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  • "'In the Wake' of the 'Quake:Mary Ellen Pleasant's Diasporic Hauntings"
  • Meina Yates-Richard (bio)

"She was a friend of John Brown." San Francisco businesswoman Mary Ellen Pleasant's requested tombstone epitaph constitutes a challenge to American historical memory, staking her claim that she played a significant role in combatting chattel slavery. Pleasant thereby constructs her Napa Valley grave as a both site of memory through which she renegotiated the story of her past and what Toni Morrison names a "remain," or residual evidence, for future generations to interpret.1 Her declarative act anticipates her marginalization in the annals of the American West. Most accounts concur that Pleasant was a successful black woman who resided in San Francisco from the mid-nineteenth century until her death in 1904 and that she was a servant in Nantucket, Massachusetts, during her childhood.2 Conflicting histories attest that Pleasant was either born enslaved on a plantation in Georgia, Virginia, or Louisiana and raised in part on a plantation, or free in Philadelphia prior to her indenture in Nantucket. She was reputed to be the daughter of a slaveholder and a "Haitian voodoo queen," and self-reported as the daughter of a "native Kanaka [Hawaiian] and . . . a full-blooded Louisiana negress." Although the record bears that she married twice and inherited wealth estimated anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 upon her first husband's death, even these men's identities prove ripe for contest.3 Pleasant's story exemplifies the ways in which "African American women's history is riddled with silences," a paradigm that she manipulated to her benefit—making and remaking herself as she left an imprint upon the American West.4 Lynn Hudson notes, "Pleasant . . . was extremely savvy about history, the press, and self-presentation."5 Pleasant's occlusions of her racial identity and [End Page 37] origins, in tandem with deeply ingrained prejudices and shifting public sentiments, obscure her from broad historical view. Noted historian Quintard Taylor suggests that Pleasant "generated a contradictory persona that contributed to the confusion surrounding her life," while Susheel Bibbs contends that she "tailored different memoirs . . . to counteract the gossip and criticism leveled against her in the press."6

Infamously named a "voodoo queen," a madam, a witch, and a mammy, Pleasant occupies a contested space in frontier mythology. At once known through her association with wealthy pioneers and various scandals and a figure shrouded in mystery, Pleasant symbolizes black women's success, as well as the vicissitudes of fortune seeking while black and female in the urban West. Complex modes of remembrance and disremembrance shape Pleasant's historical legacy in the twenty-first century, pointing us toward the West anew in order to glimpse her hidden in plain sight. While many people have never heard of her, beneath the surface of the purely academic one finds a wealth of cultural productions featuring Pleasant from the 1920s forward.7 From Helen Holdredge's Mammy Pleasant series to Karen Fowler's Sister Noon (2002), some works rehash rumors about Pleasant and wealthy San Franciscans, while others foreground her accomplishments and her life's complexity.8 From Bibbs's rich body of work on Pleasant to Michelle Cliff's Free Enterprise (1993), Denise Nicholas's Buses (1988), to Comedy Central's Drunk History 2013 feature, nuanced reconsiderations of Pleasant's life abound.9 Just as during her lifetime, Pleasant remains seemingly ubiquitous while resisting a place within any single category. Known and unknown, she remains, in effect, a haunting.

Pleasant's location and dislocation within San Francisco's landscape proves a site of cartographical struggle—one in which she was discursively mapped through the tropes of "mammydom" and voodoo. Simultaneously, Pleasant, in Katherine McKittrick's terms, "create[d] more humanly workable" geographies for blacks in the burgeoning frontier city through her civil rights and antislavery activism, public transit lawsuits, and creating employment opportunities for black workers.10 Pleasant's story provides a unique opportunity to, in Taylor's words, "pursue the challenge of linking cities and Negroes in determining the region's character," as well as "remind us that 'multiple' Wests existed side by side."11 While known primarily as an urban frontier figure, Pleasant...


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