- Bessie Woodson Yancey, African-American Poet and Social Critic
In a 1949 editorial in Huntington, West Virginia’s The Herald-Advertiser, Bessie Woodson Yancey exclaimed, “Let us loose these fetters from the feet of our fellowman, pull together and place West Virginia among the stars!” With a pride that emanated from all of her wide-ranging publications, Yancey imagined Appalachia as the ideal site for racial, social, and gender equality. The sister of famed black historian Carter G. Woodson (1865–1950), Yancey was born in New Canton, Virginia, in 1882 and moved with her family to Huntington ten years later. She spent the remainder of life in that developing city, working as a schoolteacher and court house matron, and raising her daughters and grandchildren.
Yancey had developed an interest in poetry while teaching children in mining camps near Montgomery and along the Guyandotte River in West Virginia. In 1939, she published her only volume, Echoes from the Hills, which included poems for children as well as for adults. Her poetry ranges in topic and form, addressing Appalachian identity, black migration from the deep South, agricultural and mining labor, and the everyday joys of childhood in West Virginia. Yancey proclaims in stanzas from “If You Live in West Virginia,” a poem intended for young readers:
If you live in West Virginia, Come with me and pause a while. See her wealth and power rising, See her plains and valleys smile! Give to eastern states their culture, Give to northern states their fame, Give to southern states their virtues Which no other states may claim. [End Page 73] But in words of deathless glory Far and wide where all may see Write the name of West Virginia, Champion of Liberty!
Although the book contains children’s poems on the seasons and the natural world, Yancey’s affection for West Virginia does not generally participate in nostalgia for pre-industrial experience. For Yancey, Appalachian labor offers people of color hope for social and economic progress. In mining and on the railroad, African-Americans work side-by-side with people from various ethnicities and backgrounds, and through camaraderie laborers achieve freedom from social prejudice. Offering multiple versions of the Appalachian backdrop, Yancey resists biased representations which might render West Virginia as timeless, cloyingly charming, or socially backwards. She embraces the region’s tradition of individualism and emancipation for both African-Americans and impoverished whites. Realistically however, when Yancey depicts work in poems intended for young people, she is not always celebratory. She frequently depicts children’s playful avoidance of physical labor through literacy and joyous immersion in nature.
Yancey dovetails her affection for Appalachia with a strong sense of cultural pride, and in doing so resists the literary invisibility of ethnic Appalachians. In “The Price,” Yancey describes the stake African-Americans have in West Virginian identity: “Black hands felled the forests, / That patient humble folk / Did lay the steel for railroads / And bore the tyrant’s yoke.” Yancey’s poems on African-American pride are particularly illusive, insisting on the significance of a black Appalachian voice to literary tradition. At times she sounds like Langston Hughes, as in “Ambassador”:
I am a Negro, Dusky As my native jungles, Subtle As the creatures that move therein, Rollicking [End Page 74] Like the noon-day sun. I have seen all, Suffered all, Yet I bring goodwill, Turning loss to gain, Wrestling joy from pain, Changing tears into laughter!
Yancey is particularly indebted to Paul Laurence Dunbar, as she acknowledges explicitly in several unpublished Dunbar tribute poems contained in her papers. In Echoes from the Hills, Yancey offers many poems in black dialect which evoke Dunbar’s standard topics. Among others, Yancey’s “An’t M’Lissy’s Tater Pies,” “Possum-Huntin,” and “Backslidin’” evoke the plantation tradition from which Dunbar frequently wrote. Others of Yancey’s poems repeat and reshape the moving sentiment of Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.” In “Whistlin’ Sam,” a shoeshine boy’s “Laughter hiding tears” may become a means for social change: Yancey proclaims, “For the bondsman’s chains must break / Where the people sing!” While acknowledging Dunbar by signifying on his popular poems (even the title...