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Saturday, June 8, 2019

BESSIE STRINGFIELD: TALES of the TALENTED TENTH, no. 2 (graphic novel) by Joel Christian Gill

Published in 2016 by Fulcrum Publishing.

Artist and author Joel Christian Gill is writing and illustrating a series of graphic novels that look into the lives of lesser known, exceptional African Americans. His inspiration is this quote from W.E.B. DuBois: "The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth saving up to their vantage ground." In other words, some will rise up and inspire/lead the rest. This is Gill's way of providing inspiration.

Bessie Stringfield (1911 or 1912 to 1993) was a remarkable woman by anyone's standard. Throw in the tough Jim Crow laws of the day and she is more than worthy of the accolades she has received from various motorcycle-based organizations.

The motorcycle was her true passion. At the age of 19 she received a motorcycle as a gift and hit the road for the better part of twenty years. She traveled, she raced and she performed in carnivals. Sometimes, she spread out the map of the country, tossed a penny up in the air and then headed off to the location where the penny landed.

It was a tough time for African Americans so she hit the road with a copy of the "Green Book" - a guide to restaurants, hotels and gas stations that welcomed African Americans. The book addresses racial issues in a couple of clever ways. Whenever the word n***** is used, a stylized caricature of a man in "blackface" is inserted. Secondly, whenever Stringfield is confronted by racists, they are partially or completely illustrated as crows with angry red eyes. There are crows driving trucks, crows telling her to go other places, crows wearing KKK outfits.

Stringfield ends up using her motorcycle skills as a courier for the military during World War II.  After the war, she rides outside of the United States as well, but eventually settles down in Miami, Florida. She was called the Motorcycle Queen of Miami.

As a teacher, I love alternate ways to tell history. Breaking away from the little biographies with grainy black and white photos is a nice change of pace. This little "comic book" introduces a lot of heavy topics - gender stereotypes, adoption, racism and the responsibility of people in places of leadership to confront the big issues of the day (Stringfield sat on the sidelines during the civil rights struggles of the 1950's and 1960's). All of that in a comic book. You could trick students into talking about all sorts of big concepts without them even knowing what was going on...

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Bessie Stringfield: Tales of the Talented Tenth, no. 2

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