Marya Errin Jones' new zine gives wings to pilot Bessie Coleman's story

Bessie Coleman may not be a household name like Amelia Earhart -- but she should be. As the first black woman to get her pilot's license -- in 1921, before Earhart was in the air -- Coleman is the subject of the new zine series Mocha Chocolata Mamma, by Marya Errin Jones, performance artist and founder of the Albuquerque Zine Fest.

In advance of her performance at Feminism & Co. tonight and her reading on Saturday at the Denver Zine Library, we talked with Jones about why she decided to bring this inspiring tale to light.

Westword: Why did you choose the zine format to tell the story?

Marya Errin Jones: I guess because I could put my own spin and point of view on it. It is accurate to the best of my ability in terms of historical information, but it's still kind of loose in terms of telling the story, so the format of writing zines just gave me that freedom to write about it but not make it a biography.

It's also the first in a series I'm calling Mocha Chocolata Mamma about black women in history and the stories that are untold that I find interesting. So the first one's about her, but the next one's about a character from Firefly called Zoe. It's an amazing show and there's a black woman who's central to the storytelling of that show and she's really fascinating, and just what she gets to do in the world is completely different than the life of a black woman on Earth. And so I love that character and I love that point of view, so she's the next in the series. What I'm trying to do is find a link from the one I'm writing to the next one, and it turns out one of the people who taught Bessie Coleman to fly, his first test flight was on a glider he called the Firefly. That's another reason why I really like delving into aspects of history is that was completely unexpected. If you dig deep enough you'll always find some kind of connection, some kind of meaning that is threaded together. That was a great moment to discover.

What do you hope that people get out of your zine? I'm hoping that people will connect to my excitement about zines and connect to this woman. Most of us don't know that she existed at all and it's just really exciting. She couldn't get a pilot's license in the United States. She learned French and went to France right after the first World War. She left in 1920. So the war had been over a few months, really. And so she ended up being taught by people who had survived the war, by the best flyers out there. And that was incredible and nobody knows that. If nothing else I hope people get that excitement of what do these words mean. And now you complain about waiting in airplanes, right? But for God's sake, when she was flying there were no interior walls. You were sitting in the air, essentially. It's so exciting.

I'm a black woman and I'm actually 42, so I'm not all that young, but the idea is that I was getting really sad about the portrayal of black women, the depiction of black women in society and entertainment and things like that, and it just came to me that I know these stories about people. I have these points of view. I need to share them with people so that there are more facets to what they know. It's so easy to stereotype, it's so easy to make assumptions and it happens all the time, every day. But what if you could put that away for a minute and just get excited about history and life and characters? And they happen to be black and female, and what does that do to your mind? And how does that change the way you see people every day? How did you research the zine?

I looked back at what I knew already about her, so I kind of sourced my own thoughts about her, how difficult it was to make this shift, to be born in Atlanta, Texas and to have a certain expectation of what your life is going to be and then to be a person who does not accept that as the truth about her. She was born in 1892, you know. It's just astounding when we think about what stops us from doing things. It had very little to do with being a woman and living in segregation or any of that. She had all of this to combat. And you couldn't even really travel as a black person. So how did she manage to get passage on a ship? To me it's just so fascinating. So I think about that, I talk about those things. And then I kind of wanted to explore different aspects of the timeline. So some of the research comes from the things I think about, and some of the research comes from exactly here are the dates that these things happened.

There's also a detail about all of the people who tried to fly throughout history. What I noticed is that everybody got, like, 200 meters before they crashed. So it's kind of like everybody had to build on what the other person did until we were able to figure out how to stay in the air long enough. Like, there was a monk who jumped off a tower and crashed, broke his arms and legs. But it was just the desire to do that, to fly, and it is essential to our humanity, I think, to want to be like birds. I don't know why, but it really is. We keep doing it. Someone just built bird wings and jumped. We're still doing it. We seem to have solved the problem of flight, but we're still curious. The interesting thing, too, is before the first World War these gliders were poetic. It was all about getting into the air, staying in the air, coming down on your own and being congratulated when you came back to Earth. It was like going to space. But then the war came and that beautiful, poetic machine became an instrument of death, of war. So that is an intense shift to make with something that was so beautiful but now has to become this thing to help kill people. It's very interesting to me.

What made you want to document this story?

There's the history idea of who gets to make it and who gets to document it. Every time they do a presidential library it's all about controlling what people know and remember. You wanna go through the list of things that George Bush has done to this country to disarm it, to destroy it. He has a presidential library that doesn't include that information. It's all about who controls that history. She died in a plane crash like five years after she started flying. And it was suspicious. There was a wrench found in the engine of her plane, and considering the people that she learned from, like, she learned from the people who built the goddamned planes. You know that was not a possibility. Negligence would be the last thing to bring her down. So it's very curious about what history is. Right now Hillary Clinton is reopening the case of Amelia Earhart and they're looking back, trying to figure out what happened to her. And I think that's so interesting and I'm like, well what happened to Bessie Coleman? There was no investigation about that. It was just simply documented, there was a wrench found in the engine of her plane, and that was it.

We choose what we want to remember, and that's another reason I wanted to write this zine. I'm choosing to remember this person because she's had a big effect on me and my choices in life, and my interest in travel and discovering new places. Girls need to know this. Black girls need to know this, that we're not just learning how to speak for ourselves. We're not all Beyonces. There are so many ways to approach personhood, there are so many ways to teach people how to treat you, and this is one way. I'm glad that after so many years of thinking about her I decided to do something about it.

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Robin Edwards
Contact: Robin Edwards