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 in 1835. 2 Colonel James Morgan, on whose plantation she worked as an indentured servant, established the little settlement of New Washington (later Morgan’s Point). When Santa Anna and his troops arrived in the area, he claimed West to take the place of his stay-at-home wife in Mexico City and the traveling wife he had acquired on his way to Texas. The traveling wife had to be sent back when swollen river waters prevented him from taking her across in the fancy carriage in which she was riding. Santa Anna was either partying with West or having sex with her when Sam Houston’s troops arrived for The Battle of San Jacinto, thus forcing him to escape in only a linen shirt and “silk drawers,” in which he was captured the next day. West’s possible forced separation from her black lover and her placement in Santa Anna’s camp, according to legend, inspired her lover to compose the song we know as “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Publicity surrounding the hotel in San Antonio that was named after Emily Morgan asserts that West was a spy for Texas. Other historians claim that there is absolutely no tie between West and the events of the Texas war for independence from Mexico. Still others claim that it was only West’s heroic feat of keeping Santa Anna preoccupied that enabled the Texas victory. 3 Broadening perceptions of how texts are created and the purposes to which they are put provide the context, during the course of this paper, within which I want to explore West’s story and take issue with the assigning of heroic motives to her adventure.
Bunkley’s novelistic representation of the events provide motive, emotion, sentiment, and introspection to flesh out the bare bones of the presented history. According to Bunkley, a twenty-year-old orphaned Emily D. West journeyed to Texas in the [End Page 9] hope that its status as Mexican territory would help her to realize more freedom than she had experienced in the so-called free environment of New York. Upon arriving in Texas, West discovered that her freedoms were minimal, that the land was much more harsh than she had anticipated, and that her circumstances were not appreciably different from those of enslaved African Americans. She fell in love with a black man, a musician, thought to be a runaway from slavery. Bounty hunters and the pressures of the fast-approaching war for independence from Mexico interrupted their sustaining relationship. Her lover attempted to get away from his pursuers and the war, while West found herself in the midst of both; their separation led to his composing “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
Unfortunately for West, the plantation on which she worked lay directly in the path of the oncoming Mexican soldiers, led by Santa Anna. Upon arriving, burning most of the plantation and killing several of its inhabitants, Santa Anna discovered West and ordered that she be taken captive. Forced to engage in sex with the repulsive, rapacious, and opium-eating Santa Anna, West unknowingly but greatly aided the Texan cause. After an opium, sex-satiated encounter with West, Santa Anna fell into a slumber from which he could not arouse himself sufficiently before Sam Houston’s troops attacked his camp, killed many of his soldiers (who were quickly scattered without the commanding voice of their leader), and captured Santa Anna. During the battle of San Jacinto, West made a convenient escape.
The presented history and the novelistic depiction of it are certainly the stuff of which legends are made, and Bunkley appropriately subtitles her novel “A Texas Legend.” As the events come to us today, therefore, West is considered to be “the yellow rose,” the woman in the song, and the incident of its composition is equated to lovers being separated during the war for Texan independence, with West subsequently playing her alleged historical, legendary role with Santa Anna. The black woman, Santa Anna, the black male composer, 21 April 1836, The Battle of San Jacinto, the song—these are the people, the time, the place, the incident, and the creation surrounding it that have merged history, legend, biography, and musical composition. No matter who would desire otherwise, the links are now inseparable in viewing the story of the song and its presumed subject, Emily D. West.
What fascinates about the story beyond its legendary proportions is its centering of an African-American woman in a significant piece of American history. The forced separation of the lover from his loved one, with the events of the war as backdrop, led to the composition of the song. Following are the first verse and the chorus:
There’s a yellow rose in Texas That I am a going to see No other darky [sic] knows her No one only me She cryed [sic] so when I left her It like to broke my heart And if I ever find her We nevermore will part. [End Page 10]
Chorus: She’s the sweetest rose of color This darky every knew Her eyes are bright as diamonds They sparkle like the dew You may talk about dearest May And sing of Rosa Lee But the yellow rose of Texas Beats the belles of Tennessee. 4
The centering of the black woman in the song and its ensuing historical significance comprise an unprecedented circumstance matched only by the second fascination—a love story between black people that was powerful enough to be immortalized in song. The woman and the song serve Texas history well, but they serve African-American history, folklore, and culture even better.
Unlike Emily D. West, African-American women who have garnered places in African-American history and folklore have done so because of their money, moral strength, or sexual promiscuity, not because of their sexual victimization. Indeed, keepers of American history and culture have not generally recognized that black women could be victimized sexually. Cultural myths developing out of slavery made it imperative that black women be portrayed as almost bestial in their sexuality, as always the offenders in sexual contacts between white males and black females. If black women were not so promiscuous, so this skewed logic went, why would these good southern plantation owners want to sleep with them? And if they did not possess some ungodly sexual power over men, why would these men desert the beds of their wives for lowly shack mattresses where black women lay?
Black women who escaped such categorization, who were outside the purview of the sexual myths, fell into others. Mammies, obviously a contrast to the promiscuous types, had to be stripped of sexuality in order to be made keepers of the manners and morals of white children. Seldom did the creators of cultural myths pause to think that the mammary glands which often fed those white children had to have sexuality embedded in them somewhere. Nonetheless, this compartmentalization of the black woman’s body and roles in slave society made it possible for the promiscuous and the virtuous to exist on the same plantation, but not in the same woman.
The black women who were not confined to slavery could carve out space for themselves in different directions, but these were not without stereotypical overtones. Mary Ellen (“Mammy”) Pleasant (1814–1904), for example, who was a civil rights pioneer and who inherited a fortune from her first husband in Boston before moving to San Francisco in 1849, where she bolstered that fortune through cooking, running a boarding house, lending money, and operating a procuring service for wealthy white men, had to be excused from womanhood in order to account for her successes. 5 By making her an honorary (white) man, her evaluators could live with the fact that she made money, owned property, assisted (allegedly) in paying for John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and generally transcended all efforts to relegate her to a category of violable black woman. In terms of how black women are ultimately [End Page 11] viewed in American society, however, Pleasant’s very successes worked against her. Historians, popular culturalists, and folklorists remember her strength, her money-making know-how, the financial power she wielded, her almost witch-like power over white men. They do not remember her as a beautiful black woman, or an attractive black woman, or even a marriageable black woman (though she was twice married, note the use of the asexual “Mammy” in reference to her). And they have certainly composed no songs about her. Indeed, her reputation was significantly tainted by her work of bringing together rich, older white married men and single young women in San Francisco. She might have been able to fulfill the American Dream, but she did it by sacrificing her claims to femininity and perhaps even by sacrificing her position in the factual realm of black female sisterhood. She transcends flesh and blood by being more frequently considered a constructed entity, an exceptional woman, rather than reflecting the more mundane reality of black women’s lives.
Pleasant’s contemporaneous position with Emily West makes her a natural point of comparison. However, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” is an ongoing song, so later portraits of exceptional black women would also be relevant for averaging into this equation of larger-than-life black female figures. Early 20th-century examples are “Pig Foot Mary” and Madame C.J. Walker. Lillian Harris Dean (1870–1929), who became known as “Pig Foot Mary,” migrated to New York from the Mississippi Delta. She amassed a fortune selling pigs’ feet, chitterlings, hog maws, and other southern delicacies to nostalgic African Americans on the city’s streets. Her success mirrored the spirit of the expansive era commonly called the Harlem Renaissance. Though she was well-known in her day, she has not yet risen to the level of ongoing, contemporary, popular myth or song.
Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker, commonly known as Madame C.J. Walker, was born in Louisiana in 1867 and died in New York in 1919. She has been immortalized as the black woman who taught other black women how to care for their African hair in an America not geared toward their beauty interests. By inventing the straightening comb, along with the hair care products that would make its use effective, Madame Walker became a millionaire. Known in black communities throughout the United States, she was perhaps as much a phenomenon as Booker T. Washington. She freed black women from such problems as lice infecting their hair, but her intended helpful improvements inadvertently led to black women imitating the hair styles of white women. Straightening hair thus developed cultural in addition to grooming implications. Like Washington in his bid to get black people to learn trades and thus perhaps further enslave them to whites, Madame Walker’s freeing of black women from hair problems created issues related to the lack of racial identification and racial pride.
Madame Walker’s name was certainly a household name in black communities in the early part of the 20th century. While there were many whites involved in her operations, they were not as consistently aware of her reputation as were African Americans. In its personalized nature, however, her historical role, like Pig Foot Mary’s, contrasts to those of West and Pleasant, both of whom are tied to events of major American historical consequence. It is noteworthy that, although Pleasant shares overtones of sexual transgression with West, hers is viewed negatively but [End Page 12] West’s is viewed positively; national interest elevates one, diminishes the other. While Madame Walker has references in any number of historical and literary texts, and while the daughter who spent up her money spread her mother’s name even farther, Walker has not earned a song or, to my knowledge, a poem in her honor. Her granddaughter recently published a biography of her, but such endeavors usually attract scholars rather than listeners to folksongs. 6
Within the small and select group of African-American women with whom she shares a substantial historical reputation, therefore, Emily D. West is an anomaly. She is also an anomaly among black women depicted in various African-American folk sources. Usually, such women are objects to be won in courting contests, misguided church sisters, crude competitors in fornication rituals, or otherwise window-dressing to the exploits of men. While historical blues singers, such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, along with women who appear in blues songs, may at times—with their smoking, drinking, cursing, and lovemaking—provide a striking contrast to the church women, the overall folk and historical patterns maintain black women in subordinated relationships to men (the primary theme of blues music, after all, is the lamentation of the loved one whose lover has deserted her). Rarely do black female characters appear sufficiently in folktales or other venues to warrant attention focusing on them overly long. Their claims to (brief) legendary status come primarily from their affiliation with legendary male figures. John Henry’s lover, for example, who is variously named Julie Ann or Polly Ann, among others, might be a strong woman who finds her way to his death site and eventually “drives steel like a man,” but she does not succeed in earning a ballad in her own right. She exists in John Henry’s space, in the aftermath of his exploits. Because her three seconds of fame come on the trail of what he has already accomplished, she does not carve out new territory for herself, does nothing to shift the pattern of legend from him to her. What she does merely highlights his achievement and his legacy. 7
At least Polly Ann has a name that transmitters of the folklore can remember. Most black female characters who appear in toasts or tales with legendary black male characters do not have even that measure of distinction. Stagolee might pause long enough after his infamous shooting of Billy to have sex with a woman, but she is never named. She is the vehicle through which toast tellers highlight his sexual prowess; her value does not extend beyond that exclamation point (Abrahams 137). Black women in fornication contests and “freaks balls” occasionally get named—frequently for the sake of making poetic lines rhyme—but the circumstances are not such that they or their creators would probably want to recall in an aboveboard, altruistic way. Church sisters in African-American folk tradition spend their time cooking for or sexually servicing preachers and deacons, arguing about which denomination is preferable, or carrying out the business of their churches. Even those who achieve what would otherwise be considered legendary feats, such as being temporarily placed in hell when heaven is somehow overfilled and managing to raise enough money to put air conditioning in that overheated place, do not get their names lit up in toast, ballad, or folktale tradition.
A rare exception is Aunt Nancy (or Aunt Dicy) in the sequence that African-American folklorist J. Mason Brewer collected in Texas. Aunt Nancy manages to [End Page 13] perform a number of actions that win approval from the tellers of her tales. The singularity of her achievements becomes quickly compromised, however, when we know that her name is generally believed to be a corruption of “Anansi,” as in the African—usually male—trickster. Aunt Nancy’s exploits, then, are overshadowed by the masculine tradition that may have accidentally spawned her, emphasizing yet another way in which female potential in African-American folk tradition is subverted. For the tellers who were unaware of this problem in historical origins, however, perhaps Aunt Nancy was just as heroic as John Henry—or nearly so. Her name and her exploits make her one of the few named rarities in lore in which African-American women appear.
Too frequently taken to be undistinguished parts of the folkloristic landscape, black women (and females in the animal tales) have not been particularly valued in African-American folk tradition. The stereotypes about them within the lore (promiscuous, loud and demanding) have sometimes paralleled the stereotypes about them in society. Such stereotypes have not allowed for the elevation of black women to positions of reverence, and certainly tale-tellers have not put them on a pedestal. A search through African-American folklore reveals that few black women have been painted as desirable and sexually healthy persons. One little known strand of the lore has vestiges of viewing black women in the way that Emily D. West came to be viewed in “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” I refer to 19th-century courtship rituals during slavery and Reconstruction. These rituals suggest the black women to whom they were addressed were viewed as special females indeed. Documented in sources such as the Southern Workman, a journal published at historically black Hampton Institute, these rituals are brief exchanges in which a man ascertained, through double entendre meanings, whether or not a woman was free for him to pursue and, later, whether or not she would consent to give him her hand in marriage.
20th-century readers of African-American folklore perhaps know the pattern best from Robert Hemenway’s study of the works of Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston depicts a scene in which a black man asks a woman, “Is you a flying lark or a setting dove?” Her answer, to indicate whether she is single or married, would signal to him that he could proceed with his courtship. If she turned out to be a “setting dove,” then he would have to desist (Hemenway 154–56; Banks and Smiley 251–57). These short rituals, therefore, indicate a willingness to let the woman choose, not to force her into a liaison—a very important distinction during slavery. Similarly, if the relationship proceeded to the point of proposing marriage, the man could ask, “Kin I join my fence to your plantation?” Now, 20th-century readers might balk at the poetry, but the question and its existence are perhaps more important than the language; they clearly record a strand in American history when black men pursued black women in dramatically different ways from those usually depicted in the lore or in popular representations.
I like to read “The Yellow Rose of Texas” as presaging that strand of African-American folklore. I like to think that the composer of the song so revered the woman he compared to a rose that his choice of expressing her beauty through nature elevated her to a position of value that has few comparative patterns. We cannot say, “the song about Emily’s value is like . . . ,” because there is no immediately comparable “like.” [End Page 14] What we can say is that the separation, the pain this composer felt, led him to create a song about a beautiful woman, one who became the center of his existence as well as his creativity. The fact that she was “yellow” (mulatto) was less important to him than the human longings that are the essence of love.
How he viewed her as woman, lover, universal human partner, however, is obviously not how she or the legacy she left came to be used in American history or folklore studies. Her name has certainly served the tourist trade in San Antonio. Her presence or not at The Battle of San Jacinto has engaged many lively minds. But I want to focus on her body and how it has been used historically and popularly. I would argue that Emily D. West’s body has been exploited in at least three different ways. Historians, folklorists, and people of general interest have used the “body” of the song about her to shape Texas and American history. They have also used her corporeal body to build a sense of unity and shared experience where there was previously animosity and distrust. And they have decentered a formerly centered body, transformed context, and created a legend about a legend—that Emily’s primary concern was the welfare of Texas instead of her own. Ultimately, Emily D. West has become the mammy figure on which Texas has nurtured its image of conquering hero in the Mexican war; she has thereby, for all her legendary qualities, slipped back into the traditional role that black women in America have been expected to play—nurturing white folks into a healthy image of themselves.
It is no new revelation that poems are frequently viewed as having or being “bodies.” This separate entity, these lyrics, this poem called “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” contextualized less for its love story than its historical value, has blotted out and overwritten the body about which it was created. Singers of the song and commentators on it are less concerned about the reality of a black woman and the minutiae of the pain she experienced in being effectively “owned” and brutally raped than they are about the moment of triumph, the moment at which Santa Anna’s attention was less focused on his warring campaign against Texas and what that enabled Sam Houston to accomplish. The poem allows readers and hearers to elide history, to ignore crucial parts of the story in a selective recall of the circumstances that led to the creation of the song. In this consideration, the part West played in a successful military campaign effectively erases her from the most significant parts of her own life. The irony is obvious: a black woman gains fame only because she is exploited, but the price of that fame disallows her exploitation.
In being transformed into a state icon, West loses the individuality of a personal life, but not the individuality of a symbol. Her name, the song, and the circumstances of Texan triumph become emblems of the best the American frontier had to offer. How could the heathens from south of the border possibly overcome righteous Americans, ones who, though initially defeated, came back in one of those great triumphs of the underdog over stronger adversaries? In this script, West is subsumed under the great American concept of Manifest Destiny—with a slight detour southward—that did not allow for fissures in the sometimes fragile pot of nationalism. The history and the song suggest that in the killing frontier, where trueblooded Americans were always subject to attack by some ungodly force, these Americans lived up to the best of their inheritance from back east; they fought, some of them died, but they ultimately [End Page 15] triumphed over the forces of evil and repression. The body of the poem stands as a testament to these patterns, these issues, these triumphs.
West’s physical body, subject to exploitation as readily as those black persons who were legally enslaved, serves in this legendary capacity to elide the brutality to which black female bodies were potentially victim. There is a clash between the ideal (romanticized Texas history) and the real (a black woman being raped during the process of history-making events). By elevating West’s role in the capture of Santa Anna, by making her seem a voluntary participant in the sequence of events, commentators and appreciators of the tale and the song could effectively deny slavery—or certainly deny black women’s exploitation during slavery (since technically West was not an enslaved person). More specifically, they deny the brutal fact of rape, which West experienced not only from Santa Anna, but from a Texas soldier as well. Territorial and national unity implied in the events behind the song does not allow for the fact that black people were treated as badly, in this instance, by the Texans as they were by the Mexicans. The song becomes a pretty site, a pretty body, on which troubling issues about war, slavery, and sexual exploitation can be overlooked in the praise for a beautiful woman who evoked images of a yellow rose. The body of the poem does not encourage readers and listeners to contemplate the body of the woman, thus ensuring a version of the romanticized, universal history that informs most national tales of expansion and conquest.
By suggesting that West’s primary concern was the acquisition of Texas from the Mexicans, commentators on the song have separated her body from itself. That this woman, a black indentured servant who knew little about politics and whose lover had recently been separated from her, should have been thinking about the fate of Texas immediately after Santa Anna had raped her is remarkably absurd. “Deny the pain and humiliation, Emily. Think freedom for Texas. Here comes the cavalry in the form of Sam Houston’s soldiers. You’ve done a wonderful job.” Somehow this little scenario does not quite seem to work. Glossing over the pain of rape to focus on the so-called beauty of freedom—that is the gap over which West’s body transformed Texan territorialists into American nationalists.
Arguably, the exploitation of West continues in yet another direction. The recently raped yet desexualized body, as the site for emphasizing nationalistic ideals, is plucked from being the yellow beauty and transformed into being the black mammy. In essence, the legendary West, at the moment captured in the incidents behind the song, nurtures Texas into a sense of its own potential as a free territory. She is thereby little different from the black women throughout their period of enslavement who sacrificed their bodies, their health, their creative potential to the needs, desires, and wants of the whites who claimed to own them. The yellow rose is a giving figure; not only does she give up her lover, but she gives up her pain, her racial history, and her indenture to the nationalistic cause.
Clearly West assists in nurturing the image of Texas into being. More important, as implied in earlier statements, she assists in nurturing a collective, universal, nationalistic history. In this reading, she makes a sacrifice in a “war” as assuredly as any other “soldier” would. Whereas other soldiers may have given arms, legs, eyes, or lives, she gives up the significance of her identity as a black woman in the larger [End Page 16] objective of salving the wounds of a society assaulted from without. It would be treasonous, therefore, for an Emily D. West to focus on self when the territory and national interests called for great sacrifices from everyone during the period of the Mexican war. It would be similarly “treasonous” for post Mexican war and 20th-century commentators on the song to focus on the value of an individual black woman in the face of the greater call for emphasis upon issues that historically have been larger than single lives.
Prior to the appearance of the novel about “the yellow rose,” at least one critic joined in the exploitation of West’s body. In an article published in 1972, R. Henderson Shuffler is almost pornographic in the suggestive overtones he uses to trace West’s role in the events with which she is now linked (121–30). He—humorously to his mind—draws upon stereotypes about black female sexuality as he paints West hotly waiting for the interlude with Santa Anna. He presumes that his audience shares the same conceptions of black women’s bodies and places in history that he holds, and he is not hesitant in putting forth his ideas. In his account, West begins with “questionable virtue.” He describes her involvement with Santa Anna as “turning a trick” during which she went “into action in no other uniform than her satin-smooth beige birthday suit.” He reports that her contemporaries considered her “beguiling and built like nobody’s business,” that “her deliberately provocative amble down the street on a hot afternoon was probably the most exciting event in town, for the male population, at least,” and that “it is quite likely that Emily was both flattered and intrigued by her sudden rise to recumbent eminence.” He further asserts that she was “a gal on the make” who took Santa Anna “for a ride” in the sexual blues sense of that phrase.
For Shuffler, West is a joke upon whom he can hang all the sexual baggage he carries about black female bodies—black women are promiscuous, always on the make, and can thus never be raped. Shuffler assigns responsibility to West for her own victimization; thus he joins others who have used her body to their own ends. He concludes his relation of the Santa Anna/Emily West story by asserting that a band of Texans was forming to honor West by planting “a small patch of pussywillow, encircling a garden of yellow roses. And in the center, a modest stone, on which will be engraved this legend: In Honor of Emily / Who Gave Her All for Texas / Piece by Piece.” Shuffler’s aggressive and dangerously playful phallicism and his reduction of West’s body and sexuality to the colloquial “piece” illustrate the confidence with which he controls his presentation of the black female image. In Shuffler’s rendition, the black woman becomes her sexualized body, exploitable not only by Santa Anna but now symbolically raped again in an account that Shuffler obviously intended would bring smiles if not uproarious laughter from all who read his article. The legendary black female body can thus be “screwed,” kept it in its “proper place,” through the ongoing imaginations of this “hardy band” and all their allies.
Anita Bunkley’s effort to resurrect the emotional essence of West’s body in Emily, The Yellow Rose of Texas, her relationship to Joshua Kinney (the “J.K.” of the song’s original composition), works to accomplish that objective as it also simultaneously and inadvertently plays into the exploitation theme. Bunkley sacrifices West’s body to multiple rapes before she redeems it for the historically unrealized romance of the [End Page 17] lovers finally ending up together. Bunkley must romanticize history and legend in order to romanticize romance. She allows West to suffer in order to redeem the tale that should have occurred. Her graphic depictions of rain and mud in Texas, of black workers trying to elevate sleeping spaces to escape standing water, and of ragtag and ruffian soldiers who make unpleasant demands of West and others, serve as the moral imperative against which the tale should have a happy ending. So too does the rape of West by a Texas soldier, an attempted second rape by the same soldier, and the rape at the hands of Santa Anna. Weather, landscape, and physical abuses combine to paint a picture of a woman without protection beyond her wits (which can fail her) and whose lover, by law, custom, and circumstance, cannot consistently rescue her. When he does—by killing the white captain who rapes West on one occasion and tries to rape her again—it makes them both potential fugitives. Bunkley then uses the Santa Anna plot to effect an escape for Joshua and his reunion with Emily. The events as presented historically, therefore, give way to poetic license as a romantic, strikingly improbable ending becomes the vehicle to transform tragic events and a potentially tragic future into a heartwarming love story.
Ultimately, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” is a fascinating study in elision, erasure, and transformation. The song, its subject, its history, and its creator have all been used. Obviously there are good uses and bad uses to which any work of art, any historical event, can be put. Add to these usual patterns the fact of folklore and legend, and the uses become even more expansive. Where all of this ends, however, is with the exploitation of the creator of the song. He who created the yellow rose is more lost to us than the subject about which he sang. Yet it is because of this black man’s song that researchers have been able to uncover as much as they have about Emily D. West. We have all, collectively, “taken his song and gone”—far beyond the pleasure of appreciating it, far beyond the popular interest in transmitting it. Folklorists, historians, and scholars have made the song as much a legend as its subject, have made the events surrounding the composition of it as much an issue of erasure of composer as erasure of Emily D. West.
Trudier Harris is J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of English at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She is author of Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals, From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature, Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin, Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison, and The Power of the Porch: The Storyteller’s Craft in Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, and Randall Kenan. She is also an editor of several anthologies and references sources, including The Oxford Companion to African American Literature and Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Currently she is a fellow at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina.
In the completion of this work, I am particularly grateful to Dr. Betty Taylor-Thompson of Texas Southern University for forwarding copies of sources to me that I could not readily obtain in Atlanta.
* Reprinted by permission of the author and publisher from “The Yellow Rose of Texas: A Different Cultural View” by Trudier Harris, Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore (Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, No. LIV, 1996).
1. Martha Anne Turner has completed several works about the legend. See, for example, “‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’: The Story of a Song,” Southwestern Studies, Monograph No. 31 (University of Texas at El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1971): 3–19; and The Yellow Rose of Texas: Her Saga and Her Song (Austin: Shoal Creek Publishers, 1976). Anita Bunkley, Emily, The Yellow Rose (Houston: Rinard Publishing, 1989).
2. Having traveled to Texas under her own name, Emily D. West, West’s name was changed to Morgan to coincide with the southern practice of indentured and enslaved persons using the last name of the person on whose property they worked. Turner skirts this issue by declaring that West “adopted the name of her master and benefactor in conformity with nineteenth-century custom” (Turner, Saga 6), an assertion that, if true, would have given West an unprecedented agency in the matter.
3. For a summary of varying historical views, see Bob Tutt, “The Yellow Rose: Was She Really a Heroine, or was it all Historical Humbug?” Houston Chronicle (21 April 1984): 1, 12.
4. Bunkley quotes the song in Emily, The Yellow Rose, p. iv. The version she uses is the one that Turner identifies as the original, manuscript version mailed to an E.A. Jones in the months after The Battle of San Jacinto, probably between 1836 and 1838 (Turner, Saga 46–47). Turner traces the transformation of the song and its lyrics from its composition into the 1950s. It was a marching song during the Civil War (music with different lyrics), a popular song in the early 20th century, a slightly altered composition that earned well known composer David W. Guion praises from President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1936; deracialized lyrics), and served as a hit Mitch Miller rendition in the 1950s.
5. For an account of Mammy Pleasant’s life and activities, see Helena Woodard, “Mary Ellen Pleasant,” in Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (Detroit: Gale, 1992), 858–62.
6. See A’Lelia Bundles, Madam C.J. Walker (Chelsea House Black Americans of Achievement Series, 1991). For a recent inclusion of Walker in a work that treats African-American women from all parts of culture and society, see Joan Curl Elliott, “Madame C.J. Walker,” in Notable Black American Women, ed. Smith (1184–88).
7. For a representative discussion of the legend of John Henry, see Richard M. Dorson, “The Career of John Henry,” in Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore (1973; rpt. University of Mississippi Press, 1990), 568–77.