“Taking advantage of the absence of our kind master and
Guardian, the man absolutely kidnapped us, stole us from
Our mother, and bore us far away from friends, kindred,
Or anyone who had a right to feel an interest in us.” (Jess, p. 47)
Generations and generations of white people turning black bodies into performance pieces, and Tyehimba Jess’ Olio stole the show. It is history retold and a voice for the silenced, through a series of poetry and interviews of historical figures, the first generation of freed slaves, who performed in minstrel shows. It’s theatricality at its best as Jess strips away the “humbug” and shows us just how much we have dressed up our curiosity. Olio is a treasure hunt for lost artifacts, lost histories, lost truths. Poetry of all kinds pervade and dominate the ‘map,’ leading the reader through a network of stories that we have rarely gotten to hear from a non-white perspective.
Jess’ inserts himself into the narration using our interviewer Julius Trotter, a scarred World War I veteran, returned from the war to find that his hero, Scott Joplin, had died. Trotter having always found himself in music, is so taken by the loss that he begins this journey to write the story of Joplin’s life, by writing about the lives off all those that lived with him – lived with him in the sense of the other great performers of the time, some that had performed with him or known him, some that had only known him by his contributions to ragtime music and black culture. To Trotter, history is in the music and he leads us through this new age of freedom, dressed up as cages and coonery that we know as the black minstrel show. Though Trotter, Jess explores the many different masks (real and metaphorical) not just the performers, but black people of that time were made to wear, covering irony and all it’s bases by having Trotter always wear physical mask himself, to hide his scars from the war. Reading, though, we find that people could be just as put off by the masks as they may have been had he let them see his face. Metaphorically, always trying to cover up the scars was not method that actually worked for many, but it was comfortable. In the one scene that Trotter takes his masks off, it is among trusted friends – showing that the masks we all wear, the masks black people wear, was not only just to hide from the whites who in that time would not have been able to see them anyway. It was to hide away from each other, and to hide away from themselves.
Along with the syncopated sonnet – the sideways, crossways, read it how you want it poems of Jess’ own creation – there are the pages that can be ripped out, the secrets hidden under folds and creases, and then there is the title itself, the shape forming a loose rendering of an already black face bathed in charcoal and surrounded by white space. The physicality of the book itself with all it’s hidden gems reveals its own sort of subset of secrets. The Freedsong So Long Duet, the Bert Williams / George Walker Paradox, and the Dunbar-Booker Double Shovel all have pages that are perforated, folded to hide part of their truth, and to give you the choice whether to indulge or ignore their message. If you tear out the Bert Williams / George Walker Paradox, and follow the instructions to twist and fold like origami the poetry that runs circles around it’s own pages, you can get a different reading every which way you twist it.
“See we want to be
free. We wake up to mirrors full of slick black faces-
reflecting on how every live soul holds a dream. We’re
wise to the dark risks. I’ll shine crowd. I’ll have each face
Doing justice to my Juba jig. See how I dance?
just might be playing you for a fool. You see, this face
got them laughing loud like me. You think they mock my face?
Can’t help but see myself just below my blacked up face-“
It’s all a mask, but no amount of burnt cork can mask our existence or erase the person beneath. What whites saw as a performance, black saw as their chance to perform, not for the entertainment of white folks, but at the secret expense of white power. To hold the secret that they had escaped farther than whites thought they had let them, that they had ventured so far from their chains, that though whites didn’t know it, they could never be out back again, was a truth more powerful and more apparent with every performance and every song and every applause as the curtain closed on the era of slavery.
Olio mirrors the pace of progress. It ebbs and flows, but it continues, despite the pauses, resets, and deep scratches in the grooves of history, the record plays on. We all have masks, but when it comes to history there is no masking it forever. When a nation is built on the backs and bones of the oppressed, eventually the ground will creak, the soil will run out of room for graves, and all the silenced voices will sing out. In Olio Jess gives us the performance we never knew, but that we’ve all been waiting for.