- “The Yellow Rose of Texas”*A Different Cultural View
History, literature (poems, novels), folklore (songs, legends), and popular culture intertwine, intersect, and transform each other in a constantly influencing mixture of fact, truth, speculation, and downright lies. Appropriation of one cultural form by another may mean that a perceived historical truth outstrips fact to become legend. For example, did George Washington really cut down the cherry tree, or is that just a good story that epitomizes something Americans would like to believe about that historical figure? Was Abraham “Honest Abe” Lincoln really as honest as legend perceives him to be, or is that just a facet of his character that historians and regular folk like to emphasize? Where does fact, truth, leave off and fiction begin? And why does fiction seem to reflect a truth larger than fact when it is applied to characters whose actions warrant our approval? In the crisscrossings of these perceptions of reality, claims to an absolute veracity give way to the human instinct and love for a good story, indeed perhaps to the preference for a good story over the starkness of reality. In the imaginative construction of various kinds of texts, whether they are grounded in history, biography, autobiography, folklore, literature, or whether they appear on television, in newspapers, or in other print media, a point can occur where those creations take on lives of their own, where the original intent becomes irrelevant in the face of the re-creation and re-structuring of events and incidents to the will and the realm of the imagination. There is a point where history is no more true than fiction, where a newspaper story, such as that focusing on Tawana Brawley, takes on such a life that it becomes impossible to sort out fact from fiction, legend from life, folklore from biography.
A good story. Connections made that are perhaps not as “truthful” as undisputed facts would make them. The preference for imagination over historical documentation. The preference for the sensational over the mundane. These patterns of cultural formation and creative interchange provide the context in which I would like to explore a story—and the novel about the story—that is sometimes perceived to be true, at other times discounted, but that continues to intrigue Americans more than one hundred and fifty years after the events around which the speculation occurred. Whether true or fictional, documentable or discountable, the events have seeped into [End Page 8] the American cultural imagination sufficiently to warrant their treatment as seriously as one would presumably treat a “factual” account of the battle of Bull Run.
I would venture to say that most Americans are familiar with the folksong, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” If they cannot recall all of the lyrics, there is still a resonant quality about the song. I would also venture to say that few of those Americans—Texans notwithstanding—have reflected overly long on the implications of the fact that the song is not just about a woman, but about a black woman, or that a black man probably composed it. Scholars such as Martha Anne Turner have linked the song to its contextual origins—that of the Texas war for independence from Mexico in the 1830s and a specific incident in 1836—and others have argued its irrelevance to that event. It was only in 1989, however, when Anita Richmond Bunkley published Emily, The Yellow Rose, a novel based on the presumed incidents that spawned the fame of the yellow rose, that the fictionalized expansion of the facts encouraged a larger and perhaps different audience to become aware of the historical significance of Emily D. West, the hypothetical “Yellow Rose of Texas.” 1 This publishing event certainly re-centered the song and the incident in African-American culture, for over many years and numerous versions the song had been deracialized. Bunkley, herself an African-American woman, researched the complex history of another African-American woman and imaginatively recreated and reclaimed it.
The presumed historical facts are simple and limited. Emily D. West, a teenage, orphaned, free Negro woman in the northeastern United States, journeyed by boat to the wilderness of Texas...