Lewis E. Cook
Singing for the Unsung
By Carin Chea
The ultimate and most intriguing hero's journey requires just that: A journey. And what better hero than the overlooked?
After all, what is most compelling - the tale of the prince who had it all, or the every-day commoner with an extraordinary hero's passage ready to be traveled?
Attorney, avid scientist, and budding novelist Lewis E. Cook shares such a hero's journey in his newly-released book Joe's Alamo: Unsung.
Lewis challenges the history we have all learned behind the famous battle at the Alamo and exposes the real-life protagonists whose stories have, at best, lived in the shadows of Davie Crocket and Jim Bowie.
You were actually a pre-med major. Tell us about the journey that led you from the sciences to law and then to writing.
I used to be smart. I actually took a bachelor's degree and applied to medical school. I didn't get admitted. So, I took some advanced courses leading to a master's degree, and at the 2nd time, I was told I was an alternate.
Alternates have reason to be happy; I was alternate #7. But, that year, wouldn't you know? Only 5 alternates got in. The only person I felt worse for than me was alternate #6.
I raced to Texas and applied to medical school again. I got back one letter that said, "You're stupid. You're not a Texas resident. You have to live here at least one year."
Since I had a year to kill and didn't know any law, my next effort was the law. I went over to the law school at Texas Southern and asked the dean to let me study some courses. He said, "I've got 35 people who want that chair. Why should I give it to you?"
I had to think on my feet. I actually had a resume in my pocket that I gave it to him. What really did it was sitting in a contracts law class, and it occurred to me: Everybody should know this. This is great stuff. I started taking it more seriously and that started the conversion.
The truth of the matter is: I've always been a secret, hidden, scared writer. In my undergraduate years, I was told that writers starved to death.
In college, though, I took the opportunity to be the editor of the college paper. I took no journalism classes. Steve Snow took me under his wings and after some tutoring on his part, I was bold enough to start a newspaper. It was called Black Americans for Democracy News, or BAD News.
How has your experience as an attorney influenced your writing?
My experiences as an attorney are profound. The law is our weapon. Our tool is the language. We can write well, speak well, and try to be persuasive. That has had a profound effect on my novel.
Tell us about your book.
There are 3 things people should take from my novel.
- Muslims, Jews, blacks, women, Catholics, Baptists, Buddhists, every major religion - they all had significant reason to be proud in Texas because they were at the Alamo. They contributed to the history of Texas, and I have characters reflecting this.
- The slogan "Remember the Alamo" was most likely said by a woman.
- The song, The Yellow Rose of Texas, is actually about a black woman named Emily. She didn't have a last name. She was a slave as well. She and Joe, the protagonist, were lovers. Going back to the time when they were little kids, they were matched together to be a pair. Both of them, especially Emily, took that matching more seriously than most.
When she learned that Joe had probably been killed at the Alamo, she was devastated. The fact that Joe had survived being shot was not well-spread information at that time. She unwittingly helped general Sam Houston win the Battle of San Jacinto which allowed Texas to become an independent nation.
The person who said all this, the survivor of the Alamo manslaughter, was a slave named Joe. Susana Dickinson (another protagonist) and Joe were allowed to survive the Alamo simply because General Santa Ana wanted people to be scared of him. He wanted them to spread his terror.
Once they got out of his shooting distance, they said, "He wants us to spread one story. We're going to tell another one." Susana Dickinson wanted revenge. Her husband had been slaughtered at the Alamo.
What was the inspiration behind Joe's Alamo: Unsung?
I actually taught Texas history. I had no trouble getting a job because I was a chemistry, biology, and science major. I had a year to kill when I moved to Texas. I was a teacher in the sciences, and because of scheduling, they told me I'd also have to teach one course in Texas history. That shocked me because I'm from Arkansas. We didn't study Texas history.
The chairman said to me, "They're only 8th graders. You just have to stay a chapter ahead."
But, there was one student. He wore glasses. He had big teeth. And with almost everything I said, he would raise his hands and counter and ask questions. This went on for over a week. I was embarrassed by this kid. I hated this class. This one really class bothered me. So, I had a choice - either learn Texas history or be embarrassed by this kid.
The most shocking thing was - once I started learning about Texas history, it was fascinating and involving. But still, I wanted to know more.
Susana Dickinson and Joe (he had no last name, but we call him Joe Travis because his owner was named Travis) - those two people are the reason we have information on the Alamo at all. The only other survivor was a 2-year-old girl who was Susana's daughter who couldn't really speak at all.
Did you ever get back in touch with that 8th-grader who really ignited all this?
I kept all of my records from that year. I knew I was going to write this book. I regret to tell you - Houston had some floods.
About a few years ago, my house was flooded and it was lost. I had the information in a plastic bag - that's how much I wanted to protect that information. By the time I got to it, it had been destroyed by the humidity.
That student was so involved in his explanations to me. He was innocent, like a 6-year-old telling you what was right and wrong and why. I want to dedicate this book to all of my teachers, including that student back in the day.
There are a few characters in your book who are mysteries due to the fact that information on them is scarce. Tell us about them.
There's a pivotal point where Emily was getting ready to see Joe again, when she wandered into the enemy's camp. She wandered into General Santa Ana's camp. He had a habit of seducing women along the way that he found attractive. That's how he entertained himself.
He had the largest army in the region, in all of South America, and he was also the president of the government of Mexico. He was invincible. He was called the Napoleon of the West for a reason.
The reason information on my lead characters if scarce is because Joe and Susana were interviewed in a hurry. Then, the whole compound was burnt down intentionally because you don't want the enemy coming by and getting information about you.
We didn't expect General Houston to beat General Santa Ana in the war. He beat Santa Ana because Emily delayed General Santa Ana's attack. Emily was playing cat-and-mouse with Santa Ana and that allowed General Sam Houston to take him by surprise.
He watched Santa Ana take Emily into his tent, and then Sam Houston gathered his men and instructed them to do a surprise attack. They couldn't go back because they had literally burnt the bridge.
Not only that, he told his men to "remember the Alamo," meaning, Santa Ana did not allow any survivors, and Houston and his men would do the same now.
At that point, Santa Ana, the leader of Mexico, ran out of his tent in nothing but his underwear some of Emily's clothes, and some clothes he got from another soldier. When General Houston captured him, he was wearing part women's clothes and part soldier's clothes. He was trying to look like another private.
And do you know what they wanted Joe to do after all that? They wanted Joe to return to the Travis family in Alabama to become a slave again. He escaped and fled to Mexico. Susana Dickinson fell on really hard times. Joe and Susana asked for a pension, but they were denied.
What message would you like to send across to your readers through Joe's Alamo: Unsung?
We have a reason for pride, both in Texas history and American history. We have a reason and a cause to be proud of who we are.
My passion is to remind us that we are the only people we need and we are all connected. As far as this story is concerned, Texas has a multi-diverse culture and it's been that way for a while.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I have another story that's similar to this one. It's called Black Nappy Hair. When you look at the diverse examples of hairstyles that all people are displaying nowadays - when did that start and what was the catalyst to that?
I'm talking about Bo Derek who made corn rows popular. My girlfriend at the time was embarrassed to see it on anybody. But, when Bo Derek came out with it, she wore it the next week.
For more information on Mr. Cook and his current and upcoming project, please visit www.JoesAlamoUnsung.com
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