Pulitzer-winning 'Olio' honors early black performers

Apr 20, 2017

Tyehimba Jess is an African American poet from Detroit. He recently won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for his collection of poetry called, Olio. The poems are inspired by blackface minstrel shows.

Minstrel shows were variety acts – skits, dances, music, comedy, and were popular in the 1800’s and well into the 1900’s. Performers would paint their faces black, and act out routines that often denigrated African Americans.

“It was based upon the making caricatures of African Americans for the edification of mostly white audiences,” Jess explains. “Characters have depth...A caricature you only show one side of a person.”

Olio is full of characters. 

Jess paints a full picture of African American performers during the height of blackface minstrel shows. Performers few people – including Jess– had heard of. And he was frustrated by that. 

Folks like “Blind” Tom Wiggins, a pianist who earned his master $1 million dollars with his musical ability.

And the McKoy twins – Millie and Christine, who were conjoined twins. They were leased by their owner to traveling shows around the country. Now, they’re in a series of poems.

Jess tells us how the conjoined twins were often rudely inspected by hordes of doctors whenever they were taken to a new town. How they were kidnapped, and shipped to England, before being brought back to enslavement in America. And how, eventually, once emancipated, they earned enough money through their performances to buy the land where they and their family had been slaves.

“It’s not easy to find that history in the creative literature,” he says. “So, that became a calling for me because it’s territory that hasn’t really been explored a whole lot.” 

Wesley McNair is a former Poet Laureate of Maine. This year he served on Pulitzer jury and recommended Olio to the Pulitzer board. McNair says there are obvious themes of race and social justice in Olio, but he says there’s more than that.

“There’s another very important theme in Olio I think that is hardly mentioned,” McNair says. “That is the unique freedom of art which allowed black performers like the McCoy Sisters to free themselves through artistic expression, even in the face of their oppression.”

Tyehimba Jess’ book of poetry is bigger and thicker than a conventional collection of poetry. And it’s meant to be played with. The book has perforated, fold-out pages. Jess is tearing one out. Jess likes to tear a page out whenever he’s in front of an audience.

“So that people will see that I’m not afraid to deconstruct the book so you should not be afraid as well,” he explains.

Jess says tearing off and reconstructing the pages of the book is symbolic. 

“That is what this enterprise is about,” he says. “It’s about deconstructing our received history, and reconstructing it in a way through poems and through prose in a way that helps us better understand it.” 

During the second part of minstrel shows, there was a variety act called the olio. That’s where Tyehimba Jess got the name for this year’s Pulitzer-winning book.

Olio is a variety act, with songs, sonnets, letters, and interviews. And on it’s pages, these African American performers finally take the stage as the full-fledged characters they were.