In the early 20th century, Bessie Stringfield defied cultural norms around the full range of possibilities black women could attain by becoming the “Negro Motorcycle Queen.”
Stringfield told stories as towering as her legacy. She is officially the first known black woman to ride a motorcycle across the United States, a trip she took eight times, relying on the now-well known Negro Motorist Green-Book to ensure a greater level of protection against the biases of the day.
Beyond those confirmed facts, the details of her biography get a little murky. She reportedly told some people she was born Betsy Ellis in Jamaica in 1911 but was adopted and raised in Boston by Catholic nuns after tragedy befell her parents upon their migration to America.
A 2018 New York Times obituary, though, noted that Stringfield was actually born in North Carolina and raised by parents who were both alive when she would have been telling these tall tales. Though she would be crowned motorcycle queen, Stringfield also worked as a civilian motorcycle courier, a domestic, and in carnivals to make ends meet.
Ultimately, author and illustrator Joel Christian Gill’s poignant graphic-novel/picture-book hybrid, Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride, tells many of these truths while putting Stringfield’s drive and nascent talent for competition at the center of his narrative.
Gill was working on a series of graphic novels, Tales of the Talented Tenth, when someone randomly mentioned her story to him. “She was just a bad-ass in general,” Gill says. “And when I did the research, I found this 5-foot-2 black woman who completely just destroyed the gender and racial norms of the time and just rode her motorcycle wherever she wanted to go all over the United States. Here’s this woman who was an adventurer way back in a time when women were told they shouldn’t be doing that...especially black women. She’s amazing. Why are we not spending more time talking about her?”
Gill said he started thinking about what life must have been like for Stringfield as a girl. Fast Enough is a version of her origin story that the enigmatic legend would have probably enjoyed.
“I thought it was important to add that Bessie told one story about her life and the truth was something different, which is what happens to legends,” Gill says. “I didn’t want to gloss over the fact that over the years there was a black woman who rode a motorcycle in all these white spaces and she didn’t apologize for it.”
Little girl Bessie as rendered by Gill was a story that “just flowed out, it just kind of told itself,” he says. In the book, she dreams of riding through tall buildings and even racing her little red bicycle over water up into a beautiful night sky.
But the point of telling her story wasn’t just to share Stringfield’s achievements with a new audience. “I think it’s important to show that black people are not this one block of people,” Gill says. “I want to normalize black stories, not make them like everyone else’s story—that’s not the same thing. I wanted to say, It’s OK for a black girl to have afro-puffs and want to be on a motorcycle. It’s OK for that to be a thing. That’s just as American as apple pie and baseball.”
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and editor living in the Bronx.