Bessie Woodson Yancey, African-American Poet and Social Critic

By Smith, Katharine Capshaw | Appalachian Heritage, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Bessie Woodson Yancey, African-American Poet and Social Critic


Smith, Katharine Capshaw, Appalachian Heritage


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.
   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
   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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Bessie Woodson Yancey, African-American Poet and Social Critic
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.