Minstrelsy biopsy

"It's a bastard child who won't be invited to dinner anywhere," Bill Harris says of his latest work, Birth of a Notion (or The Half Ain't Never Been Told). He does so with a warm laugh, knowing too well there's no correct or clear shelf on which Notion belongs at the bookstore. But this book's madness (in that it lacks conventional genre form) does not detract from the erudite eccentricity Harris employed to present the history and cultural implications of minstrel shows in America. 

Should such a subject ever be uncomplicated? 

Varied in voice and device, stanzas fall into quotes from Jung, Shakespeare and Jefferson, and then we're presented with what could be script from characters such as the Eye of the Black Voice, minstrels Paddy and Mick, and from Barnum (as in P.T.), a dubious ringleader. 

For the past five years, during his summer vacations, author and Wayne State University creative writing professor Harris researched minstrel and its harrowing lineages. He came back to it each year, jumping from whatever fascinating factoid to the next, loose in chronology, but gripped by sentiment. Harris is no traditional scholar here, and so this historical transmission is not presented as one might expect from university faculty. With extended threads that weave through subject and form, Notion might be thought of as lyrical investigation somewhat akin to Spike Lee's Bamboozled, but as a detailed, narrative precursor to that film, if anything. 

Notion is a musical read, meant to be read aloud, with Harris's 12-beat lines penned in honor of the 12-bar blues from the American South. 

Metro Times:
Is the new book poetry, history, criticism or anthropology? I don't know. 

Bill Harris: [laughs] Me neither. It's totally different from anything I've done before.

MT: Safe to say it's fairly different from most any piece of writing of yours — or anyone's.

Harris: The basic theme, whatever that is, is pretty much the same. We're basically looking at the world from a slightly different point of view than what the world wants to be looked at. ... Part of what this was all about was taking what I do, which is creative writing, and all the forms that are available in that world, and look at history to try and understand the images, particularly of African-Americans, and how that came to be in the setting in which we find those images in history. 

MT: Quite an undertaking!

Harris: Part of the joy of this whole project was just doing the research over a number of years. The book isn't as orderly as it should've have been, according to the rules of the world, of history, of scholarship — it was more an improvisational thing.  

MT: Where did you start?

Harris: I'd just finished a novel. It's kind of autobiographical, but it's this kid who's coming of age in the '50s. There's a scene where he goes to the library because he's trying to find stuff out about Booker T. Washington, and he asks the woman who's a librarian for help, and she's never heard of Booker T. Washington. See, at that point, there was no real evidence of the history of African-Americans. Was it marginalized or totally ignored? Culturally, and being a creative writer, I've always had jazz and blues, two things that make my motor turn over. Realizing the great amount of influence the music had on American culture, well, that the music is recognized means that to some degree it was recognized that African-Americans contributed. ... So in my attempt to research and understand cultural contributions from African-Americans, and in looking at African-American history and what was happening during specific points in time, the book became an examination of what was included, what wasn't included, and understand the whys and wherefores of that. 

The 1850s and forward was when American was really becoming America — all of this technological innovation was happening, which made it easy for America to be who we are, easier for America to make claims regarding superiority, in terms of culture and technology. This time period was when pop culture was coming into existence, and the first American aspect of pop culture was minstrelsy.

MT: Are there aspects of pop culture in 2010 that you see as direct descendents of minstrelsy? 

Harris: I mean, the template was set for what is American pop culture with that form. Almost everything on TV, sitcoms, what we think of as pop culture, goes back directly to that template — the obscuring of a face to portray something as other. The examples are almost too many to focus on one. The model was set on the degradation of these people. You can go back to [poet and playwright] Ben Jonson's use of black masques used in productions for the royal courts [in 17th century England]. What that was in a psychological and symbolical way was that, somehow, actors could purify themselves through this ritual. They could play out the dark parts of themselves and kind of overcome it. In America (250 years later), the white boys that were the minstrels, a large part of what they were doing was really trying to become white. They were Irish and European Jewish immigrants whose asses had been kicked and they'd been run out and come to America, as immigrants — others. Look at Arizona today, where the claim is that crime rates have gone up because all these brown people are coming, but truthfully, there's very little evidence that the crime rate has increased at all. It's a minstrel-based mind-set that drives that bus.

MT: You're talking about the general fear of "the other?"

Harris: Right, but the "other" lives inside the perpetrator too. The idea is that somehow I can kill this other in me by acting this shit out. There's a section in the book that's indicative of Ellis Island. Part of the ritual of Ellis Island is that they teach you to be American: be punctual, give up your name, give up your music, and be ready to fuse yourself into this new society. While America was defining itself, a part of that process was defining everybody else, deciding whether they could be a part of this society or not. African-Americans had no place, they were kicked to the side, but what came out of that was entertainment. By making them coons and buffoons, they had no worth but entertainment value. The whole racist thing is, as my colleagues would say, the scar on the body of America. It's the thing that has never healed because people don't or can't look at it for what it is. 

MT: In 2010, how is that wound being treated?

Harris: By ignoring it. That's always been the answer. There's this notion now of, "are we in a post-racial period?" For a lot of people, they've always been able to somehow place themselves in what they thought was a post-racial period. If we took a walk and surveyed the first 30 white people we encountered, most would tend toward saying we are living in a post-racial period. The first 30 black people would give an entirely different answer. There's still not a realization of what the history really is. America could not exist as it does today had it not been for slavery. Nobody wants to admit to that. The stock market, the economy, everything depended on slavery. A couple companies, some insurance companies or whatever, have come out and admitted that they were involved in the slave trade or sold slaves, until we fully understand what the costs of it all were on both sides, I'm not sure that we can get over it. We need a real admission of what America is. You know, there are conservative politicians out there who say they want to "reclaim our country as it was." What does that really mean? 

MT: So what is this book?

Harris: I think of it as a kind of performance in the same way that there's a performance in a Baptist church, or a voodoo ceremony or a James Brown concert. It's an attempt to shine a light on an alternate reality. I don't think it's going to change anything, but it was just a joy to write.

MT: Did you want to make the read as multifarious an experience as the subject? Would a simpler presentation have misrepresented the subject?

Harris: There was language and rhythm and specific imagery I wanted to use that I was able to put in this book that I haven't been able to use in other works, so it's kind of a repository of technique and research. If I were going to do it again, maybe I would do it simpler in some way or other, but, as you said, it is a complex subject and anybody who reads it will come at it with a different point of view. There's a lot of writing it, there's a lot of self-indulgence in it probably, but, fuck it — it had to be that way in order to be what it is. 

Bill Harris reads from Birth of a Notion at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 27, at The Book Beat; 6010 Greenfield Rd., Oak Park; thebookbeat.com.

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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