Olio, by Tyehimba Jess

Review by Joshua Jones

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Wave Books, 2016

Tyehimba Jess’s most recent volume, Olio, documents the lives and voices of African American performers in the latter years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. This Olio, which the front matter helpfully defines as “a miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements [or] the second part of a minstrel show,” meditates on the masks these performers inherited and subverted. These masks sometimes manifest literally, like the blackface made from burnt cork ironically donned by black performers Bert Williams and George Walker, but sometimes suggestively, like the persona of the disabled savant worn by Blind Boone and Blind Tom. The voice that ties the collection together, Julius Monroe Trotter, who conducts interviews about the life of Scott Joplin with many of the volume’s speakers, wears a prosthetic mask to hide a wound from the First World War. Trotter, while serving as a thinly-veiled stand-in for Jess collecting narratives of the past for a book, discovers and pushes back against his own minstrelization. His interviewees often understand him better than he understands himself, and while early on he doesn’t “think of [himself] as a performer in a minstrel show,” by the book’s conclusion, he escapes the murderous envy of a white train engineer only by running off with the “North Star Traveling Negro Troubadours” to play piano.

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