One of the things that keeps us from easily accessing primary sources is their language. Though documents from our past are in English, it’s often a very different creation than we know now. I enjoy discovering and understanding words almost as much as I enjoy history. From time to time, I’ll share one of these new old words that I come across. By learning about words we no longer use, we can better understand the past.
The Word this Week is “Yaller Gal.”
I first came across this word while reading some of the slave narratives recorded in the 1930s. Here are a few of examples of how they were used:
“I went to church one night feeling mighty good. I went up and kneeled at the altar where they was praying for converts, and a good looking yaller gal was kneeling right in front of me.” – Tom Hawkins, Athens, Georgia
“I remembers that the Ku Klux used to go to the Free Issues houses, strip all the family and whip the ole folkses. Then they dances with the pretty yaller gals and goes to bed with them. That’s what the Ku Klux was, a bunch of mean mens trying to have a good time.” – Martha Allen, Raleigh, North Carolina
“My pappy was John Redd and he belonged to Bill Trailor and he brung here from Virginny. Mammy’s name Rose Redd and she a yaller nigger, come from South Carolina and maybe she white and Indian, too.” – Patsy Southwell, Jasper County, Texas.
The word was also used to describe varieties of grits (“yaller hominy”), cake, and even cats. In that light, it seems pretty obvious that “yaller” is “yellow” in a Southern dialect. But while yellow hominy, yellow cake and yellow cats all make sense, what is a yellow girl?
Though Mrs. Southwell’s quote above might be evidence enough, another from Texas makes it clear.
“When massa come home that evening his wife hardly say nothing to him, and he ask her what the matter and she tells him, ‘Since you asks me, I’m studying in my mind about them white young’uns of that yaller nigger wench from Baton Rouge.’ He say, ‘Now, honey, I fetched that gal just for you, because she a fine seamster.’ She say, ‘It look kind of funny they got the same kind of hair and eyes as my children and they got a nose looks like yours.’ He say, ‘Honey, you just paying attention to talk of little children that ain’t got no mind to what they say.’ She say, ‘Over in Mississippi I got a home and plenty with my daddy and I got that in my mind.'” – Mary Reynolds, Black River, Louisiana.
Plainly speaking, a “yaller girl” was a mulatto, a person of mixed-race conceived through some combination of black and white parentage. 1“Mulatto” is also a word that should probably be covered at some point. The four examples used above don’t go into too much detail. It was, for the time, a very understood phrase.
A yaller girl had very light skin, but was still considered nonwhite. For many enslavers, when it came to yaller girls, the more white the better. Of course, she could not be purely white, but the more white in her, the more she was wanted as a sex slave.
The earliest use of “yaller girl” that I could find dates to a song from the 1830s. Printed in the Tioga, Pennsylvania Eagle, “Louisville Negro Love Song,” written “by an amateur ‘woolly-head,” is a nonsense song.
Oh! I wish I was a jay bird sittin’ on a beach tree,
Jang malang go lay!
I could den see dat’yaller girl I loves,
Jang malango go lay! 2Tioga Eagle; Wellsboro, Pennsylvania; Thu, Nov 22, 1838 – Page 7.
A few years later, German author Friedrich Gerstacker published Western Lands and Western Waters, which detailed his travels up the Mississippi in the early 1840s. The issue with this, however, is that it was translated from the German. It’s possible that he actually recorded the term (as it’s in quotes), but just as likely is that it was penned by his British translator.
In his book, he describes a fight between two women on a boat:
“Two of the milk-girls, a mulatto and a negress, neither more than eighteen years of age, and both tall and graceful in their figures, had commenced quarrelling on board, and went on with it on shore. One word brought on another, and the mulatto girl at length put her milk-can on the ground, tucked up her sleeves, and challenged the other to fight it out. In a second, sailors and firemen rushed up from the vessels, and formed a large circle round the two girls, who now were eager for the fray. The negress had also tucked up her sleeves, and had boldly and successfully withstood the attack of the ‘yaller’ girl.” 3Friedrich Gerstäcker, Western Lands and Western Waters, (London: S.O. Beeton, 1864) 9. Here.
Winked At Me
By the time Gerstäcker’s book was published, its use in song was wide spread. This is evidenced by a compilation put together in 1865. Heywood and Son’s Up-to-date Collection of Nigger Songs and Recitations includes “Buffalo Gals,” “Four Little Curly Headed Coons,” and “The Nigger and the Bee.” It also includes “Yaller Gal Dat Winked At Me.”
The vast majority of these songs are not, of course, songs that were sung by slaves. Most come from blackface minstrel shows, and “Yaller Gal Dat Winked At Me” is no exception.
With music by A.M. Hernandez, “Yaller Gal” is a simple song whose entire plot is in the title. It’s not possible to discern the definition of “yaller girl” from the lyrics. There are no references to lighter skin or lineage, though she was “as sweet as a flower” and wore “clothes you never did see.” Eventually, the narrator and “yaller gal” meet a parson and are married. This clears up any suspicion over which race is singing this number. 4Abel Heywood The Up-to-Date Nigger Songbook (London: F. Pitman, 1865) 49. Here
The use of the term “yaller gal,” wasn’t confined to only songs and quaint colloquialisms. Through the early 1900s, its use became wide spread.
In 1908, a Nashville newspaper printed this quip in its personals section:
“And so Sheriff Johns says that he took that good-looking yaller gal home to nurse her. The devil he did!” 5The Tennessean; Nashville, Tennessee; Thu, May 7, 1908 – Page 4. Here.
In 1915, a film originally titled The Nigger premiered as The New Governor. In it is the story of a slave named Joe White whom the townspeople want to lynch. This instigates a race war fueled by booze – a key component of the film. A politician, elected by the anti-prohibitionists, is soon seen as a turncoat. Through some sort of investigation, it’s learned that the politician’s grandmother was a “yaller gal,” originally owned by his ancestors.
“Yo’ grandmothah was a niggah, Phil,” bellows his opponent, “and you’re a niggah too. Now you’ve got it square between the eyes.” 6For a full review see Evening Public Ledger; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Sat, May 1, 1915 – Page 5. . The film appears to have been lost, but the script to the original play by Edward Sheldon is still in print. It can also be read here.
A Final Exploitation
That the term was still understood in the late 1930s is hardly surprising. In fact, it was still in wide use just prior to World War II. Pulp author Carolina Lee penned Yaller Gal, a wild tale of competing lovers in 1936.
“Gail was not aware of impending danger that beautiful, quiet night when she was in Jeff’s arms, forgetting everything except the exquisite glory of surrender. But in the shadows, Pearley looked on with hate in her heart and a jealousy more bitter than death itself.
“Two women wanted Jeff Caldwell. One was a sophisticated white girl from New York, the other a sensuous amber-skinned beauty from the swamps. Each in her own way would stop at nothing…”
Following World War II, you’d be hard pressed to find the term used outside of references to old songs or fictionalized accounts of slave life.
When the last of the former slaves passed on, the use of “yaller gal” seemed to go with them. Outside of horse racing, even the more proper term “yellow girl” was scrubbed from the national lexicon.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||“Mulatto” is also a word that should probably be covered at some point.|
|2.||⇡||Tioga Eagle; Wellsboro, Pennsylvania; Thu, Nov 22, 1838 – Page 7.|
|3.||⇡||Friedrich Gerstäcker, Western Lands and Western Waters, (London: S.O. Beeton, 1864) 9. Here.|
|4.||⇡||Abel Heywood The Up-to-Date Nigger Songbook (London: F. Pitman, 1865) 49. Here|
|5.||⇡||The Tennessean; Nashville, Tennessee; Thu, May 7, 1908 – Page 4. Here.|
|6.||⇡||For a full review see Evening Public Ledger; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Sat, May 1, 1915 – Page 5. . The film appears to have been lost, but the script to the original play by Edward Sheldon is still in print. It can also be read here.|