversion to marriage was another thing that carried over to her Christian identity. According to early biographers, she hated her own beauty and the pesky men it attracted, and prayed to become ugly. The result was that one of her eyes became huge, while the other disappeared altogether. Rather than forcing her into marriage – and probably deciding that she wouldn’t make a profitable dynastic match looking like that – her father consented to her becoming a nun. As she took her vows, angels shoved the attending priest aside and presented her with the veil themselves. The wooden steps of the altar burst into leaf, and her good looks were instantly restored. After that, she traveled Ireland founding churches, nunneries, and monasteries (including co-ed establishments divided down the middle to keep the monks and nuns apart and save them from impure thoughts), and when she died, she was on the fast track for sainthood.
The new Brigid wasn’t all work and no play, though. Among other things, her bath-water was sometimes made into beer for thirsty clerics. She rescued a boar from hunters by granting it sanctuary in her chapel, and taught a fox to dance. She would often hang her damp cloak on a sunbeam to dry, which sometimes obliged the sunbeam to stick around all night. She even made two opposing armies invisible to each other, so that tempers had time to cool. When a passing merchant refused to give her some salt, she turned his entire stock to stone. Her larder never ran out, and one Easter a small cup of malt from her scullery yielded enough ale to supply all 17 of the abbeys and monasteries under her rule. In another legend, she gave some water to a man whose wife found him repulsive, and he enjoyed an adoring spouse for the rest of his life. Perhaps he washed with it.
St Brigid remained associated with sheep and milk. She became the patroness of Ireland, New Zealand, milkmaids, and poultry farmers, as well as nuns, newborns (from her supposed role in the birth of Jesus), and fugitives. In 712 she appeared to the army of Leinster, hovering in the sky before they routed the forces of Tara. She kept her sacred fire at Kildare, but the staff was downsized to nine virgins from the original 19 priestesses. On the other hand, it now had a nunnery attached. Men were still forbidden to cross the hedge that surrounded the sanctuary, and Brigid wasn’t afraid to show that she meant business. When an archer hopped over the hedge and blew on the fire, she struck him mad; he was forced to go around blowing into the faces of complete strangers and telling them that he had done the same to Brigid’s fire. When he was finally restrained he complained of thirst, and drank so much water that his stomach burst open and he died. Another would-be miscreant got one leg over the hedge before his friends pulled him back, and was lame in that leg for the rest of his life. The fire kept burning until 1220, when Archbishop Henry of Dublin decided that its pagan origins were just too obvious, and ordered it extinguished. History does not record what happened to him.
Her tomb at Downpatrick was looted by English troops during the reign of Henry VIII. Her cloak is in Bruges, in Belgium – no longer hanging on a sunbeam – while her head was left in Lisbon by a bunch of crusaders who died before reaching the Holy Land.
Although there have been more popular saints, Brigid is still around and doing well. In her original guise, she is becoming popular with neo-pagans. There is every chance that she will be the first goddess to make the switch to Christian saint and back again. You have to admit, this girl doesn’t give up.