by Anthony Reed, PhD
In a moment when many African American poets imbue their poetry with deep archival research, Tyehimba Jess has developed a poetics rooted in the documents of the past without being documentary. The distinction is subtle but important: he often takes aim at the discrepancy between the archives and the conceptual apparatuses through which we generate a sense of pastness and make sense of the past. His first collection, leadbelly, takes up the story of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter as recounted and circulated in the 1935 volume Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly: “King of the Twelve-String Guitar Players of the World,” Long-Time Convict in the Penitentiaries of Texas and Louisiana, which John and Alan Lomax edited and published in 1935. The full title points to a fundamental tension that Jess’s collection inhabits: tension between a sincere desire to present Ledbetter “in his own words” and, referring to the titles of the book’s two sections, their desire to exploit the “worldly nigger” and his “sinful songs” (Negro Folk Songs). The collection does something more complicated, and more difficult, than recover its subject’s humanity. Jess makes readers think about and through the various devices by which we evade awareness of what constrains and distorts human agency. The riotous possibility of human capacity and desire drive the work and, regarding John Lomax, Alan Lomax, and the then-burgeoning fields of ethnography and folklore studies, we finally grasp Frederick Douglass’s lesson that one must sacrifice one’s own humanity in order to dehumanize. Better stated, to humanize requires confronting the reducibility of classes of people to something akin to things — slaves and corpses. That reducibility haunts and enables prevailing humanisms.
In the interests of a capitalist system that sees in its dispossessed a new source of profit, Lomax and Lomax in that collection appear to be as mechanical and functional as their recording devices, while Leadbelly, operating under several supervision regimes, appears to be the only free man. This speaks to Jess’s dazzling skill and inventiveness with poetic form, much of which he carries over to Olio, which critics have justly termed a tour de force. Jess uses a series of formal frames or circular motifs, motifs related to circulation and to proscenia, that contribute to the “circular motion of history,” the complex reverberations of the past in the present not as echo but undertone (DOGBYTES). The most striking of these is the catalog of burned churches that surround the double crown of sonnets dispersed through the collection in the voices of individuals from the Fisk Jubilee Singers. That sense, in the words of the old spiritual, that there is “No Hiding Place” on this earth for Black people, becomes palpable not as wound but as demand. Those sonnets and that litany function as a kind of chorus, offering oblique commentary on the surrounding poems. The second frame, which similarly attests to circularity and circulation, takes the form of a series of fictionalized interviews conducted by disfigured WWI veteran Julius Monroe Trotter, who seeks information about the last days of ragtime innovator Scott Joplin. Those lend the collection narrative energy and the elegiac air of thwarted or exhausted possibilities, and, in the stories that emerge of Trotter and Joplin, the haunting sense of unfinished business.
Between the American Civil War and World War I arose and developed the New Negro movement, shaped in response to the crisis of Black freedom in a country materially and ideologically built on Black captivity, subjection, and exploitation. Euphemistically, this was the “Negro problem.” Olio takes up the birth of African American art, given that the Reconstruction amendments (13 to 15) mark the first time citizenship, however attenuated, becomes available for a majority of Black people. History’s currents are multiple, and they overlap. The period between the Civil War and WWI, “when America was gearing up to be a superpower,” is also the era of the New Woman and women’s suffrage movement, the Industrial Revolution, fierce anti-lynching campaigns led by Ida B. Wells and others, global population shifts from rural spaces and agricultural work to urban spaces and industrial labor, and the emergence of a global imperial order in which the United States plays a key role (“Music, Literature, and the Struggle of Consciousness”).
Trotter — whose historical referents are scholar James Monroe Trotter, who in 1878 published Music and Some Highly Musical People, and his son, activist William Monroe Trotter — is a plot device. The interviews allow the poem access to the interior lives of performers, especially Joplin, which would otherwise be available only through scholarship and the whisper archives of less formally trained cognoscenti of African American performance cultures. Trotter also focalizes Black participation in WWI and an important history of the Great Migration: he leaves Cairo, Illinois, after witnessing the 1909 lynching of William “Froggie” James. W. E. B. Du Bois famously enjoined Black people to join the returning soldiers to “fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land” (“Returning Soldiers”). Wounded mentally and physically by the wars at home and abroad, Trotter identifies with Scott Joplin: “a man in the mouth of turmoil, torn between the jaws of past and future” (Olio 11). Fictionalized sojourners like Trotter typically serve as stand-ins for reader, writer, or both, charting paths of inquiry, discovery, and new understanding. Olio, which uses narrative more occasionally, makes Julius Monroe Trotter a figure of witness to the specific form of turmoil we typically call history.
“History,” writes literary critic Fredric Jameson, “is what hurts” (The Political Unconscious 88). It is an absent presence in daily life, perceivable through its effects, in the unaccountable discrepancies and apparently spontaneous choices between alternatives no one can remember settling. He goes on to describe history as “what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis” (88). If history is what refuses desire, it also here engenders it; it is a name for the truths we cannot not want, and for the dissimulative tendency to misname our own desires, e.g., to discover “the face of original ragtime — perhaps in order to recall my own” (Olio 10). History is a name and explanation for our pleasure, for the clash and contradiction of our attachments, for what binds and sunders. The limits to individual and collective agency, the pressure capitalism puts on forms predicated on group belonging, are among Olio’s central themes. But its ingeniousness, apart from Jess’s dazzling technical proficiency, lies in the pressure it exerts on the narrow narrative frames whose emphasis on salvation, redemption, overcoming, and vindication obscure the animating force of the attachments that bind a people. The fact and practice of Black dispossession that subtend African American engagement with the early culture industries (which take shape as slavery ends), the prevalence of outright theft and other forms of cheating, and the layers of dissemblance underpinning relations between and within races makes “the face of original ragtime” a problematic proposition.
One of the book’s aims is to see the face behind the mask, especially in the suite of poems that address minstrel stage stars Bert Williams and George Walker. Interpolating Williams’s hit song “Nobody” (covered recently by pianist Jason Moran in 2010 and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant in 2013), Jess writes of “Nobody | slowly erasing darky to don a human face” or “Nobody / working with a truth that smothers Jim Crow’s stench.” (I’m using a vertical slash to indicate enjambment across column break, and a forward slash to indicate enjambment from the right margin of the column to the line below.) As with the earlier leadbelly, formal attention to texts and their circulation, their tendency to entropic expanse, is an important feature of Olio’s poetics and themes. Rather than meaning breaking down, interpretive possibilities expand in the poems’ asymptotic approach to the truth in its non-epigrammatic complexity. One technique is stichomythia — the formal presentation of two voices in speculative dialogue, with two columns maintaining their own integrity as separate voices or read together in a disposition of what Ralph Ellison termed “antagonistic cooperation” to make new social texts and textures (“Little Man” 496). Paul Laurence Dunbar, paired here with Booker T. Washington in tense stichomythic duet, wrote of the mask adapted by African Americans as a “debt we pay to human guile,” and most readers tend to seek the truth of the face, and thus the person, behind the mask (Olio 134, alluding to Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask”). For Jess, the “escape into deceit’s sanctuary” also speaks to evasive strategy, the mask as equipment for living (Olio 134).
In my reading, the conversation between John William “Blind” Boone and Julius Monroe Trotter, which happens to be near the middle of the book, is at the center of the collection’s concerns. Boone identifies Trotter as a straight man, redolent of the minstrel stage, setting up this exchange (Trotter speaks first, in italics):
Mr. Boone, I rather don’t think of myself as a performer in a minstrel show.
Most don’t. But the fact is that the minstrel show is only a grin or a shuffle away from any living Negro trying to tell his own true, full story and survive in the world (88).
The catch here is “living.” Rather than the true face revealed at last, reworking minstrelsy’s signs and symbols becomes an exercise in self-making, of creating breathing room in a context defined, as the page opposite Dunbar and Washington’s “double shovel” makes startlingly clear, by the likelihood of arbitrary, state-sanctioned murder as entertainment and recreation. The orderly ledger of “black victims of lynchings per 100,000 blacks by state, 1882–1930” introduces “the reasons given for black lynchings,” which alongside familiar (and often false) accusations of rape and plotting range from “acting suspiciously” and “being obnoxious” to “resisting mob” (Olio 144). It is not difficult to see such acts playing on the stage as racial amusement. One conclusion to draw is that lynching, rather than authenticity, is minstrelsy’s true other, both logically necessary to the development of American industry and empire. What gives me pause is the orderliness of counting, what critical geographer Katherine McKittrick terms the “mathematics of the unliving” (“Mathematics Black Life” 17). A similar mathematics shapes the archives by which we could determine the true, complex realities of Black lives, even as being too difficult, too complex, was itself warrant for extra-legal murder. Poetry is not a counter-archive but a reading now with and now against its grain to produce something unverifiable, singular, and beautiful. Paraphrasing Audre Lorde, beauty is not a luxury but that which might yet pierce the reified veil of the literal and orderly.
Here I think we can better appreciate the extent to which Jess’s approach is not the historian’s. He roots his poetics not just in history or the stories of the past but, similar to NourbeSe Philip in her powerful Zong!, in the very documents and documentary logic of the past. In other words, his investment is not in the lives and circumstances that give history its meaning alone, but also in the documents that preserve, convey, and distort those lives. Occupying that discrepancy between what we know of the past and how we know it, what is knowable and what knowledge does, Jess belongs to what seems to me a new cohort of realist poets moving beyond a documentary tendency that fueled so many of the previous generation’s breakthroughs. In both of his collections, his poetry emerges through a re-reading and re-situating of the documents to the end of something other than documentary or documentation. His is a reflexive rather than a teleological view of history. As he explains, “When you are dealing with the past you are always looking at the past before that past, the present, and the future, so you’re talking about causality, and you’re talking about the idea that what happened in the past” (“Music, Literature, and the Struggle of Consciousness”). The present neither fulfills nor redeems the past, and the vastness of the past continually overflows the epistemological and institutional conventions for understanding it. There are here neither the easy comforts of pessimism (there’s no meaningful difference between its era and ours) nor vindication, romance nor tragedy. For the ultimate question is not redeeming the past or reclaiming the ancestors, but the futures yet to emerge.
“DOGBYTES Interview: Tyehimba Jess,” Cave Canem: A Home for Black Poetry https://cavecanempoets.org/dogbytes-interview-tyehimba-jess/
“Music, Literature, and the Struggle of Consciousness: A Conversation with Tyehimba Jess about poetry, the past, and the process of writing about history” The Interlochen Review http://www.interlochenreview.org/tyehimba-jess/
Du Bois, W. E. B. “Returning Soldiers,” The Crisis, XVIII (May, 1919), p. 13.
Ellison, Ralph. “The Little Man at Chehaw Station: The American Artist and His Audience,” The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan. New York: Modern Library, 1995: 489–519.
Jess, Tyehimba. Olio. Seattle: Wave Books, 2016.
Lomax, John and Alan Lomax, eds. Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. New York: Macmillan, 1936.
McKittrick, Katherine. “Mathematics Black Life” The Black Scholar 44.2 (Summer 2014): 16-28.
Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt