If one had to name a quintessential poet for Black History Month, Tyehimba Jess would be an excellent choice. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection Olio, black history is the heart and soul of his poetry. History is alive and personal for him, both a limiting and a transcendent force, depending on how one responds to it. And his poems are a powerful exalting and at the same time brutally honest force. For a perfect example of this, check out this multi-genre tour-de-force, too long for this blog space, but seriously worth your time.
And then there’s this interview with Jess on NPR. How many interviewees reply to questions with spontaneous poetry? This is evidence that Jess lives the historical black experience, his heart is in the impact of that history on the moment at hand. His message is wholly with him.
The title Olio refers to minstrel shows, a performance art which, according to Jess, “was based upon making caricatures of African Americans for the edification of mostly white audiences.” The black and sometimes blackface performers who were always “unidentified.” He wanted to discover who they’ve were, their names, their stories. After all, he says, “Characters have depth. They have multiple dimensions, right? A caricature, you only show one side of a person. They’re oafish. Or they’re silly. Or they’re dumb, etcetera. A character, you see multiple sides of their humanity.”
The book, then, is an effort to “humanize” these performers, present their real characters, to fill in the erasures perpetrated by the horror of slavery and racism. Among those he discovered, said interviewer Dan Wanschura, were people “like Blind Tom Wiggins, a 19th century pianist who, Jess says, earned his master a million dollars through his musical talent. And the McKoy twins, Millie and Christine, who were conjoined – people who Jess had never heard of before he began his research.”
“So Jess tells the story of the McKoy twins in a series of poems – how they were rented out by their owner to traveling shows around the country, how they were kidnapped and shipped to England for a while, and how, once emancipated, they earned enough money performing to buy the land where they and their family had been slaves.” What an amazing and redemptive story!
The book shows us that these people were in fact empowered by their performances and attained freedom that would otherwise been impossible. And Jess’ book gives them at last a place to perform as real, whole, human characters, speaking directly to our hearts. Another interesting note: there are also foldout pages, some with perforations in his book, which serve as a kind of physical representation of how the history can be transformed through art. One page, for example, lists reasons for lynching, and the other side of the page shows us their stories in poems that cancel out the reasons for lynching.
As Jess says, “We ride the wake of each other’s rhythm, beating our hearts’ syncopated tempo with music all our own with our mouths seeped in the glow of hand-me-down courage, drenched in spiritual a cappellas, flowing soul from bone through skin. We pay debts from broken chattel to circus stars. We sing straight from this nation’s barbed wired heart.” An answer to a question, an eloquent synopsis of how history can be deconstructed. And reconstructed on an entirely new, liberating template.
Jess’ previous collection was leadbellly, focused on the great bluesman, some of whose songs my brother used to sing, and in his wake, I also played (on guitar), singing them just to myself. From that collection, this poem:
By Tyehimba Jess
mr. haney owned
shreveport ’s general store
where a dollar a week
bought my 12 year old frame’s
lift and lunge of barrel and crate
across a sawdust floor.
still, he wanted more.
the guitar refused to get naked
with haney. he would fumble
up the seams of its hidden croon;
hook, clasp and bodice of each tune
mangled down to a stunted strum. so,
he’d quit. he’d hoist bourbon
and order me to hoist song,
the velvet locomotive of marrow deep hum
i’d tote up from the swollen center of guitar,
its catch and slide caught between palms
and cradled ‘cross louisiana starlight.
his bottle and scowl grew louder
with each reel and jump that i played
while getting paid to show the way
of undressing music from its wooden clothes.
but it was like coaxin’ stone
to bathe in sky. he never let his flesh
wallow in the blue floatin’ ‘round his earth,
so he buried himself deeper in his own dirt.
he’d think on the hurt a white man can do
without second thought—he’d slur
nigger, someday i’m gonna kill you.
and stagger home.
it was there, alone,
in the dark, darkness of me
that i first learned the ways
of pure white envy.
and thank you, mr. haney,
for teaching me…