Black and white photo of Tyehimba Jess

Retelling History Through Poetry

By Dulcy Israel
Portrait by Flo Ngala

“That bookshelf over there,” says Tyehimba Jess, pointing to a tall, jammed rack on the wall of his Brooklyn apartment, “a whole lot of that is research for Olio.” Jess is referring to his Pulitzer Prize–winning second book of poetry, which came out in 2016. Seven years in the making, it’s an encyclopedic, innovative anthology of poetry, prose, songs, and historical documents that tell the stories of mostly unrecorded African American performers from the Civil War era to the first World War. Jess’s home is so rich with reading material, it seems only natural when, midinterview, another set of shelves arrives from IKEA.
    It was as a teen that Jess embraced poetry. “I was living in Detroit and, I don’t know, I felt a calling,” he says. As a senior at a Jesuit high school, he won second prize in the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics with “The Streets,” a poem about his hometown. “I said, ‘OK, maybe you’re halfway decent at doing this,’ ” he recalls. He attended, departed from, and returned to the University of Chicago, from which he graduated in 1991. There, he chose English as a major, but “I wasn’t feeling it or it wasn’t feeling me,” he says, so he switched to public policy with the goal of community organizing. That decision had an unexpected payoff: with public policy, Jess says, “you really have to understand historical cause and effect. And that really got me into trying to understand history.”
    Figures from the past populate Jess’s work. His first book of poetry, Leadbelly, which examines the life of the legendary blues musician, originated as his MFA thesis in the Creative Writing program at the Graduate School of Arts and Science. “Lead Belly led me to people like Blind Tom and Blind Boone and the McKoy twins and the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Edmonia Lewis. And Henry Box Brown. Not that many people know who they are and what they’ve accomplished. And it seemed to be a shame that they had been forgotten.”
    His next project investigates the Native American and Black American connection, and Jess says he is still “intrigued by music that comes from over a century ago because it tells the stories of where we are, where we’re going. It’s the soundtrack of history.” That idea resonates throughout his work, as in the first lines of “Jubilee Blues” from Olio: “Tell me, if we done burst loose from bondage/Do our songs still carry hurt like a mule?”





Olio tells the stories of mostly unrecorded African American performers from the Civil War era to the first World War.