Kalisha Buckhanon
Mar 2, 2015 · 29 min read

“…myth has in fact a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.”- Roland Barthes

MARY ELLEN: I don’t want to rest!!

ROSA: What DO you want then?

MARY ELLEN: I want what you have. A sacred place in history!

ROSA: You are crazy!

MARY ELLEN: Nothing wrong with wanting it and you sure knew how to get it.

ROSA: You’ve got it wrong. I never went after anything of the sort. I never even thought about it. A sacred place? That sounds ridiculous! No one has a sacred place in history.

-from the play Buses by Denise Nicholas

In her 1988 play Buses[1], playwright Denise Nicholas reinvents a black female speculator within a genre of speculative fictions — the dream play. At the outset 19th century self-made millionaire, rebel abolitionist, and tabloid media mainstay Mary Ellen Pleasant[2] appears suddenly, long after or perhaps before her 1904 death in California, at a mythical American bus-stop where 20th century African-American Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks awaits the fateful bus from which she will be ejected for refusing to surrender her seat to a white rider.

Following the two women’s initial shocking confrontation of the other (for each believes herself to be in her appropriate city and year), the play becomes an extended, interweaving dialogue in which Nicholas imagines Pleasant to be incensed about remaining unremembered and unrecognized in African-American historiography. The narrative folds out as a thematic maze bolted together by each woman’s significant discrimination by the public transportation systems of their respective cities, subsequently affecting monumental changes in the law[3].

While Pleasant’s motivation to appear suddenly at a bus stop on which she does not belong is to be heard in a temporal space where she speaks for herself and is not subject to ventriloquists[4], Parks wishes to free her persona from the historical box in which she sits; Pleasant’s character continuously explains away the “crimes” of which she was accused in her lifetime, while Parks pleads for consideration of “what came before the bus [and] what came after.”[5]

Buses is significant because it dramatizes the extent to which historical codes by which black women have been read must be dissolved before these women can be fully realized by modern and postmodern audiences as filled subjects worthy of continued remembrance, and how speculative and mythical literary forms seek to compensate for the historical gaps produced by that past’s dissipation. In imagining Pleasant with an historical friend and foe in Parks, and“talking through” the historical trial by fire inflicted upon her by yellow journalism and the law, through speculative fiction Nicholas grants “Mammy Pleasant” the opportunity to testify again for postmodern audiences.

To be sure, Buses is a work of dramatic fiction, with its attendant theatrics and histrionic dialogue. The dramatic form lends itself to the structure of debate which most adequately characterizes the nature of the conversation to be had in the play. Nicholas culls from a myriad of rumors, myths, historical data and actual quotes from newspaper headlines in order to imagine the debate to be enacted by Parks and Pleasant. Nicholas’s conjectural dialogue grants readers and audiences an abundance of opportunities to consider the fluid, subjective and conditional disposition of the historiography with which they may have been previously indoctrinated. In one particularly fecund scene, the figure of Parks laments the inattention given to aspects of her life which extend beyond the singular moment in which she refused to relinquish her bus seat after a particularly long and challenging workday. Before a dramatic soliloquy to eulogize her turbulent youth in the Jim Crow South, Nicholas writes Parks proclamations:

“I’m here to tell you that unless I talked about that day on the bus, nobody cared what was in my mind. Nobody asked me what came before the bus or what came after. As if on that day, December 1, 1955, everything else in my heart just stopped.”[6]

Pleasant’s flat response to Parks’ enormous remembrances is: “I spend my whole life making history and you spent one day. Half the world knows you and I’m not even a memory!”[7] The unpredictable and consummate totality of history, as opposed to its fragmentation by events, is the ground upon which Nicholas argues we should reconsider Pleasant’s slighted biography.

The figure of Mary Ellen Pleasant is a challenging one for scholars, biographers, and would-be fictionalizers because of the lack of extant documents from which to trace verifiable details of her remarkable life. The grave paradox bogging her current revival in American historical scholarship is that were it not for the diary writings of women with which she had contentious relationships and tabloidish newspaper coverage of Pleasant in late 19th century San Francisco, almost no materials would exist with which to understand the reverberations of Pleasant’s remarkable life.[8] Several milieus of cultural and historical significance surround her, but she has not been championed, critically pursued, or inserted into black historiography. Sadly, in one of the most comprehensive looks at black Westerners and the California Gold Rush, Pleasant is granted only one page.

Biographer Lynn Hudson, whose 2003 book The Making of “Mammy Pleasant” is the first to give an official account of Pleasant’s life, offers the most comprehensive explanation for Pleasant’s ousting from African-American historiography. She prefaces her account of Pleasant’s life by surmising, at the outset, that:

With few exceptions, historians have paid little attention to the sources that are available to tell Pleasant’s story. This is probably because of the difficulty of fitting her into recognizable categories of the black subject or the heroine. Pleasant’s entrepreneurial efforts were hardly selfless, and her relationships with other African-Americans were self-serving. Her record as an abolitionist warrant mention in the annals of freedom fighters, but recording this legacy with the less heroic aspects of her life has proved difficult. Pleasant’s reputation as a mammy and a madam renders her a risky subject for those hoping to position her in the panoply of unsung black leaders.[9]

This lack of a clear historical register in which to place and understand Pleasant, in addition to the sexual undercurrents involved in her sensationalist legacy, are scars of shame in comparison to the pristine nimbus of Parks and other popular cultural representations of the “Good Negress.” Just two years before Rosa Parks would ascend to the national radar for her courageous standoff with a racist white bus-driver, the first book-length work devoted to Mary Ellen Pleasant premiered. This work cast Pleasant as a transient voodoo practitioner, baby-stealer, thief, manipulator and sorceress who wove spells in order to amass her incredible fortune[10].

In later chapters of The Making of “Mammy Pleasant”, Hudson explores Pleasant’s upbringing among a Nantucket, MA, Quaker society and her puzzling encounters with New Orleans Voodoo “founder” Marie LaVeaux. Like Pleasant, Marie LaVeaux was a 19th century black female figure who staked out a place for herself in cultural realms in which black women’s lives have not been widely documented, acknowledged or historically validated.

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Maria Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans

Furthermore like Pleasant, LaVeaux’s influence granted her a sacred place in history and study today largely because of the media headlines she leaves behind. [11] Most recently, actress Angela Bassett brought her back to life on the Netflix Original Series “American Horror Story,” a wildly popular series sadly modernizing voodoo as a bizarre, insane black magic for new audiences. One surviving San Francisco Chronicle monograph concerning Pleasant’s mysterious fortune and business dealings blasts the front-page headline “The Queen of the Voodoos.”[12] Although consummate public intellectual and Black spokesperson W.E.B. DuBois attempted to remind the early twentieth-century public of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s stake in the black historical narrative[13], the predominant model of black female womanhood in modern popular culture has extolled a structure of respectability contingent upon emulation of white female standards of purity; Christianity, sexual modesty and physical restraint with bodily expressions were hallmarks of this model which the remnants of Pleasant’s biography starkly contrast.

Parks, a quintessential African-American symbol of heroism, is one whose standing among elite Montgomery, AL, Baptist religious circles can not be negated when considering the collective frenzy and mass mobilization which followed her arrest.[14] Pleasant’s disassociation from a traditional African-American religious denomination and association with not one, but two, counterculture spiritual sects problematizes her presentation to modern audiences accustomed to the marriage of African-American heroism (as exemplified by such luminaries as Parks, Harriette Tubman, Ida Wells Barnett, Sojourner Truth and Coretta Scott King) with the carrying out of recognizable Christian ideals. Nicholas thematizes this quandary in which traditional African-American Christian rhetoric renders Parks recognizable as a sign of black uplift and female respectability by writing Parks as dependent upon a Bible which she carries and often quotes from memory throughout the play.

Under Barthes paradigm of myth, Nicholas is not content with simply presenting the facts of these women’s lives; she wants to “define them and explore them as tokens for something else.”[15] Nicholas is a black female author speaking for her historical subjects, supplying significance to her characters, with an impressive grip on the imagined voices of both women and the foresight to make them legible for her intended audience. Thus, the Bible functions in the play as a sign weighted down by and full with meaning of Nicholas’s indictment of history; sanctification and purity through daily engagement with the Christian Bible and its tenets singularizes Parks as the ideal modern Black female heroine and Pleasant as the outcasted anomaly. She writes Parks as excessively clinging to her Bible and refuting Pleasant’s words with direct scripture and Biblical quotes, postulating the significance of religious obedience as a shield against historical dismissal and erasure. Though both women rebelliously challenged the law in their respective ways, in Parks’ case swift intervention by local African-American ministers and political leaders thwarted Parks’ inevitable trying and incarceration.

Without such backing by an institution such as the Black church, it can be argued that legal contestations and court trials silenced and convicted Pleasant in her respective historical moment. Even with the fact of successfully winning a suit against the city of San Francisco for a similar infraction (Pleasant was both passed up by and thrown off of a San Francisco trolley, separate incidents for which she singularly sued), the added layer of courtroom drama after civic disobedience on racialized terms was not salient enough to redeem Pleasant from her vat of negative depictions. However, transcripts of those court trials are being excavated today to not only give her voice, but exonerate her from chronic historical defamation. Supreme and Appellate Court Records, held in the California State Archives of Sacramento, are a primary resource from which scholars and authors have drawn upon in piecing together her story and verifying her substantial role in influencing race relations in America. Where Pleasant’s re-invention intersects, indeed what it has in common with several other American female historical torchbearers, is that it falls within the realms of authoritative noncompliance, subsequent persecution and future vindication made possible by modern reconsideration of her “crimes.”

This lineage of trial victimization- of American women’s task of defending their philosophies, theologies and beliefs in court rooms severely hostile to their subjugated truths (on gender and racial terms)- is one in which Pleasant is a most necessary addition. Little evidence exists to support the claims that Mary Ellen Pleasant was a key participant in John Brown’s uprising as mythical lore maintains, however, her participation in America’s courtrooms beyond serving as a plaintiff is verifiable by extensive court records originating from them. In a separate article devoted to exploring Mary Ellen Pleasant’s late 19th century involvement in scandalous trials in more depth, biographer Lynn Hudson devotes a considerable amount of time constructing an alternative portrait of Pleasant than the one San Franscisco newspapers cemented in the public imagination 18 years after Pleasant sparked a precedent-setting civil rights decision in the California Supreme Court. In 1884 Pleasant served as the key witness in a marriage and alimony suit centering upon William Sharon, a wealthy nineteenth-century San Franscisco businessman, and a young wanderer named Sarah Hill. Throughout the trial, Pleasant was positioned as a “Mammy” to Sarah, and one who used her considerable wealth to both sustain Sarah and insert her into an illicit web of sexual favors from which Pleasant was accused of drawing her primary revenue. Hudson concludes:

Whether or not men paid for sex in her boardinghouses, however, is less important than the way sex became so central to Pleasant’s legacy. The legend of Pleasant as a black madam serves to obscure the most prominent aspect of her career: entrepreneurial activity that absorbed profits from miners, politicians, and bankers, and channeled them into her vast financial enterprise. The obfuscation of Pleasant’s entrepreneurial success has served different functions in different eras. Framing Pleasant as a madam may have limited her access to certain circles of the black elite, and it may have sullied her reputation among the state’s lawyers and judges.[16]

Even further, Hudson goes on to argue that the figure of the “Mammy” in the American consciousness of the time was so loaded with implications of power within the white domestic sphere that Pleasant’s inheritance of this title instantly marked her as an orchestrater of the decline of one white woman’s virtuous womanhood — a mark which certainly grated against contemporaneous politics of respectability for black women.

From Hudson’s documentation of the wealth of media headlines and sources devoting to dethroning this African-American entrepreneur and civil rights activist, in the context of a trial in which she was neither plaintiff nor defendant, hints at multifaceted nature of “trying” which must be considered when speaking specifically of women in American history. From Pleasant’s case we can understand how the subjugated role women often occupy in attendant power structures has rendered them exceedingly more vulnerable to public judgment and scorn.

Were it not for surviving court documents of the 1637 court trial and 1638 church trial of Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan minister’s wife whose counter-beliefs on Christianity and moral law led to charges of dissension in her Massachusetts Bay Colony, this relevant American female voice would remain relatively unheard by audiences despite her legacy as a shrewd theologian and spiritual leader.[18] Ultimately excommunicated from the colony by the religious patriarchs who did not condone her questioning of their predominant “Covenant of Works” externalization of religious salvation, Hutchinson is credited as being one of the first American women to carry out an act of dissension against the church or the state. Later religious figures such as Shaker religion matriarch Ann Lee and African-American evangelist Rebecca Cox-Jackson, a Shaker convert and expatriate of the socio-religious African Methodist Episcopal Zion church denomination, also enacted rebellion against the authoritative structures which prohibited their own personal theologies and philosophies from being embraced by larger collectives.[19]

Although Cox-Jackson was literate and thus able to handwrite her autobiographical memoirs and spiritual visions, her spiritual “Mother”[20] Lee was illiterate and thus largely only legible to modern audiences because of the recorded “testimonies” of her followers. Twentieth century African-American female figures such as writer Zora Neale Hurston, blues singer Billie Holiday and politically active philosopher Angela Davis can also be considered women who endured enormous public battles in America’s media and courtrooms.

Arguably, these icons of American female creativity and resistance owe their current biographical legends as much to their legal woes as to their creative, political and religious contributions. The fact these voices have endured, in spite of and in some cases because of structural persecution, is as much a testament to the public’s willingness to re-imagine these women outside of their historical contexts as it is to scholars’ enduring quest for and analyses of the narrative truths shielded in historical documents.

While it is arguable the above-mentioned women publicly or consciously challenged and resisted dominant codes of conduct and belief, at least one significant case of a woman on “trial” in American history underscores the fact that vindication in one’s time is no guarantee of acceptance later. Arguably, the African-American literary canon in which Pleasant is steadily finding herself inserted into began in a climate of contestation over the legitimacy of the intellectual abilities — the terrain upon which Pleasant’s literary crusaders seek to re-imagine her for audiences today by focusing on her entrepreneurial precedents and legal savvy.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. situates his meditation on poet Phyllis Wheatley’s fluctuating acceptance and legitimization as the mother of African-American literature and publication from the vantage point of her October 8, 1772, “trial” led by a committee of the founding fathers, and in which the contested validation of 20 of her poems as “literature” would determine whether she could be freed from slavery, accepted into mainstream society and consecrated as an artist.

In this meditation, entitled The Trials of Phyllis Wheatley, Gates argues how the battle hinged upon defining the existence of an African-American intellect in a century where African-Americans were still legally viewed as property and not human beings in the South; such forefathers as Thomas Jefferson argued that “Africans have human souls, [but] they merely lack the intellectual endowments of other races.”[21] Gates exposes Thomas Jefferson as using Wheatley’s literature to fuel a national dialogue about the inhumanity of African-Americans, contingent upon their possession of the intellectual ability to create “literature”. Ironically, one of Wheatley’s detractors at this meeting was then-governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson, a colonial historian and royal official who was a relative of Anne Hutchinson.[22]

With the 1773 publication of her book of poems, entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Wheatley became the first person of African descent to publish in the English language. Ultimately, Wheatley went on to become the toast of both America and England’s elite publishing circles and a mainstay in the African-American literary canon — a place that in recent years has been more challenged by African-American intellectuals than the racist founding fathers who initially tried her. Therefore, in her time she “won,” but her place in history has been secured less by her win and more by contestation of it.

Ironically, after she earned credibility for her work from America and England’s literary guardians, Wheatley was indicted by black public intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance and later Black Arts Movement players for her simplistic verse and subservient stances towards slavery. In grappling with Wheatley’s ousting and failure to achieve the status of a household name for African-Americans, Gates points to what he calls the “most reviled poem in African-American literature” [23] as explanation. He argues that the pro-slavery undertones in her short poem “On Being Brought From Africa to America” carry unfair weight in her biographical legend, thus muting the credibility she receives from African-Americans today. The poem begins with the incomprehensible (by modern audiences at least) assertion that “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land…Taught my benighted soul to understand that there’s a God.”

Gates asserts that without proper contextualization of the historical referent from which Wheatley wrote words which negated the horrors of slavery, understanding of such work was nearly impossible for later audiences. Shifts in the rhetoric of black political power and uplift which occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries did not include the compliant sentiments such as the ones Wheatley extolled, thus attempts to remove her from historical significance were enacted with harsh criticism of her work and negation of her significance. The initial trial of 1772 has been followed by an extended trial in the 19th and 20th centuries, only this time it is African-American artists and intellectuals debating the legitimacy of inclusion of Wheatley in African-American literary and historical oeuvre.

What Wheatley’s fluctuating historical persona reveals about a figure such as Pleasant is how the collective sentiments of a particular historical moment, with regards to the most effective uplift strategies, amputate personas from its historiography when they threaten to contradict that pre-dominant strategy for the current national imagination.

Denise Nicholas’s Buses seeks to imagine history as one in which erasure, eradication and excommunication are no longer possible. The often-confusing, disrupted and wayward structure of Buses is an extraordinary feat of narrative mimesis. In suspending, then jumbling, time and place to situate these two women in each other’s miraculous orbits, Nicholas constructs a tangential, stream-of consciousness-narrative which exploits a jarring truth of the historical continuum. A minute fraction of the elements of that continuum necessarily digress from the whole and somehow remain extant; they survive or drop off, linger or wither, concretize or disappear. Fittingly, Nicholas explores this paradox of collective historical consciousness by enabling the narrative moment within the dream consciousnesses of her subjects.

It is by suspending time and space for Parks and Pleasant, signaling the clear distinction between actual reality and the fictive possibilities the play presents for the audience, that Nicholas attempts to expose the contradictions inherent in an historical record which either frees or binds its most powerful and fragile voices. Buses is an example of how for postmodern audiences, the mythical approach to revealing the lived lives of historical Black female figures bound by the historical referent of unimaginable racism and held captive by the lack of extant evidence to document their actual words, thoughts and experiences necessitates speculative retelling, in which the idea of “making history” itself is indicted. The domains of myth, allegory and parable emerge as the genres in which black women writers and scholars seeking to recover a lived life such as Pleasant’s can make that life most legible for postmodern audiences, for such domains transcend actual historical fact and instead exalt chosen figures to an accepted status as symbols only, unverifiable by history but no less valuable to both history and the present.

In order to make Pleasant legible for modern audiences, indeed to seduce the audience into considering Pleasant’s historical legitimacy against such an indispensable and unimpeachable figure as Parks, it is necessary for Nicholas to free Pleasant from the framework of history in which she existed. Nicholas accomplishes this through her characters’ consistent voicing of their disorientations, thus reminding her audiences of the absurdity of such a meeting in the first place. The paradox of Parks and Pleasant meeting within the play is that in reality Parks was born in 1913, almost a decade after Pleasant’s death; Pleasant existed primarily during a previous century in which slavery had not yet been dismantled, and the violent and lawless structures of racism posed incessant dangerous and unchecked consequences to African-American attempts at rebellion. Parks is a visible and celebrated mainstay in the African-American civil rights uplift narrative; Pleasant, on the contrary, has only recently benefited from the attention of scholars interested in redeeming her besmirched name and appending her to an African-American narrative of uplift.

In reality, the name ‘Rosa Parks’ is so intertwined in America’s national imagination as a matriarchal symbol of the African-American “family’s” triumph over unimaginable struggle that she is often endearingly referred to as the “Mother” of the Civil Rights Movement. To be sure, Pleasant posthumously earned the title of “Mother of Civil Rights in California,” after recent efforts to revive the virtuous aspects of her legacy brought renewed interest in her role on desegregation laws in San Francisco.

However previously, the sole matriarchal moniker ascribed to Pleasant was that of “Mammy Pleasant” — and mammy bears the derogatory stain of both asexual aloofness and sexual impurity which prohibits its use as a triumphant autograph for a Black female historical figure.[24] Nicholas aims to obliterate any semblance of the historical framework which has precluded honoring and validating the lived life of Pleasant. Nicholas’s narrative momentarily conjoins Parks and Pleasant’s individual histories into a singular moment in which their significant commonalities to a collective African-American history can be explored.

Such historical de-contextualization of a lived life is a rebellious move towards presenting current audiences with the fact of Pleasant’s existence while removing the burdensome historicity ascribed to Pleasant through available sources which foreground the darker side of her myth, sources in which the associations with voodoo practices and sexual enterprises. Furthermore, Nicholas consecrates and legitimizes the realms of myth, speculation and the spiritual as appropriate recovery zones for such lost voices.

The grounds of spiritual and sexual purity are the primary touchstones upon which Nicholas chooses to interrogate the silencing of a black female voice in history. Other counterparts to the historical biography Pleasant offers certainly exist, though they hover in the realm of astronomical economic success (Madame C.J. Walker) and abolitionist work (Harriette Tubman). However, the specific conversation to be had in Buses is concerned with the vilification of black women on sexual and purity grounds. Although most closely associated with the 1954 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott which is credited with galvanizing the Black Civil Rights Movement into being, Parks had been an active player in a steadily-building Black Freedom movement before the rebellious bus incident for which she is most often noted. The underpinnings of her ascension to the masthead of the African-American Civil Rights account include dutiful service in key realms of black uplift institutions — educational, political, and religious.[25] Nicholas commands her readers and the audience to imagine the destruction of the framework of history which has so rigidly defined black female politics of respectability, decorum and spirituality in order to consider Pleasant as possessing a valid narrative.

Arguably, Nicholas also ventriloquizes Pleasant. However by placing her in opposition to Parks while allowing Parks to stand her ground and have say, Nicholas is able to balance and equalize their histories. Whenever the narrative pendulum swings too close to foregrounding Pleasant’s gripes, the figure of Parks is there to remind audiences that even the championed histories are not accurate. Thus, Nicholas’s self-conscious ventroloquizing of her subjects offers a fairer representation.

The lingering question is whether or not to situate Buses among new approaches to excavating black historical figures through the realms of speculative fictions, mythology or spiritual expressions — given the nature of imagination’s crucial role in reviving African-Americans’ lost stories and lives. The liberties Nicholas takes with time and space transcend the conventions of historical fiction, thus placement of this piece within that genre is not wholly accurate. What is at stake within that question is the degree to which black audiences, scholars, writers and excavators define themselves as working along the historical continuum or above it, transcending the bass-line of history in order to insert new understandings into it. African-American literary scholars such as Madhu Dubey have studied the ways in which speculative fictions are allowing the facts of the institution of slavery to flourish in postmodern imaginations and call attention to the shifting nature of racial identification, structures and persecutions over time.[26]

Because so much is lost concerning Pleasant, until more is discovered she may continue to anchor herself within dialogues of history and race through the speculative imaginings of those willing to posit the meanings within and behind her existence. Black female writers and scholars are utilizing access to publishing venues, digital media and the Internet to steadily create a postmodern counter-myth of Pleasant which circumvents her usual characterization as at once a wicked and subservient Mammy figure. Her popular cultural influence began in the 1920’s when she was resurrected by novelist Charles Caldwell Dobie and playwright John Willard (both White men who claimed to have encountered Pleasant as children) as a mammy character, resulting in the well-reviewed 1926 book Less than Kin and successful 1927 Broadway play Cat in the Canary (which went on to play in London and inspire a mildly-successful Hollywood silent film).[27] These works relied almost exclusively on the typecasting of Pleasant as not only an asexual, subservient “mammy,” but also the consummate trickster. In contrast, contemporary works consciously exploit Mary Ellen Pleasant’s sensationalist legend in order to mock not Pleasant, but the historical conditions which made her exploitation possible and enduring.

For example, politically resonant Caribbean writer Michelle Cliff remakes Pleasant in the young adult novel Free Enterprise: A Novel of Mary Ellen Pleasant (City Lights Books, 2004), and Pleasant’s self-assured intellect and business savvy in the face of enormous exploitation have a profound affect on a young girl who encounters her.

One of the most remarkable recastings of Pleasant’s life emerge from California historian and scholar Susheel Bibbs, who created a series of performances using the Native American myth and storytelling practice of the “Chautauqua” to attempt to educate modern audiences about Pleasant’s life. As the founder of “Mary Ellen Pleasant Productions”, Bibbs’ work as a crusader for Pleasant’s lost legacy was funded in part by the California Humanities Council. The format of the Chautauqua allows Bibbs (also a professional actress) to “channel” the spirit of Pleasant for audiences through song, dance and interactive storytelling.

Trailer for “Meet Mary Ellen Pleasant,” narrated by Ruby Dee: http://youtu.be/og76-bGPXEc

Bibbs is also the founder of a website devoted to mapping out known facts and key achievements of Pleasant’s life, though the site also suffers from a lack of primary source material. Though not publicly available, Bibbs lays claim to several pieces of correspondence written by Pleasant which she obtained from survivors of Pleasant’s associates.[28] She interpreted this correspondence as well as late 19th century newspaper articles to create the viewing exhibit and archive Meet Mary Pleasant at the African-American Museum and Library at Oakland, California, in 2003. In a coffee-table style book entitled Heritage of Power, she publishes monographs reprinting key newspaper articles in which Pleasant is quoted or discussed. However, Bibbs’ co-subject in Heritage of Power is famed New Orleans Voodoo founder Marie LaVeaux, a thematic co-pairing which continues to perpetuate the association of Pleasant with voodoo and séance ritual for modern audiences.

Her associations with spiritualism and the occult notwithstanding, Pleasant, anchored by several historical referents and documents but little actual narrative, becomes an ideal figure for the speculative mode. She has staked her place in the historical record less by virtue of biography and more by virtue of the myths she inspires. In Buses, Pleasant’s character is to exit the stage, turn back toward Parks, and in a crescendo of emotion yell: “I was supposed to be something special!” And with that last line, Nicholas hints at the ways in which, according to the framework of recollection of historical events which has come to characterize the African-American narrative of uplift and progress, Pleasant should most certainly occupy a place at the periphery if not the center. As the locus from which her narrative spins out, Buses imagines the degree to which the containers for African-American female consecration and public imaginings is located firmly in an historical outlook which postmodern audiences must get past.

Nicholas is clear to assert her non-judgmental stance towards Pleasant’s case, or even Parks, is one necessary for allowing the unreliability of history to remain the subject of her piece. In an interview about Buses, Nicholas proclaims:

“I didn’t want it to be a Black History Month lesson. It’s not school time here; it’s imagination time. It is about two historically real people and two historically real events — the two days that these two women were ejected from public transportation systems in their individual lifetimes; and from that moment it becomes a flight of fancy.”[29]

Her admission of fancy in dramatizing a life about which little is known is one which even Pleasant’s academic crusaders often recognize. Then, are our attempts at reclaiming her in the African-American historiography more subject to later dismissal? Quite possibly, yes.

Scholars who choose African-American women, and American women in general, as their objects of inquiry are met with unique challenges when deciphering the actual lived lives of these women and adapting them for new historical moments. Often, there are no actual words left behind, no photographs preserved, no memoirs published. Therefore, scholars who would venture into the territory of fragmented subjects must confess to and honor their roles as myth readers and mythmakers.

With being comfortable with and secure in our status as mythmakers and weavers comes the enormous task of indicating the nature of the myth in a legible form for new audiences. If one in which a black woman who was been shrouded in mystery, traced primarily though racist yellow journalism and a series of unfortunate incidents, is any clue to the task at hand, then it is clear that when and if new facts become available then we as mythmakers could one day be “tried” for our mistakes. These attempted re-tellings of lost women’s lives call for forgiveness on the part of the scholars and the audiences for which we write: forgiveness from audiences that scholars can not ever possibly possess all the facts, and forgiveness of the figures we scholars aim to represent even when we do.


Anderson, Lisa M. Mammies No More: The Changing Image of Blacks on Stage and Screen. New York: Bowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies (translated by Annette Lavers). New York: Hill and Wang, 1984

Bibbs, Susheel. Heritage of Power: Mary Ellen Pleasant and Marie LaVeaux. San Francisco: Mary Ellen Pleasant Productions, 1998

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film. New York: Viking, 1973.

Cliff, Michelle. Free Enterprise: A Novel of Mary Ellen Pleasant . New York: City Lights Books, August 2004

Davis, Sam P. “How a Colored Woman Aided John Brown,” Comfort Magazine, Nov. 1903, p.3

Dubey, Madhu. The Postmodern Slave Narratives of Octavia Butler (lecture presented at the University of Chicago, November 29, 2007)

DuBois, W.E.B. The Gifts of Black Folk. Boston: Stratford Company, 1924

Fraser, Isobel, “Mammy Pleasant, The Woman,” The San Francisco Call, December 29, 2001, p.2

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Trials of Phyllis Wheatley. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

Holdredge, Helen. Mammy Pleasant, 1814–1904. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1953

Hudson, Lynn. The Making of Mammy Pleasant: A Black Entrepreneur in 19th Century San Francisco. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003

Hudson, Lynn. “Strong Animal Passions” in the Gilded Age: Race, Sex and a Senator on Trial.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9:I-II (January-April 2000), pp. 62–84

Humez, Jean McMahon. Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress. Boston: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.

King, Jr., Woodie. The National Black Drama Anthology: Eleven Plays from America’s Leading African-American Theaters. New York: Applause Books, 1995.

Ward, Martha. Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie LaVeaux. Jackson: The University of Mississippi Press, 2004.


[1] Buses, written by Denise Nicholas and first directed by Shirley Jo Finney, was first produced at the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1988. The play has enjoyed several other major productions at other theater companies dedicated to the development of Black plays and the entertainment of Black audiences. In 1995, the play was selected as one of eleven Black-themed plays for inclusion in The National Black Drama Anthology: Eleven Plays from America’s Leading African-American Theaters, edited by renowned director Woodie King Jr.

[2] Mary Ellen Pleasant (born circa 1814–1817 and died 1904) is one of the most fascinating and exciting Black female historical figures currently receiving critical attention, and around which academic scholarship is only recently being pursued and produced. Although few primary sources exist to document her life, biographies have been attempted based upon court documents, newspaper headlines and California real estate records as well as other 19th century women’s diaries in which Pleasant is an oft-mentioned subject. The most comprehensive biography (with proper citations and footnotes) of Pleasant to date is Lynn Hudson’s The Making of “Mammy Pleasant”: A Black Entrepreneur in 19th Century San Francisco. Pleasant’s fascinating early years include a youth spent in a Nantucket, MA, Quaker community and encounters in New Orleans with “Voodoo Queen Marie LaVeau,” however, Pleasant’s later accomplishments as a speculator of gold and real estate in California are the grounds upon which she is most often mentioned and noted. It is estimated by several sources that she amassed (and lost) a fortune of $30 million dollars in her lifetime.

[3] On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks became the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the singular event credited with sparking what is known as America’s mid-century African-American Civil Rights Movement. In 1866, Mary Ellen Pleasant successfully won a lawsuit she and two other Black women pursued after they were either ejected from a city trolley or passed up by one. The lawsuit, Pleasant vs. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, the first of its kind to successfully challenge discriminatory practices against African-Americans.

[4] Though it is possible they are simply undiscovered, Pleasant leaves behind no words written by her. The University of California at Berkeley Library holds a singular piece of correspondence written in Pleasant’s own handwriting, and the University of California at Irvine holds a bank check written for the purpose of purchasing real estate. The San Francisco Public Library system holds an extensive collection of civic and court documents relating to Pleasant, as well as the memoirs of lifelong friend Charlotte Downs, who writes of Pleasant often. Her 1902 “autobiography” was published in a two-part series after she dictated her story in several interviews to writer Sam Davis for the Las Vegas newspaper Pandex to the Press. Census data and Supreme and Appellate Court Records supply key biographical information to document her transient existence.

[5] Nicholas, Denise. Buses in The National Black Drama Anthology, edited by Woodie King, Jr., p. 324

[6] Buses, Act II, Scene II, lines 1–4, page 324

[7] Buses, Act II, Scene II, lines 18–19, page 325

[8] Contestation over the rights to property and other assets she shared with long-time partner and San Francisco powerbroker Thomas Bell led to several lawsuits against Pleasant by Bell’s widow Teresa, whose diaries are held at the California Historical Society in San Francisco.

[9] Hudson, Lynn. The Making of “Mammy Pleasant”: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003 (p. 2)

[10] In 1953, Helen Holdredge used as her primary source materials sensationalist newspaper articles from Pleasant’s scandalous court trials and public defamations, in addition to diaries left by the scorned widow of Pleasant’s business partner Thomas Bell, in order to write Mammy Pleasant: 1815–1904. The book villianizes its subject with the subtitle “Powerful and Sinister Ruler.” The book, which must now be special-ordered, brought national attention to Pleasant’s life but revived the scandals surrounding Pleasant for a mid-century audience otherwise unfamiliar with them.

[11] Like Pleasant, Marie LaVeaux is name in history around which little primary material but much legend and myth survives. Apparently, LaVeaux was the name of two women, mother and daughter, who moved in 19th century New Orleans Catholic and occult spiritualism circles. The mother LaVeuax is credited with being the founder of voodoo in America. Her public spiritualism and outspoken public persona was made even more famous by her friendly relationship with local media who began to cover her growing following.

[12] San Francisco Chronicle (July 9, 1899), p. 1

[13] DuBois singled Pleasant out as “strangely effective and influential” in The Gifts of Black Folk, his lesser-known follow-up to The Souls of Black Folk.

[14] For a more comprehensive look at the role the black church played in rallying around Rosa Parks and igniting a Civil Rights Movement, see

[15] Barthes, 2.

[16] Hudson, p. 69

[17] p. 65, Lynn M. Hudson. “Strong Animal Passions” in the Gilded Age: Race, Sex and a Senator on Trial.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 9, No. ½. (Jan.-Apr.,2000) pp. 62–84

[18] “Report of the Trial of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson,” in The Antimonian Controversy, p. 351–381

[19] In 1837, African-American Shaker eldress Rebecca Cox-Jackson was accused of preaching false doctrines by AME preachers in Philadelphia. Though Pleasant escaped persecution and conviction for her “false” teachings, one of which was strict celibacy for women, her Shaker foremother Ann Lee was not as fortunate. In the late 18th century she was persecuted and jailed for religious heresy.

[20] Throughout her writings, collected in the book Gifts of Power, the orphaned Rebecca Cox-Jackson often refers to Shaker founder Ann Lee as her “Mother” in a spiritual and theological sense.

[21] Gates, 44

[22] Gates, 7

[23] Gates, 71

[24] The term “mammy,” considered one of the key typologies in representations of African-Americans in Hollywood Cinema, most often connotes the characterization of a black woman as a stalwart matriarch whose domestic role in both black and white households prohibits sexuality, intellect and self-interest. Famous “mammies” include Hattie McDaniels in Gone With the Wind, for which she was awarded a Motion Picture Academy Award, and the character of Lena Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. For more discussion of the meanings and origins of the term “mammy,” see Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes and Bucks, Donald Bogle’s account of black cinematic representations.

[25] Although most closely associated with the 1954 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott which is credited with galvanizing the Black Civil Rights Movement into being, Parks had been an active player in a steadily-building Black Freedom movement before the rebellious bus incident for which she is most often noted.

[26] In lecturing on “The Postmodern Slave Narratives of Octavia Butler,” Dubey notes that writers such as Butler destabilize static notions of the meanings of America’s racialized history, noting “The persistently running thread of slavery — its past and future, realist and fantastic variants — compels readers to identify ruptures as well as continuities in the meanings and workings of race over time, inculcating an understanding of race as a historically variable and contingent category,” 35.

[27] Chapter 6 of Lynn Hudson’s biography of Mary Ellen Pleasant, entitled “Making Mammy Work for You: Mary Ellen Pleasant in Popular Culture” explores the production histories and impacts of these works in more detail, while acknowledging that many popular culture references to Pleasant can not be verified as being based upon her.

[28] Through my personal correspondence with Bibbs, I learned of several unpublished letters written by Pleasant (all held by Bibbs and upon which she bases her “Chautauqua” public performances as well as the script for a forthcoming PBS special on Pleasant).

[29] From the interview “Riffin’ with Denise Nicholas” by Synde Mahone, contained in the National Black Drama Anthology.

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