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Tyehimba Jess and W.E.B. DuBois Meet on Stage

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A Guest Post by Brandt Dirmeyer

Brandt Dirmeyer is an aspiring writer and poet who wants to use language to display the ecological relationship between people and place, with a focus on revealing individuals as parts of larger wholes. You can read this poem “You’re a Mad Cow” on FIVE:2:ONE and two other poems in his blog post for the Patapsco Heritage Greenway. Below is Brandt’s reflection on Tyehimba Jess’s reading at the 2017 Blackbird Poetry Festival.

Friends Nick Stowe (left) and Brandt Dirmeyer (right) with Tyehimba Jess (middle) after the reading at the 2017 Blackbird Poetry Festival

On a warm April evening, I attended the main event of HoCoPoLitSo’s Blackbird Poetry Festival, which was a reading by the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Tyehimba Jess, from his newest book of poems, Olio, a collection of poems about miscellaneous African American performers who lived between the times of the Civil War and World War I. The crowd was in awe as Jess demonstrated that his poems could be read up and down, across, or in tangential patterns, which served to amplify our understanding about the personal depth of real people who played minstrel show caricatures in the 18th and 19th centuries.

As Jess read his poems about Millie and Christine, a pair of twins conjoined at the ribcage and pelvis, and Walker and Williams, famous minstrel comedians at the time, I couldn’t help but hear the voice of W.E.B. DuBois echo within my mind. During my undergraduate studies at Towson, I studied how DuBois’ concept of “double consciousness” manifested itself in Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois wrote, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Despite the hundred-plus year difference in time between when DuBois, Millie and Christine, and Walker and Williams were active, affective, and alive, I felt their connection to our current place. Listening to Jess speak, it was as if we had not only gone back in time to when Millie and Christine and Walker and Williams were heating up the stage with dance and song, but also into their minds to discover the multi-faceted exterior and interior forces that pressured them to dance and sing. I could feel DuBois’ words still alive as well, as there are similar exterior and interior forces currently at play in American society that find their origins in the time-periods of the minstrel show, the Gilded Age, and the Antebellum South.

In fact, we could go even further back in time. As soon as Captain John Smith sailed up the Chesapeake Bay looking for natural resources to exploit, these forces of subjugation, alienation, repression, misrepresentation, othering, and inequality that have been at play in human societies across the planet for thousands of years were once again amplified in the colonies of what was once called Turtle Island, now known as North America.

Millie and Christine were talented dancers and musicians who learned to harmonize with the piano and with their voices, understood five languages, and experienced the wider world while on international tours, even meeting Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. Walker and Williams used their minstrel show to contest cultural ownership of racial representations to white audiences.

The poems written by Jess noted the feats of each pair, but they also asked us to look past their accomplishments and see the experiences and feelings that compelled them to swim upstream in such a torrential river. Either pair could have just as easily conformed to what society expected of them, floating with the current to save energy, but instead they used the minstrel show to simultaneously conform to the expectations of their audience, while separating themselves from other minstrel show acts by putting in effort to confront said expectations.

Like DuBois’ example of a black artisan (The Souls of Black Folk) who was conflicted between producing goods that reflect his personal perspective and producing goods that are marketable to the dominant society, Millie and Christine and Walker and Williams desired to balance themselves upon the fine line between having their performances watched and having their perspectives heard.

The characters in Jess’s poems used their work to subvert societal expectations while also playing the game that they were unfairly born into. Millie and Christine were pitied and Walker and Williams were laughed at by the audience, but they also wanted to be known for who they were. In his poetry, Jess gives these performers a humanitarian redemption by showcasing their individual inner psychological conflicts.

 

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