Poet Tyehimba Jess Weaves Story About Race in America
This is one of a series of interviews highlighting the winners of the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Find more here.
America has a rich history of entertainment preserved on records, tapes and digital downloads, but writer Tyehimba Jess was curious about a group of African American performers who played to packed houses in the days before the recording industry even existed. His latest book, Olio, brings their stories to life through poetry.
“As soon as you say the word ‘history’, most people pretty much go to sleep," Jess says. "But, when someone tells you a story - that’s a different thing”
An Olio is a miscellaneous collection of things. For instance, it could be the mix of ingredients that form a meal. In this case, Tyehimba Jess is referring to the variety of acts that would form the middle section of a minstrel show, back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It could be a juggler, a dancer, a singer, or a comedian. For his book Jess created an Olio in book form by writing a series of poems about a collection of artists. He includes famous people like composer/musician Scott Joplin and Ohio poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and the lesser known piano player John William 'Blind' Boone and singer Sissieretta Jones.
Jess mixes history and fiction as he explores the lives of his characters, playing with poetic structure as well. The writer says he found inspiration in salvaging the stories of black entertainers from over a century ago.
"I think with the folks in the African American artistic tradition, they were carrying the ability to create art with their own standards, with their own direction, for the first time in the history of this country right after slavery. You're talking about folks who, for the first time, could play the instrument that they wanted, at the time that they wanted, for the people that they wanted, in the way that they want. And make money at the same time. It's a new understanding of freedom of choice when it comes to the artistic aesthetic."
The historic theatrical tradition of minstrelsy is controversial for the use of white perfomers in blackface. By presenting the stories of his characters in the form of an Olio, Tyehimba Jess says he's tapping into the larger narrative of race in America.
“I am thinking about their struggle with integrity, obviously their struggle with justice, their struggles with the kind of day-to-day micro decisions that black folks have to make on a regular basis that force us to weigh and consider every move that we make in regard to preservation of our sense of self, of our integrity. Sometimes their very lives. And when I look at the folks in this book, I think about the way that they were dogged in their determination.”
ideastream will stream the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony Thursday at 6 p.m. live online.