Olio by Tyehimba Jess
"I’d look out to the darkness and hear my true name"
The following is an excerpt from Tyehimba Jess’s collection Olio, a finalist for the 2017 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award.
Works Progress Administration Field Interview
Text of Interview (unedited)
Name of worker: Eva Shoe
Address: 1229 West 5th Street, Dayton
Date: March 12, 1935
Subject: Medicine Shows: Minstrel Shows.
I run my own show now. But back in the day I used to work for Black Patti. I got on with her troupe ’cause I know how to twist myself into knots until most people can’t tell where I begin or end. Folks used to throw pennies for ap- plause and I’d have the floor shining in copper. Don’t bend quite ’xactly like that no more. But back in the day, like I said, folks used to line up for blocks to see all of us. The mighty Black Patti Revue. Each one of the crowd wantin to see her belt it out the way the white folks would do—even better. All that pearly white song flowin out that pretty black skin, all that European sound spillin out that Ethiopian river of a throat. There was quite a few fellows wanted to proposition her, dreaming about how they’d wake up to hear history in their bed every morning, a history they wanted to own past the skin they lived in. But she wasn’t much feelin any kind of special from them. She was mostly caught up in the truth she was workin out of each note. She wanted to resurrect all the church she could muster out of those opera stories. She wanted to muscle arias out all those spirituals.
MY NAME IS SISSIERETTA JONES
Once word got out about the way I sing, the world wanted to bleed all the sass out my name. To scratch out the gift my mother gave me and shove a would-be white diva in my spotlight. They couldn’t imagine the colored in coloratura standing on its own onstage, so they claimed I was just part of Adelina Patti’s chorus. They stuck me beneath her name, a shadow sentenced to the borders of her light, called me Black Patti.
But the darkened sense inside my name won’t be silenced. With its sister and shush and gospel of ocean, I sing each night from the way I’d stand on the docks of Providence, a straggle-boned bundle of lungs and tremble lifting wave after wave into wave after wave of Atlantic. Its applause keeled over me, calling me with its bell of salt, its belly of sunken hulls, its blue green fathoms of tremolo. Every night, in the dark offstage, I hear my mother’s voice in my head, her backyard hum, the sea in her distance with the weather of storm. She’d look out and see the thrall of water heave its back to the sky. I’d look out to the darkness and hear my true name.
* * * *
Thing is, you wrestle too long with someone else’s song, you gotta make sure you find as many ways as possible to make it your own. But you still gotta remember where the line is between you and that other song, or you gone get your voice all grunted up—confused. That’s what she was wrestlin with. Sissie—or Miss Jones to anyone who ain’t know her good—that’s what she’d tell me. I know she didn’t think I was listening most of the time, but even then, when I was just a small time sand dancer and contortionist, I would hear her talking about how she would make herself one with those arias and then snap back into spirituals like daytime turning into night and back into day. Like a two-headed doctor of song. She was oceanside born, you know. Right off the Atlantic. Seemed like her voice had a tide in it that tied all time together. She’d turn all your moments inside out. Seemed like sometimes she’d take a whole year’s worth of seasons and pour it into one moan, standin up there with her mouth swallowing up everyone’s sorrow one note at a time.
SISSIERETTA JONES, CARNEGIE HALL, 1902
O patria mia
Aida, buried in the darkness
of her fate. Aida, singing
in the tomb of her lover.
Her lover a notion pale as
the aria circling from her mouth.
Aida, lowered into the pit
cloaked in breath’s ocean,
a war inside her voice.
A battle of tongues sung doloroso,
the husk of shadow on air.
With the soar of her father’s
sermon for truth. With the burn
of nigger heaven. With the hum
of oceans wrapped in bone.
With the legacy of bones
wrapped in ocean. With a national
healing hogtied to song.
Let me hum it to you sweet
with vivace; let me scrape it into
our history. Let my voice turn
its scarred back on you.
Let my skin disappear
to cover you whole.
Let my molten song be
your blessing of ash.
Let the ash cover all
our faces. Let ash be
the secret that masters
itself. Let the curtain rise
upon the hidden face.
Let the spotlight burn
to purify need. Nail down
the lockbox of spirituals
inside my throat. Bury
them in opera’s echo
of grandeur. Resurrect the holy
grind of tremolo and tradition.
Let the key be inﬁnite.
Let the coon song scatter.
Let each mouth be envy.
Let bloodlines be muddied.
I stand solo in this country
of concert. I am multitudes
of broken chains. I am Aida
with war on her lips.
I am Aida against drowning
in all that summons her alive.
I bear the crescendo
of ocean inside me.
I carry its bones inside
my attack. I am a wave
reaching beyond this shore.
Let this belting be our
unbinding. Let o bring
the sound of all our wanting.
Let patria speak the names
of all my fathers.
Let the curtain rise
to show the face that is
known. Let the country
be mine. Let the country
be mine. Let this country
Of course, even when she did belt out some opera born outside of this country’s peculiar history, she’d still have to come right back down and weave her way out of the cakewalk of blackface and jim crow. Every evening, she’d waltz all proper out of the spotlight—and then let the okie doke shuffle and that coontalk grin take over the stage. You know—the circus they was all comin to see. All of ’em—black and white and every shade in between—came because of her name, wantin to see the famous Black Patti herself. And just about as many stayed on to feel the glow of those minstrel shines. What is a coon show, anyway, but one poor devil puttin on a mask another devil willin to pay to see?
I sing this body ad libitum, Europe scraped raw between my teeth until, presto, Ave Maria ﬂoats to the surface from a Tituba tributary of Swanee. Until I’m a legato darkling whole note, my voice shimmering up from the Atlantic’s hold; until I’m a coda of sail song whipped in salted wind; until my chorus swells like a lynched tongue; until the nocturnes boiling beneath the roof of my mouth extinguish each burning cross. I sing this life in testimony to tempo rubato, to time stolen body by body by body by body from one passage to another; I sing tremolo to the opus of loss. I sing this story staccato and stretto, a fugue of blackface and blued-up arias. I sing with one hand smoldering in the steely canon, the other lento, slow, languorous: lingered in the ﬁelds of Babylon’s Falling . . .
* * * *
See, Sissie would know how to let folks into one mask and out through another. She’d even raise a toast to the mask, jokin about whether folk—black and white—really believed that the opera was wearing her as a mask, or if it just tickled them to see her puttin on that white mask of Vivaldi. Was it her voice or someone else’s? they’d seem to ask. Well, it was all her. Every note, in whiteface or blackface or in just plain old American, went straight down to her bones. That’s what I heard when I truly listened, anyway. She’d pour those opera songs all over her body and then dress herself in the church frock of hymns. She told me one time, that in order to hear her true voice, she’d had to ask herself about her own masks. What kind of mask might I have on? she said. Because let me tell you, most don’t even know they’re wearing a mask. You’ve got to know which masks, how many masks you’re wearing before you can put it down and see your true self. Those that do, they know just how to slide in and out of it, how to make the world spin inside it and out of it. How to spread their song all over that mask and make it one with the world, no matter how thick or thin the truth in that song might be.
SISSIERETTA JONES &
THE BLACK PATTI TROUBADOURS
Forte—with force was the will that overtook me, that freed my throat and lit my mouth to music. Forte was each wave of song, forte like my father’s choir of freedmen, sometimes wavered and off key, sometimes pitched in more fear than light, but always forte, hurling what voice was left to them into the cauldron of church air after lifetimes singing their spirituals in secret. They sang forte like the stevedores’ shout from ship to shore, crate after crate of cargo burdened into the holds, their gandy opera bouncing off hulls, forte in the grazioso of their motion, the all-together swing of arm and hand and rope and hoisted weight, grazioso onto decks all braced for storm, all blessed with prayer from each Providence pulpit, prayed over from bow to stern, blessings from the communion cry of each church, all grazioso with hands raised in testimony. I hear them each night, forte when I stand on our prow of stage from town to town, port to port, captain of this ragtag ship of blackfaced, cakewalking fools and balladeers, teaching crowds grazioso under spotlights with each ticket sold. Forte is the cry of the barker bundling each crowd with the smooth-talk promise: darkie entertainment with a touch of high-class classical. Forte is the ﬁnale each night, grazioso is the closing curtain, the unmasking of painted faces, the darkened lamplight, the applause fading like the hush of receding surf that carries us on through the night, the ocean of audience rising and falling with each wave of season, grazioso is the sail of our bodies in their wind.
* * * *
That’s what I learned from the great Sissieretta Jones. How to know where the mask begins and you end. How to balance the world on edge just between that mask and you, until the mask melts away into mirage. Took what she taught me and then I moved on. I’d saved up all those pennies from the crowds to buy me a proper little horse and wagon and a proper little medicine-show stage to haul around the country. You know, I named it after a sign—what my plantation-born daddy and his daddy was chasin and what we all still after. That North Star. We the North Star Travelin Negro Troubadours. You should come on and see us when we roll through your town.
EFFINGHAM BAPTIST CHURCH, EFFINGHAM CO., SC, 1996: MT. PLEASANT BAPTIST CHURCH,
TIGRETT, TN, 1996: MT. TABOR BAPTIST CHURCH, CERRO GORDO, NC, 1996: PLEASANT HILL BAPTIST
CHURCH, LUMBERTON, NC, 1996: RISING STAR BAPTIST CHURCH, GREENSBORO, AL, 1996:
How do we prove our souls to be wholly human
when the world don’t believe we have a soul?
How do we prove black souls holy and human
when the whole world swears we got no souls?
We hitch our voice to heaven’s sword-tongued plow
and sow the seeds of a righteous mission.
After we’ve spent our voices up, how we know
these old cabin songs make a difference?
After we’ve run our lungs ragged, how we know
these hand-me-down hymns make a difference?
We’ll know by the hushed wonder that follows
our song. We’ll know by the heated silence.
We’ll sow this heavy sack of achin
hymns, seedin’ sable soul ’cross every nation.
MURKLAND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, CHARLOTTE, NC, 1996: SHILOH APOSTOLIC FAITH CHURCH.
WEIRTON, WV, 1996: MACEDONIA BAPTIST CHURCH, BLOOMVILLE, SC, 1996: NEW LIGHT HOUSE
OF PRAYER, GREENVILLE, TX, 1996: CHURCH OF THE LIVING GOD, GREENVILLE, TX, 1996:
Excerpted from Olio, published by Wave Books. Copyright © 2016 by Tyehimba Jess. Illustrations by Jessica Lynne Brown.